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Thursday, February 02, 2006

Commentary: Polamalu Family a Good Influence

Commentary by Jason Hink

It's just about time. Everybody's breaking out their jerseys for Sunday's big game: Super Bowl XL. What number is that anyway? I think it's 30-something, but I've never been good with Roman numerals. Wait ... the X means ten, right? Maybe it's 40! Whatever the case, this year's game has special significance for many people I know.

Growing up in the Northwest, I've met my share of Seattle Seahawks fans over the years and many of them have come out of the woodwork to cheer on the little team that couldn't ... but which finally could, and has, made it to the Super Bowl. It's the first time ever in the 'Hawk's 30-year franchise history. But in southern Oregon, it's a pity for local Seahawks fans to see that the Pittsburgh Steelers are equally as popular among fans.

Of course, I can't say that for certain. But locally, the Steelers are the darlings of Southern Oregon, and more specifically, Douglas County. The reason for the popularity is due to Pittsburgh strong safety Troy Polamalu, a player with local ties. He's become the focal point of a tough Steeler defense and the media has taken to the soft spoken, polite, and fierce NFL super star. At KPIC Television, the local CBS station I work at, we've had an abundance of inquiries for classic video of Troy when he played at Douglas High School in Winston, Oregon. We've been able to satisfy some of that demand, but it just goes to show how popular Troy is in and around the country.

Polamalu (don't say it out loud ... chances are, you'll screw it up) moved in with his uncle Salu and aunt Shelley Polamalu in Tenmile when he was in grade school. I think he was in third or fourth grade when he moved to Douglas County to be raised by Salu and Shelley. My first memory of Troy was around that time, when I myself was a freshman at Douglas High. My younger sister played in a co-ed YMCA basketball game against the team Troy was on. Jennifer's team scored a free throw before it was all over, and that was it. I think the final score was something like 45-1. After that, I watched Troy come up through the system as an extradordinary athlete in many sports; an athlete destined for big things.

But that isn't the point of my commentary. I had the chance this week to report on a story at Douglas High School, where a special education class was throwing a party for Troy. Salu and Shelley Polamalu were in attendance. We viewed old footage of Troy and watched a special segment from HBO about the young star. Bryant Gumbel reported the story of Troy's upbringing and how the troubled youngster moved in with his aunt and uncle in Oregon at a young age. (Troy even confessed to getting into fights as a fourth grader in the piece, prompting the move to Oregon, where Salu was described as a family disciplinarian) This part reminded me of my own past growing up around the family.

There's a group of men that were very influential in my life coming up through the ranks of the Winston-Dillard School District. We liked to call them "the dads." The group included my own father, LeRoy, and a host of others. Among them were Frank Tommasini, Rick Randol, Mike Gimse, Greg Frost and Cory Bidwell, who happens to be Tampa Bay punter Josh Bidwell's father. There were many others too. They could always be found in the bleachers sitting in a cluster chewing out the umpires or giving us advice when we were at the plate, on the floor, or at the line of scrimmage. Salu was a part of this group. His son Darren (Troy's cousin) was in my class of '94 and younger sibling Brandon just a year or two behind us.

These men were always there for us clear through high school, and all of them coached us at one time or another. One characteristic that most of them shared was that they were very large men. That scared us on more than one occasion. We did our best to not make them angry. Salu was no exception.

In 13-year old Babe Ruth baseball, he assisted Mr. Tommasini in coaching us. I have a vivid memory of the day when one of our clowny teammates, pitcher Gordon Gimse, was screwing around during warm ups. In a sudden outburst, Salu's thundering voice shot across the field.

"Gordon!" he shouted. "I saw that! Knock off the fool-around!"

It was one of those situations you never forget. Salu speaks with what I think is a Samoan accent, and he has a way with words. Ever since that day when I was 13, I've used the word/phrase "fool-around" when talking to people. But the point is that we rarely fooled around after that, especially that particular day at Winston's Riverbend Park baseball diamond.

Over the years I got to hang out with Darren and Brandon on different occasions, once even attending one of their family luaus. What a party that was! Those guys really do dance on fire!

Now it's Troy's chance to do a different kind of fire dance. The Big Dance. The Super Bowl. And now I know how he grew up to be such a polite gentleman, hard worker, and NFL superstar. Had he not ended up in Oregon with Salu and Shelley, he might not have ended up the way he is today. And for that, I too give thanks to Salu and the club we all fondly remember as "the dads."

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