About 400 people gathered Saturday at the James Orchard in Winston to celebrate the life of Salu Polamalu, who passed away Aug. 30 at the age of 73.
Some wore traditional dark colors, but many arrived in Hawaiian shirts, a tribute to the luaus Polamalu hosted to raise money for local sports programs.
Polamalu was much loved in the Tenmile community, where he was a longtime soccer and baseball coach and supported sports programs across multiple generations. He was originally from American Samoa, the eldest son in a large family. Over the course of his life, he was a boxer and a fire dancer. He lived for awhile in Hawaii, where he performed traditional Samoan fire dances. He moved to Tenmile in the 1970s and raised four young men, the best known of whom is his nephew, retired Pittsburgh Steelers football star Troy Polamalu.
Troy Polamalu opened Saturday’s ceremony.
“What I quickly figured out about my uncle is if you give him respect and love, he’ll give you 1,000 more times respect and love,” he said.
Troy Polamalu said the family came from a very small village on a very small island in the middle of the South Pacific.
“Our culture is all about respect, honor to elders and discipline,” he said. As part of the first minority family in the area, too, he said, Salu Polamalu felt it was important to hold his sons and his nephew to a higher standard.
Troy said he learned at a young age not to walk away from his aunt if she was scolding him. He earned himself a red, hand-shaped “tattoo” on his face from Salu the first time he tried it, and he never made the same mistake again.
Salu’s youngest brother Aoatoa Polamalu said when he was younger he was jealous of the life his brother had in Tenmile and wanted to move there, though his mother didn’t let him. He thanked the members of the Tenmile community for supporting Salu and his family and said his brother loved them.
“He would do anything, anything for every single one of you. Just like he did anything for every single one of us,” he said.
Linda McGirk recalled that Salu was her first soccer coach.
“He brought soccer to Tenmile. We had no idea, no idea what we were even doing. Our parents just dragged us to Tenmile Elementary School, and up came this van, and let’s just say it looked like the van from Scooby Doo. It was a little like mystery van looking thing. And out came Salu, and a box full of cleats,” she said.
She said Salu not only taught the kids what soccer was, he also taught the whole group what it was like to be a team.
“He was hard on us, he loved us, and he would have done anything for us,” she said.
Many of the speakers recalled Polamalu loved kids and held them to a high standard.
Jason Baker said what he knows about soccer, he knows from Salu, who was his coach. When he became a soccer coach himself, his team was undefeated because of the lessons Salu taught him, he said. He said when he gets in difficult situations even now he hears Salu’s voice inside his head.
The first of Salu’s lessons was that you don’t lose, and the second that you don’t quit, Baker said. Baker said he’s already taught those lessons to his kids, and he believes they will teach them to their own kids.
“That’s never going to die,” he said.
Shanen Koegler recalled when her family got a large television set, Salu said one day he’d bring a chair and watch TV with them. One day, he actually showed up with a large, flower-patterned chair.
“He was always surprising us,” she said.
Satila Tuivanu, a friend and fellow Samoan who lives in Medford, thanked the community’s white people for being so welcoming to minorities from Samoa. He said Salu felt loved and respected in Tenmile.
“I thank you for all of those who were born and raised in this area for your support and your love for the man and his family,” he said.
Salu’s son, Silia Polamalu, said growing up and playing sports, no matter how many people were there, 20 or a couple thousand, he never really heard the crowd. He only heard his father’s voice.
Another of Salu’s sons, Joe Polamalu, said he cherished all the people who came to the memorial Saturday and thanked them for coming to honor his father.
“I’ve got a lot of good friends but my best friend was that old man,” he said. “I’ll miss him dearly.”