For island players, this is the 'Poly Bowl'

Six players in Super Bowl XLIII have Polynesian heritage – a record number for the big game.

Gene J. Puskar/AP
Pittsburgh Steelers safety Troy Polamalu tosses a football while warming up for football practice at the University of South Florida in Tampa, Fla., Thursday.
Ross D. Franklin/AP
Arizona Cardinals' Deuce Lutui (l.) walked off the practice field with his month-old son Deuce Lutui, Jr., as family and friends met with the players after the team's morning walk through. Cardinals guard Deuce Lutui is one of seven active NFL players to come from Tonga.

Pittsburgh Steelers safety Troy Polamalu thought of himself as just an ordinary southern California kid until he moved to Oregon as an 8-year-old to live with his uncle Salu.

Salu is Samoan through and through. He helped the boy connect with his island heritage, Polamalu now says, teaching him a "fire knife dance" and inspiring intricate Samoan wood carvings that he gave as presents to friends in high school.

The soft-spoken Polamalu credits his uncle's focus on their island roots for helping him get his team to Super Bowl XLIII. He caught the second-most interceptions in the league this year.

Polamalu is one of six players in Sunday's game whose heritage stretches deep into the South Pacific's Polynesian culture. It's a record number that marks the rapid ascension of the Pacific Rim into the sport and the deepening influence of island athletes on America's biggest sporting stage.

The fearsome Polynesian six are a source of cultural pride for millions of Polynesians, says Eni Faleomavaega, who is American Samoa's nonvoting representative in the House of Representatives.

"Regardless of who wins the Super Bowl, I know we will get together with all our Polynesian boys and their families for a victory celebration," Mr. Faleomavaega said in a statement. "I am excited because this is the first Super Bowl where we have so many Polynesians on the team rosters."

Cardinals guard Deuce Lutui is one of seven active NFL players to come from Tonga. Cardinals safety Aaron Francisco previously joined Steelers guard Chris Kemoeatu to win a state championship for Kahuku High School in Hawaii. Cardinals linebacker Pago Togafau, a Samoan, and Cardinals defensive end Travis LaBoy of Hawaii round out the Polynesian assembly.

"This is the Poly Bowl!" the Cardinals contingent yelled as they hugged and hammed for cameras at last week's media day at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla.

"It's amazing for us to come all the way here from a tiny little rock," says Togafau.

Polynesian players began making serious inroads into the NFL in the early 1990s, with players like Junior Seau, who has revived his career in New England. "There's more and more of us coming up, too," Francisco told Honolulu Star-Bulletin columnist Dave Reardon last week.

Samoan players tend to be physically powerful, Polamalu says. But he also describes something else: A strong sense of family and faith – particularly powerful among people who live in small communities far from the mainland – can translate powerfully to team games like football that rely on shared sacrifice to achieve victory.

"Every athlete realizes that whether it's their family, their faith, or their culture, when they step onto the football field, they represent something," Polamalu says. "Me being Samoan, obviously it feels very special, especially the fact that there are not very many big Samoan players who have a shot of really making the Super Bowl."

That, however, appears to be changing.

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