When Troy Polamalu left Los Angeles to join the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2003, he vowed to return and complete his college education. On May 13, 2011, he traded in his black and gold Steelers helmet and jersey for a black graduation cap and gown to make good on that promise.
Polamalu joined fellow USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences graduates on the short walk across the stage, fulfilling a commitment he made as a fourth grader to his uncle and aunt, Salu and Shelley Polamalu.
“It was something that I had left unfinished in my life,” Polamalu said. “So it was great to bring closure. It was a huge blessing and a relief to not have that hanging over me.”
The Orange County, Calif., native believes that action supersedes talk and wishful thinking. The father of sons Paisios and Ephraim enacted “praxis,” a practice of applying or exercising ideas in one’s everyday life. In spring 2011, Polamalu completed a semester’s worth of classes in independent study and submitted his work online while balancing football and his family life.
Polamalu’s degree hangs in his home office beside his wife Theodora’s degree. They are the only awards to line their walls. While many may deem Polamalu’s completion of college and the fulfillment of a childhood promise admirable, he deflects the suggestion.
Although he received USC’s Most Inspirational Player Award in 2002, Polamalu does not consider himself inspirational.
“I’ve never started anything without trying my best to completely master it,” said Polamalu, who is guided by his Greek Orthodox spirituality. “I try to be an example of the best that I can be every day.”
Polamalu set his mind on attending USC just as his uncle, USC Dornsife alumnus Kennedy Pola ’87, had done. As a child, Polamalu saw the university as a place where the best athletes played football, and he was determined to be part of the team. He knew that if he wanted to be accepted into USC he needed to steer clear of the gangs in his Santa Ana, Calif., community that had influenced his older siblings. In the fourth grade, during a trip to Tenmile, Ore., to visit his uncle Salu, Polamalu found the answer. He asked his mother, Suila, if he could stay in Tenmile — she agreed.
Salu and Shelley raised Polamalu the “Samoan way,” a family system where children are taught responsibility and humility — values that Polamalu continues to put into practice.
“I was always taught to have a humble disposition on everything in life,” he said. “The ‘Samoan way’ taught me how to be responsible and about the foundations of what you need to be successful, as a football player or as a good teammate.”
At USC Dornsife, Polamalu pursued a degree in history. It allowed him to explore a discipline that he believes embodies everything from business to sociology to religion.
Within USC Dornsife’s liberal arts environment, he especially enjoyed two courses: a geography course with Roderick McKenzie, assistant professor of environmental studies, and a class on the changing Pacific with Nancy Lutkehaus, professor and chair of anthropology.
“What was really awesome about Professor Lutkehaus’ class is she talked about how great the Samoan people were as sea navigators,” he said. “That was fascinating to me because these are my people, and I could connect with that.”
Outside of class, Polamalu held firm to his promise to play USC football. Because of his dedication to the sport, he was twice named an All-American first team pick.
Even back then, Polamalu could be spotted from the stands with his raven hair that sprouted beneath his helmet. The unruly frock caught the attention of a football coach during Polamalu’s junior year, which became the second and last time he cut his hair.
Polamalu is also known for his versatility on the field. Since 2003, he has played strong safety for the Pittsburgh Steelers — a position for which he trains countless hours.
“It’s a tremendous blessing to play in the NFL,” Polamalu said. “It’s a sport that can teach you so many important life lessons like the fear of facing somebody that’s bigger, stronger and faster than you.”
The star NFL player who has left an indelible mark on and off the field wants to one day be a high school teacher. Although he enjoys history, he is open to teaching other subjects.
Until then Polamalu continues to motivate and instill in others the importance of education by running a student-of-the-month program, which recognizes elementary- to college-aged students for their standout behavior by awarding them Pittsburgh Steelers gear.
He also runs the Troy and Theodora Polamalu Foundation, the Harry Panos Fund for Veterans and a biennial football camp in American Samoa.
“I enjoy helping people through the most pivotal points in their lives,” he said. “I’ve had so much life experience from a young age: growing up in the inner city, living in the country, going to USC and playing football in the NFL. I really believe that I can impart valuable guidance to young people.”