November 14, 2010

Patricia Sheridan's Breakfast With ... Troy Polamalu

Patricia Sheridan
November 08, 2010
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Although he's known for his soft-spoken ways, Steelers' five-time Pro Bowl safety Troy Polamalu last week spoke out against National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell's crackdown on violent tackling and questioned whether the official had too much power. His comments came after Steelers linebacker James Harrison was fined $75,000 for what the league called illegal hits.

Mr. Polamalu is also known for his big hair and big plays and has attracted legions of fans who love to watch him fly around the field and see his hair balloon in those Head & Shoulders commercials. In fact, Lloyd's of London has insured his lush locks for $1 million.

Born in California of Samoan decent, he lived with his single mother until he was 9. After that he was raised by his aunt and uncle in Oregon. Now at 29, No. 43 is the father of two young sons and a devout convert to Eastern (Greek) Orthodox Christianity. He and his wife, Theodora, welcomed their second child, Ephraim, in September. He joined his 2-year-old brother Paisios. The family lives in Pittsburgh and California.

He spoke to Patricia Sheridan before he made his comments about the NFL's handling of the violent tackling issue.

How is everyone adjusting to the new baby?

Everybody is doing well, thank God. My wife is struggling. Obviously she isn't getting any sleep [chuckle]. But, she's got help around the house with her mother and grandmother.

Would you call yourself a superstitious guy? The camera often catches you crossing yourself and praying on the sidelines.

No, not at all, I would say most religions (me being Greek Orthodox) are the antithesis of what superstition is. I would say I'm more traditional than I am superstitious. I don't, for example, have to do things ritually before the game in order to feel comfortable going to the game. But I don't think I'm naturally a football player. I don't have that grit and that killer instinct. In fact, I see a lot of fear and a lot of traps, spiritually, for me in football -- as in any other part of my life. Whenever I do the sign of the cross, it always brings comfort in situations when you are faced with adversity and stress.

Do you use it as a way to concentrate or meditate?

I wouldn't call it meditation. People say prayer is a form of meditation. You can call it that, but no, it's just prayer.

Troy, how do you reconcile the Samoan warrior spirit you've talked about in other interviews, with your Christian, Greek Orthodox teachings?

Well, yeah that is a strange dichotomy. In one sense I do come from an ethnicity that is full of the warrior mentality. It is a struggle. But let's not separate what a physical warrior and a spiritual warrior can be. In one sense you can be a soldier. In another, you fight, as the Bible describes, bodiless powers. In one sense that's where my struggle is -- trying to be a valiant Christian warrior struggling against my own passions.

How did you come to Greek Orthodoxy? You and Theodora did it together, correct?

We did, yeah. I grew up as a kind of nondenominational Christian. I have two uncles who are Baptist ministers. I went to a Samoan church when I was younger. I went to a Catholic school, so I was actually able to experience a lot of different religions. Mormonism, as well. My father in-law, who I'm very close with, is a Muslim. I feel like that's been a huge gift. So I wasn't ignorant to a lot of other things that were out there. I went through a part of my spiritual journey, (my wife, I'm including in this) where I was like, there's just got to be one truth.

What triggered this? Was there something that happened?

There isn't, but if you want to talk about religion and one's existence, you can't really go into that gray area. You know? You can kind of try to be ignorant and say, "You know, I think God exists and I think I'm comfortable with where I'm at with God." But if you say you are a Christian and you really study what the Christian struggle is -- there is no gray area. There has to be the one truth and it has to be taken seriously. So I went in depth. What is Christianity? There are all these different religions -- where were they all founded? I wanted to get to the source, because if I saw there was a flaw in the source, then there's a flaw in the religion. I saw that Orthodoxy, without a shadow of a doubt, is a flawless religion.

Have you always been this focused and disciplined?

I guess in one sense I've kind of been obsessive compulsive. You know, if I fly fish, I want to be the best fly fisherman out there. I want to be able to get the best gear and do everything right. I've just never been a fan of just kind of dipping your toes into something and saying, "Ah, it's not for me." I've always tried to perfect everything I've been a part of. That's one thing that's beautiful about Orthodoxy, it's like an abyss of knowledge that just keeps getting deeper and deeper. It's endless.

Being a perfectionist, do you feel pressure from everyone's expectations?

I don't, because I never thought people could put higher expectations on me than I put on myself. Many times in my life people have said, "You had a good game." In my mind there are a lot of opportunities where, for example, I would say "I should have made this play and I didn't have the guts. I was too tentative. I was too scared to put myself out there and really make a play."

But it doesn't cause you stress?

No it doesn't. It humbles me more than anything.

You are often described as being humble and respectful. Was that something you learned growing up?

Honestly, I wouldn't say I'm very humble. If people could hear my thoughts ... [laughing] But I guess it's something I learned growing up, being raised by a lot of different family members, from aunts and uncles, to parents, to friends' families. It was just always to be respectful to your elders. It's just something that is within the Samoan tradition.

From what I read, Troy, your parents separated and you lived with your aunt and uncle.

My parents separated before I was 1 year old. I moved in with my aunt and uncle when I was in fourth grade. I was like 8 or 9 years old. I was getting in a lot of trouble when I was in Southern California. My older sisters were in gangs. My older brother was in gangs. My cousins were all in gangs. Well, not all my cousins. We actually went to visit my aunt and uncle in Oregon. I was always close with them. So, when I went up there and I saw sheep and cattle, trees, mountains, creeks, I was honestly in awe. I loved it. I asked my mom, "Can I just stay here? I don't want to leave." She let me stay for a couple more weeks. When she called for me to come back I cried. I said, "No, this is my home. I gotta stay here." I'm only in fourth grade. My aunt and uncle agreed. I stayed there and it was just so beautiful. You know when the sun is shining in Oregon there's no better place. But then it rains [laughing].

That changed the trajectory of your life. Was your mom OK with it?

Yeah, she was OK with it. It's nothing I could ever do with my children, I know that. By God's grace everything worked out. What's amazing about it is to see the opportunities and experiences I've had playing football at U.S.C. (University of Southern California) and playing football here and being part of successful teams and organizations. Meeting great football players and wondering what my life would be like had I not gone. You know? I might have been the complete opposite.

Polamalu is your mother's maiden name. Did you take it out of respect for that side of the family?

Yeah, it was out of respect for my aunt and uncle, Salu and Shelley Polamalu, who raised me. My father wasn't in my life that much. My mother obviously raised me from birth to third grade.

With all the news and new information about concussions does it make you think twice about letting your sons play football when the time comes?

I honestly don't care what they would want to do. I would like them to play athletics because there are a lot of lessons in athletics, and it's better to make mistakes in athletics than in real life. I continue to learn as a 29-year-old father in sports, that I don't have to go out in real life and make mistakes. I would just hope they would give everything they have to try to perfect whatever it is that they are in, whether it's music, sports, being a teacher, being a garbage man, whatever it is I would just hope that they would apply perfection to their job.

Speaking of that, I understand you're a big surfer. How does that skill translate onto the field?

Honestly, surfing is awesome. I'm not a very good surfer at all. I enjoy surfing and I try to surf a lot. It's awesome. To me it is great training. Just getting out there and having the inner struggle with Mother Nature. Football is different. You are playing against other people and that's even a greater challenge. People are way more dynamic. I just love being around the water and being around the ocean.

Now what about your hair? You just started growing it in college and never stopped? What would it take for you to cut it?

I don't know. I already know that I won't cut my children's hair. [laughing] So you are right it was just kind of college and going through a grungy stage. You know, you don't shave and you don't cut your hair. It started to just become a part of my identity.

It would be headline [pun intended] news if you cut it. It must be weird knowing your hair is so famous.

[Laughing] It is kind of weird. There's a lot of guys with long hair in the NFL.

Well, you kind of started that. Recently you were described as being as fast as a bolt of lightning. How does that feel and how do you keep your ego in check?

[Laughing] I think you have to put things in perspective. Like my first year here, I had a really horrible rookie year. I was scrutinized pretty heavily and I was called a draft bust and all these different things. I've never forgotten that. And I've never picked up a paper since. It helped me understand you can't really believe what everybody tells you whether it's good or bad. It's important not to pay any attention to any of that.

Speaking of that you've done some very funny commercials. Are you comfortable in that role?

I'm starting to get more comfortable. At first I was really uncomfortable. This last off-season we shot three commercials and the previous off-season we shot two with Head & Shoulders. I've had an opportunity with Nike and Coca-Cola to do some commercials. It gives me a whole new respect for what actors and actresses go through. For a 15-second commercial I'm there for eight hours. Yeah! [Laughing] With the hair, the wind, you know all that stuff. [laughing]. It's pretty fun. You are babied and treated like you are a superstar. You get your own trailer. Honestly being on the football field is something I feel has been natural to my path in life. But when I'm on the set, and I look at all these people running around like caterers and acting coaches that's when it hits me -- where in the world am I right now? That's kind of been more of a slap of reality to me than, you know, walking off the field holding the Super Bowl trophy.