NFL's Samson: a warrior in prayer

Pittsburgh's Troy Polamalu, one of the toughest players in pro football, brings his faith onto the field.

He was flying to the ball, Troy Polamalu's uninhibited jungle of hair streaming from his helmet. Acrobatically he flung himself and intercepted Peyton Manning's pass with his fingertips, cradling the football as he fell.

It was an extraordinary tumbling catch against the Indianapolis Colts last Sunday. It was also pure Polamalu, with his lightning-fast reflexes and gladiator's code. It didn't matter that the referee, on further review, mistakenly ruled it no-catch. The camera caught it all. Remarkably, the camera also framed another vintage Polamalu scene a few minutes later.

The young Samoan-American, a third-year professional from the University of Southern California, seemed serene sitting on the Pittsburgh Steelers' bench between plays, eyes momentarily closed and lips moving, a warrior in prayer.

Praying for what? To speed the referee's appointment with an optometrist? Probably not. Polamalu calls himself a man committed to faith and to respect for others, and nothing in his off-field persona suggests this is a public display of humility. He speaks quietly and deferentially in private and is not one of the actors in the normal rowdiness of the locker room. He and his wife avoid the bar scene, and yet his teammates uniformly admire him for his skills and total commitment as a player, and for his faith. He prays often during a game, not for success, he will say. His explanation has something of a child's naiveté to it: the wish that this game involving driven men in a brutal, megabucks collision stretching for three hours will be played without injury to either side.

It's an innocent desire, perhaps, against the canvas of all of those falling bodies, but one his teammates insist is real. It doesn't seem to impede his other personality, the one he carries in the chaos of battle. In one game he was docked twice for unsportsmanlike conduct for overreacting during the flailing of muscle-clashing wills.

That fire could have been his undoing. As a kid growing up in California among siblings who found trouble with the law, he was on the jagged edge of disappearing into the streets. His mother saved him by settling him in rural Oregon with an uncle, Salu Polamalu, who was steeped in the Samoan culture and performed its fire sword dances. He also knew about the child's athletic heritage. Several family members had made it in college and professional football. Salu laid out some choices: Treat yourself and others with respect and discipline yourself, or wind up in a dead end. It worked. He became so courteous and proper that he asked his wife's family for permission to date her in their courtship.

Now he's one step from playing for football's holy grail: the Vince Lombardi Trophy to the winner of Super Bowl XL in Detroit on Feb. 5. All that stands in his way is Sunday's AFC Championship game against the Denver Broncos. Polamalu is certain to be the center of attention. Partly because of that bountiful rack of hair - he hasn't cut it in five years - and partly because of his perpetual-motion style of defensive play (faking a blitz, backing up, acting like a man looking frantically for an exit in a house of mirrors), Polamalu quite suddenly has captivated millions of television watchers.

But, more important, he provokes noticeable agitation among the pro quarterbacks and their bodyguards on the offensive line. His position is strong safety, but that's a nominal label, strictly for the record. In actuality, Polamalu plays the position of loose cannon, seeming to defy the rules of nature by appearing to come from all directions at once. His coaches, Bill Cowher and defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, enthusiastically endorse that role so that it is clearly understood by opposing teams.

New England Patriots' head coach Bill Belichick gives a typical reaction to Polamalu's wildly shifting locales on the field. "He'll kill you if you don't know where he is," he said.

But about that hair. Several years ago he was told by an in-law that all of the great warriors of history were characterized by voluminous hair, beginning with Samson. It's now reached past two feet in length, which Polamalu wraps into a discreet bob when he's back in civilization.

It may not be the time to remind him of the smooth-headed Michael Jordan.

Jim Klobuchar is a longtime sports writer and columnist.

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