Troy Polamalu’s ascension to the Pro Football Hall of Fame kicked off in Douglas County.
The 38-year-old — who was selected to the HOF on Saturday on the first ballot — came to Tenmile to live with his aunt and uncle, Shelley and Salu Polamalu, when he was 8 years old. His mother and three sisters lived in Santa Ana, California, but Troy believed Oregon could offer him a better lifestyle.
“That was a hard decision for my mother (Suila),” Troy Polamalu told The News-Review in 1998 during his senior year at Douglas High School. “I just thank her and I thank God for sending me up here. I don’t think I’d be who I am now if I had stayed down in California.”
Troy Polamalu, pictured in 1998, starred in three sports at Douglas High School and also starred for the Dr. Stewart’s American Legion baseball team.
It turned out to be the right decision for Polamalu, who took his athletic ability to the greatest heights any football player in this county has ever gone.
He was a three-sport standout at Douglas High from 1995-99, providing a flood of highlights in football, basketball and baseball. Polamalu, who was listed at 5-foot-10, 180 pounds in those days, achieved all-state honors in football and baseball and was a first-team all-league selection in hoops.
He was an honor student as well.
Polamalu signed with the University of Southern California for football, and became one of the best strong safeties in the history of the then-Pac-10 Conference, earning All-American honors as a junior and senior. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.
Then it was time for the highest level of football.
Polamalu was selected in the first round by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 2003 NFL Draft. He spent all 12 of his NFL seasons with the Steelers, helping them win Super Bowl titles in 2006 and ‘09.
Polamalu played with high intensity and reckless abandon on the field — among his nicknames were the Samoan Headhunter and Tasmanian Devil — making the Pro Bowl eight times and receiving All-Pro honors six seasons. He was voted the NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 2010.
He retired following the 2014 season. Troy and his wife, Theodora, live in San Diego and have two sons, Paisios, 11, and Ephraim, 9.
“We’re really proud of him,” Shelley Polamalu said. “He made all the right decisions. He deserves whatever he gets because he works for them. He was always the first one there and the last one to leave.”
PRAISED IN PITTSBURGH
Art Rooney II, the Steelers president, reacted to the news of Polamalu making the Hall.
“I want to congratulate Troy Polamalu on being elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility,” Rooney said in a statement. “Troy was the kind of player who was able to impact the outcome of games from his safety position, and he did it with uncanny instincts that made it almost impossible for opposing offenses to predict where he would be.
“A proven playmaker who never failed to come up big in the biggest games, Troy deserves to be considered among the best defensive backs in NFL history. We couldn’t be happier for him.”
Pittsburgh Steelers safety Troy Polamalu (43) on the field during the second quarter of a game against the Baltimore Ravens in Pittsburgh, Sun…
Soft-spoken, humble, super competitive, a loyal teammate with an unmatched work ethic. That’s what most of his former high school coaches and teammates remember when asked about Polamalu.
Efforts by The News-Review to interview Polamalu for this story were unsuccessful. It’s no secret he’s always preferred to stay out of the spotlight.
Neil Fuller, a 1979 Roseburg High School graduate and a former quarterback for the Indians, recently completed his 17th year as the head football coach at Libby (Montana) High School. Fuller was the head coach at Douglas for eight years from 1995-2002.
“Troy was so gifted. More than his athleticism, he was fun to be around,” Fuller said. “He treated everybody with respect and had a great work ethic. Everybody knew he was going to go somewhere ... everybody knew he was special and was going to do something.
“The one thing I remember the most about him was he had a great sense of humor. He would spend a lot of time with the special-needs kids at Douglas. Troy was the type of person you really enjoyed being around.”
Ability-wise, Fuller puts Polamalu at the top of all the players he’s coached at the high school level. Fuller remembers one play Polamalu made during his senior season. It came against Reedsport, which ended up being the final prep football game he would play for the Trojans due to a bruised kidney.
“We were real young and weren’t very good that year (Douglas finished 3-6 in 1998),” Fuller said. “Troy breaks loose for a long run and one of the Blomgren twins (Nick) was running stride for stride with him. Right before Troy crosses the goal line, he slips the ball to Nick so he could score.
“That showed how selfless Troy was. It was fun seeing him have the success he had at Douglas and beyond.”
NOT JUST A FOOTBALL PLAYER
Rod Trask, a retired educator, was Polamalu’s baseball coach at Douglas and also coached him on the Dr. Stewart’s American Legion team during the summer.
Trask called Polamalu an outstanding center fielder with range and a strong hitter at the plate with speed to boot.
“Troy was an individual who had tremendous talent. I don’t care whether it was football, basketball or baseball — his talent was outstanding in all sports,” Trask said. “You could see something special about him and I thought he’d be successful later on in life. He had a work ethic that was unbelievable, and when he got into high school he had weight training.
“He had a desire to excel and was very positive around people. He was a good mentor, especially around young kids. He worked with kids in need and was great around those kids. One of his dreams in high school was to come back and be a special ed teacher.
Pittsburgh Steelers safety Troy Polamalu carries his son Paisios onto the stage for a rally the end of their Super Bowl victory parade in Pitt…
“Troy would be in my top five (of athletes I’ve coached) and I’ve had some really good ones. As great as he was as an athlete, he was a greater person. If I had a daughter, Troy would be one I’d like to have as a son in law. He’s that type of individual.”
Polamalu was considered a pro baseball prospect. Trask recalled traveling with Polamalu to Los Angeles for a tryout with the Dodgers.
“The Dodgers were thinking about drafting him after his senior year,” Trask said. “We stayed for a week and Troy did tremendous (with the tryout), and he also visited USC while we were down there. He told (the Dodgers) at that time he was going to play football and Troy was not selected in the draft because of that.”
Justin Myers was a year ahead of Polamalu at Douglas and graduated in 1998. He was a teammate in all three sports and remains close with Polamalu.
“Troy was an unbelievable teammate. Still is my best friend since growing up,” said Myers, who’s with NBC Sports Northwest in Portland. “He still calls mom and dad on Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. The first thing he asks is ‘how’s the family?’
“Absolutely the hardest working guy I’ve ever been around. Troy was the hardest worker at practice, and the most talented. I remember countless weekends staying at each other’s house. He’d get up Saturday (after a game) and run the hills. Working out when nobody tells you to ... that’s the thing I’m always struck by.
“He wasn’t one to accept losing at anything. His competitiveness was off the charts.”
Myers saw the athletic potential of Polamalu in high school.
MIAMI — He grew his hair so long, it flowed out of his helmet and obscured the name on the back of his jersey.
“I always thought he’d be an NFL player or an MLB player,” Myers said. “In terms of football instincts, nobody was better than Troy. He saw the game better than anybody we played with or against, he almost couldn’t be coached. He knew where the ball was going before anybody else did.
“He could outrun anybody. The way he could hit people. It’s one thing to anticipate a play, but he never doubted where he was going. He scored a lot of touchdowns, but I have more memories of him making plays on defense.”
Few probably would’ve guessed Polamalu would turn out to be as good as he was in the NFL and, at the end, a Hall of Famer.
“I think it took everybody by surprise, not only getting to the NFL but he was the best (defensive) player for a while,” Myers said. “He revolutionized (the strong safety) position. To play it like nobody else has played it, I don’t think anybody could’ve comprehended that.
“There’s no doubt Troy’s a first-ballot Hall of Famer. It doesn’t get any bigger than that.”