Steelers' Troy Polamalu: The Samoan Headhunter

Steelers Fever Exclusive Editorial

Tuesday, September 11, 2007
By Patrick Byrd
Guest Columnist


You look up towards the heavens and see this perfectly thrown football and its spiraling towards your face. Your body takes over and does, what it has been trained to do for the better part of you life, your hands rise up, thumbs and pointer fingers together. You've got the ball in your hands and as you come streaking back to earth a slight smile on your face appears because you have this ball and there is no way anybody can take this away from you.

Troy PolamaluThink again. You're ripped from your dream catch with an eye jarring hit that causes your ears to ring out, your jaw to clatter, and suddenly every thing is spinning and that perfectly thrown ball is no where to be found. You look up to see a massive mane of dark hair. With the sun behind him you can only make out the hair flowing out beneath his helmet and then you see it: 43, in yellow and black.

Welcome to the Pittsburgh Steelers defensive backfield and meet the undisputed leader of this unit: "The Samoan Headhunter"

Troy Polamalu, of Samoan descent, is one of the most feared defensive backs in the NFL. With nicknames like "Tazmanian Devil" and "The Flying Hawaiian," it's not hard to see why. He was born in Garden Grove, California on April 19th, 1981 as Polamalu Aumua. Using his mother's maiden name, Polamalu, most of his life, it wasn't legally changed until January of this year.

Playing strong safety for the Pittsburgh Steelers, now in his fifth season, Polamalu has piled up more than 300 tackles, seven sacks, 10 interceptions and returned one for a touchdown in his second year in the NFL. He has been voted to three straight Pro Bowls, two in which he started, though his presence is much more valuable than any stat page could show.

It's a must that teams know where Polamalu is at all times. He is used in blitz packages, fake blitzes, coverage, and as if he isn't good enough already, he plays mind games against opposing quarterbacks. Polamalu often gets on the line of scrimmage and shows blitz, then as if a whistle was blown, he turns around and walks away from the line of scrimmage. With his back turned to the quarterback there is no telling in which direction he will break.

This started back at Douglas High School in Winston, Oregon, Polamalu's first football experience. He played running back and defensive back. In 1998 he was elected to the Super Prep All-Northwest team, and he made the Tacoma News Tribune Western 100, consisting of the top 100 high school players in the western United States. As a senior he was elected to All Far West League second team.

As a running back Polamalu averaged six touchdowns a year. He wasn't just a football player. He was a three-sport athlete, earning All State center fielder and twice making the All League basketball team. After high school when the University of Southern California awarded Polamalu a full scholarship to play football for the Trojans, it was obvious that his future was in football.

At USC Polamalu was a three-year starter who compiled 278 tackles, including 29 behind the line of scrimmage. He had six interceptions, three for touchdowns, 13 pass deflections, two fumble recoveries and four blocked punts.

Polamalu played under head coach Pete Carroll. Carroll, while at the pro level, coached legendary defensive back and Hall of Famer Ronnie Lott (another USC alumnus) while a defensive coordinator with the N.Y. Jets and later the head coach. He also coached Merton Hanks while a defensive coordinator with the San Francisco 49ers, Lawyer Milloy, and Ty Law in their primes as the head coach of the New England Patriots. With that in mind, he had this to say about Polamalu: "He's as good a safety as I ever coached. He's a brilliant football player. He's just as effective as those NFL guys I coached. He is creative, fast, tough, and instinctive. He has a great heart, which all great players have."

UCLA head coach Bob Toledo, who had to game plan against Polamalu several times being the Trojans' crosstown rival, had this to say: "He's a great football player. He's all over the field. He makes plays. You'd better account for him because he's going to be around the football all the time."

Ed Ta'amu, a former offensive guard for the Utah Utes and now a starter with the Kansas City Brigade arena team, when asked about Polamalu, said, "When we watched film everywhere we looked he was in the picture!," which proves the natural instinct Polamalu has to just know where the ball is at all times.

While at USC, Carson Palmer, former Heisman trophy winning quarterback and No .1 overall draft pick for the Cincinnati Bengals in 2003, and Polamalu were roommates. One of the most memorable moments in Polamalu's professional career involves him intercepting a pass from his former roommate late in a game between Pittsburgh and Cincinnati and running through and over many Bengals, including crashing through his former quarterback at USC to put six points on the board for the Steelers.

This image shows the real deal that Polamalu is and how his mentality -- that he must be a gentleman everywhere but on the field -- transfers over to his style of play. YouTube: Polamalu vs. Palmer.

Warming up for his last game of his college career Polamalu injured his hamstring and wasn't able to play in the Orange bowl victory that his teammates achieved over Iowa. Polamalu once said before Pittsburgh's Super Bowl XL victory that he had never won a championship. Even though he had played hard all year and was a part of this winning team, he didn't consider it a championship win for him because he wasn't on the field. He was also forced to miss the Senior Bowl and the scouting combine in Indianapolis in 2003.

Polamalu did, however, recover in time to work out at the USC pro day. Here Pittsburgh scouts spotted him. Polamalu went in the first round, 16th overall pick, of the 2003 NFL draft to the Steelers -- the only safety taken in the first round in Steelers history. Many thought the San Diego Chargers, who were looking for a replacement at the safety position after losing Pro Bowler Rodney Harrison, would take Polamalu with the 15th overall pick. Instead they made a trade with Philadelphia and chose to pick up two safeties in later rounds. Seeing an opportunity, Pittsburgh made a draft day trade with the Kansas City Chiefs to move up to the 16th pick and take Polamalu.

In the end, with the picks traded to Kansas City, the Chiefs ended up with running back Larry Johnson out of Penn State, quarterback Brooks Bollinger from Wisconsin, and Julian Battle a cornerback out of Tennessee. Bollinger, who never wore a Chiefs uniform, is now in Minnesota and Battle is with the Washington Redskins. Johnson, still with the Chiefs and expected to be a force to be reckoned with for years to come, and Polamalus' names intertwined yet again.

On October 15th, 2006 after intercepting a Trent Green pass, Polamalu was absolutely sprinting down the sideline with a clear shot to the end zone when Larry Johnson yanked him down by his hair. Then Johnson proceeded to pull Polamalu up off the ground by his hair, almost as if hanging him up for everyone to see.

What it really showed was how much class Polamalu has. He turned around, hot for a minute, but quickly walked away while his teammates defended his honor by quickly jumping to his aide. After all, Polamalu did come away with a 49-yard interception return! He seemed very understanding after the game, saying, "If I got the ball in my hands, they can tackle me all day like that."

Johnson only said his hand was stuck in Polamalu's hair. While there was a flag on the play, it was clarified later on that it is perfectly legal to stop a ball carrier by his hair. The flag was thrown for an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for holding onto Polamalu's hair. This, however; was not the first time a play like this has happened in the league. After being ripped down by his dreadlocks in a 2003 game in Cleveland, Edgerrin James, then with the Indianapolis Colts, proceeded to cut his hair. When Polamalu was asked if he'd cut his hair, he responded by saying his last haircut was in the year 2000, when a coach told him he needed a haircut! I think its safe to say no coach in Pittsburgh will request Polamalu to cut his hair.

In 2005, Polamalu was a part of the Steelers' Super Bowl XL championship team in his first full year of starting. Then last year he made the Pro Bowl for his third straight year and was rewarded for his hard work this offseason. On July 23rd, 2007, Polamalu received a contract extension through the year 2011 -- worth just over $30 million and $15 million guaranteed, making him the highest paid safety in the league. Polamalu had this to say: "I didn't want to be a player who is jumping from team to team. I've always felt comfortable here. I think this organization, this tradition they have here, is very legendary and I always wanted to be apart of this."

While having such a successful season and offseason, Polamalu, who is an Eastern Orthodox Christian, decided to take a pilgrimage to Greek sites in Greece and Turkey. Polamalu's wife, Theodora Polamalu, who is of Greek descent, has helped Polamalu find peace in his religion. Polamalu has said he prays after every play and while on the sidelines. He pushes himself as hard as he can every play and every down because he believes when you're not going at full speed and strength is when you get injured.

Polamalu believes God has given him a gift, but it's a gift you must work at each and every day. After moving to Tenmile, Oregon when he was nine years old to escape Orange County gang influences, he fell in love with Oregon and still resides there with his wife. His hobbies include woodworking, making furniture, growing flowers and reading the Bible. He quickly picked up playing the piano in 2001, his junior year at the USC. These are not the hobbies you would expect from such a ferocious ball player as Polamalu. He also is the highest-rated player of the Pittsburgh Steelers team on Madden 2008. His overall rating is at 98 of 99.

There is no offense, quarterback, running back, or wide receiver safe. Next time you think about crossing the middle of the field to catch a pass, remember there is someone lurking out there with the power to jar the ball from the tightest of grips -- someone with enough finesse to pull down your quarterback's pass in a split second and is always a threat to return one for six.

"The Samoan Headhunter," "Tazmanian Devil," or "The Flying Hawaiian" -- whatever you choose to call him, just make sure you respect him.