April 1, 2009

Orthodox Glad To Claim Polamalu As One Of Their Own

February 01, 2009
Ann Rodgers
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Most NFL fans are familiar with the sight of Steelers safety Troy Polamalu crossing himself during games, but one subset of fans is gleefully aware that he crosses himself from right to left, rather than left to right.

"Each time there is an important play, he makes his cross the Orthodox way. Nobody else does this, and it is a beautiful thing," said Metropolitan Maximos, of the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Pittsburgh, who officiated at the wedding of Troy and Theodora Polamalu four years ago.

Mr. Polamalu, an ethnic Samoan, long has had a strong Christian faith, but was non-denominational until he joined his wife's Greek Orthodox church. The metropolitan is quick to note that Orthodox enthusiasm for Mr. Polamalu isn't intended to denigrate any other branch of Christianity.

"I'm very proud of him. But, to be honest, I don't care if his background is Roman Catholic or Greek Orthodox or any of the Protestant communities, as long as the guy is a faithful person. And Polamalu is that, and his wife is as well," he said.

When football doesn't allow the Polamalus to worship together on Sundays, they make weekday visits to the Monastery of the Nativity of the Mother of God in Saxonburg. Their infant son was baptized there. But the nuns won't be watching him play in the Super Bowl, Metropolitan Maximos said, because they don't watch anything on television that isn't religious.

Orthodoxy and Catholicism -- which split in 1054 over issues of church authority -- have a different ethos. The monks of Saint Vincent Archabbey in Latrobe, the Catholic monastery on the college campus where the Steelers practice, are unabashed fans. One monk, now deceased, went into earlier playoffs with a gold "7" on his black habit and called himself "Big Ben-edictine."

Saint Vincent Archabbot Douglas Nowicki said Mr. Polamalu prays in their basilica during training camp and is close to the monks.

"He's Orthodox, but I think he embodies that spirit of selflessness and humility, and is so well-grounded in who he is, that people of every faith relate to him. There is something deeply spiritual about him that all of us experience in being with him," he said.

But for the Orthodox, he's something special, said Damian George, the youth director at St. George Antiochian Orthodox Cathedral in Oakland.

When teens attend national Orthodox conferences, "the kids from Pittsburgh kind of brag about Troy, not only that he's a Steeler, but that he's Orthodox. And even the kids from Philly and New York get excited about it. He gives them a good role model because he's able to play at a high level and keep his faith at an equally high level," he said.

Orthodoxy has no tradition of celebrities who testify to their faith, said the Rev. Thomas Soroka, pastor of St. Nicholas Orthodox Church, McKees Rocks. There are lists of celebrities who have belonged to the church, including Tina Fey and Tom Hanks. But none are considered exemplars of Orthodox spirituality. Current online discussions of an Orthodox celebrity that don't involve Mr. Polamalu tend to bewail the conduct of Rod Blagojevich, who was removed as Illinois governor last week after a four-day impeachment trial.

"A lot of times when people are Orthodox, it's more of an ethnic or cultural thing. Troy stands above that by being a practicing, committed Orthodox Christian," Father Soroka said.

"Orthodoxy is quite sober. It's not flashy or attractive to those who are looking for stardom. It's much more introspective, and I think Troy embodies that."

But it helps that Mr. Polamalu is cool and handsome, with Samoan warrior hair that hasn't been cut in seven years. His plays appear to defy the laws of physics.

"Being faithful and devout isn't always cool. So it's great when you can point to Troy Polamalu and say, 'Look, faith isn't stupid. It's something really special,' " said James Purdie, 26, a subdeacon at St. George Cathedral.

"Seeing him crossing himself after a play, or praying on the sidelines, it's a way of witnessing that your faith can be incorporated into your everyday life."

Mr. Purdie saw the Polamalus at a lecture at Duquesne University by Orthodox theologian Bishop Kallistos Ware.

"A lot of the younger folks went up to him afterward and were asking him questions -- theological questions as well as football questions. His answers showed that he was knowledgeable in his faith. And it was nice to see his humility. He was very approachable," Mr. Purdie said.

One Orthodox leader who does not tell stories about the Polamalus is their pastor, the Rev. John Touloumes at Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church, North Side. He wants to respect the family's privacy. But he will say that Mr. Polamalu has steeped himself in the Orthodox faith.

"Troy has received the faith with great dedication and great enthusiasm in his personal life. He does share it on the field with others when he believes it is his calling to do that. And he shows it through his life, through his humility and his good works," he said.

"He has a particular love for the younger people and they have responded very warmly to his gentle personality, his athletic talents and his deep faith."

The Rev. Patrick Carpenter, pastor of St. Mary's Orthodox Church, South Side, joined a Troy Polamalu fan group on Facebook and took part in its "Steelers prayer wave." But he won't pray for a Steelers win.

"We don't pray for victories. We don't pray for defeats. We pray for the safety of the team."

Of course, Mr. Polamalu is the safety of the team.