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Pro Football Hall of Fame

Troy Polamalu’s Hall of Fame induction is a celebration of the Samoan culture

His career with the Pittsburgh Steelers was all about grit, humility and respect for competition

When Troy Polamalu enters the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Saturday, women at the StarKist Tuna cannery in Pago Pago will remember the day they danced for him during his 2011 visit to American Samoa. Stopping the assembly line, they sang and prayed with Polamalu, who cried as they hugged him. They’re sure to talk about his humility and how he grew up in the way of Samoa (fa’a Samoa).

Polamalu, who was entering his ninth season with the Pittsburgh Steelers that summer, came to give back to the island of his youth. He brought a planeload of coaches and players to conduct football and volleyball camps and lead sessions about life skills, health and education. That, according to deputy director of Samoan affairs Sanele Tuiteleleapaga, was tautua, the responsibility to serve. “Tautua is at the heart of fa’a Samoa,” he explained, “the very tenet of our existence.”

Outside the cannery’s main gate, the wooden statue of StarKist’s icon Charlie the Tuna had been remade into Troy the Tuna, with flowing dreadlocks and a Steelers jersey with Polamalu’s No. 43. Anthropologists, and there’s no shortage of them on the archipelago, have said little about the Polamalu totem, but agree that the way of Samoa has shielded Samoans from the demolition of Indigenous culture that devastated other South Sea islands.

From left to right: Former NFL players Reagan Mauia, Rey Maualuga and Troy Polamalu cruise the coast in the back of a pickup truck during sunset in Samoa-local style.

Chris Baldwin

Island boys got to know Polamalu during the camps. They sang hymns with him to begin and close their workouts, and listened as he discussed their culture and the perils of grappling with Americanization. He was not born in the territory but was shaped by those who were. It’s likely at the induction Polamalu will talk about the way of Samoa, humility, and the problems and tensions plaguing Samoans in the islands and among their far-flung diaspora.

Polamalu’s roots stretch to Manu’a – three small but majestic volcanic isles that Samoans consider the fountainhead of their culture. According to legend, the paramount Samoan god Tagaloa fashioned Manu’a and the archipelago to have a place to stand in the sea. The Tui Manu’a, Samoa’s supreme chief, resided there. Wherever he went, lesser chiefs preceded him, blowing conch shells so that all would drop to their knees and touch their foreheads to the ground. His prerogatives were absolute, his word final. And Polamalu, who now joins football’s royalty, is a descendant of the Tui Manu’a, a lineage that came from his grandmother, Tae’leese Pomele.

Troy Polamalu (third from left) with locals after the ‘ava ceremony, a ritual in which a ceremonial beverage is shared to mark important occasions in Samoan society.

Her husband, Fa’a Sasulu Sei, was a high-talking chief, an orator who represented his village’s aiga, the extended family that is the bedrock of Samoan culture. A master carpenter, Sasulu Sei built longboats and fales, open-sided dwellings with conical roofs. Though the U.S. largely ignored American Samoa after annexing it in 1900, the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 was a game-changer. The islands were critical to an Allied counterattack, and Sasulu Sei and other Samoans rallied to the U.S. He joined the Fita-Fita Guard to defend the territory, donning the blue lavalava wraparound, white undershirt, red turban and cummerbund that distinguished these barefoot soldiers. A lithe, well-muscled, 5-foot-9-inch 180-pounder, he bested U.S. servicemen in the boxing ring.

In 1964, his oldest son Salu became the first to go off-island after being chosen to perform as a fire dancer at the New York World’s Fair. Afterward, Salu joined singer Don Ho’s revue at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel in Waikiki, Hawaii, met and married Shelley Redenius, and moved to Tenmile, Oregon. His brother, Tone, who joined the Marines and fought in Vietnam, later established a family beachhead in California. Tone drilled his younger siblings, including Kennedy, born on Nov. 22, 1963, the day after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Polamalu was born in California in 1981 and spent summers in Tenmile. He thrived and moved in full time, abiding by his uncle’s fa’a Samoa code. Kennedy made sure those values did not fade when Polamalu committed to play at USC, where he coached. The way of Samoa has guided Polamalu ever since.

Troy Polamalu (right) and his wife Theodora (left) holding their sons Ephraim and Paisios at the beach.

Chris Baldwin

Fa’a Samoa, which Robert Louis Stevenson admired for what he called its “loose communism,” is based on extended families owning land collectively, in some cases for 3,000 years. Before a wage labor economy prevailed, chiefs were chosen by the aiga, the extended family. They assigned work and distributed what was harvested from hillside plantations and taken from the sea to aiga members. Though not free of tropical maladies, Samoans were inordinately fit and healthy. The intrusion of wage labor and a change in diet, during and after World War II, caused epidemic rates of obesity and diabetes. But their fiercely competitive culture, which venerates the warrior, also produced a remarkable number of top football and rugby players. Per capita, Samoans are the most overrepresented group in the NFL.

To football America, Polamalu signified preternatural athletic skill and a radiant smile framed by free-flowing hair. To many Samoans, he represents their capacity to excel at the sport’s highest level and to do so with humility. His faith, deference to elders, commitment to service and respect for their history is the way of Samoa at its best.

Author of Tropic of Football: The Long and Perilous Journey of Samoans to the NFL, Rob Ruck is a professor of sport history at the University of Pittsburgh.