A short story that says all you need to know about Troy Polamalu
On Thursday night, when I glanced at Twitter, I saw the reports that Troy Polamalu was retiring. My first thought wasn’t about him soaring over a pile of giants in a cluster stacked up at the line of scrimmage to make some huge, momentum-swinging play. It wasn’t of his wild, curly dark hair that covered half the back of his jersey. It also wasn’t of his 32 career INTs over a 158-game career in Pittsburgh.
It was about The Story.
This is my quick Troy Polamalu story — and from the time I sent out a couple of tweets late Thursday night, I’ve learned there are a few similar stories about the kind of person Polamalu is. One of the coolest things about these stories is they don’t come from Polamalu. You find out about them well after the fact from someone else. The old USC star wasn’t doing it for publicity.
So back in July 2013, Texas A&M defensive lineman Polo Manukainiu died in a car accident. A few days later I got contacted by someone tight with Polamalu asking if I could get him a number for someone in the late player’s family.
It was for Troy, I was told.
I tracked down the number from someone at A&M. Weeks later I was in College Station and ran into one of the people close to the guy who gave me that number. I had figured Polamalu, who didn’t know the player and only had heard about him from the news stories in the wake of the tragedy, left the grieving family a voice mail or sent them flowers or a condolence card.
Turns out, Polamalu footed the bill for the entire funeral. I was blown away. Here is one of the best football players the NFL has ever seen spending thousands of dollars on a stranger? Only it was for a lot more than that.
This is the part of the story I didn’t know about till Friday, hours after the Steeler great announced his retirement. When Polamalu’s wife first connected with Manukainiu’s uncle David Eteaki, she learned that not only did the 19-year-old Aggie die in the car crash in New Mexico, but so did the player’s half-brother Lolo and Gaius "Keio" Vaenuku, an 18-year-old defensive lineman for the University of Utah.
"Don’t worry," she told Eteaki. "We’ll do whatever you guys need."
Polamalu, who called Eteaki a few days later, was going to pay for all three funerals, a tab somewhere near $50,000.
"I was floored, man," Eteaki told FOX Sports Friday, recalling the story. "It was the coolest thing for them to reach out to my family. We’re just strangers to him and his family. Just going over it again is giving me goose bumps. There are no words to describe his generosity. Other than it’s just really awesome is all I can say."
I wrestled with sharing the story a few times since I first heard about what Polamalu did but opted with talking about the heart and spirit of it now because of how inspiring that gesture was, especially at a time where it seems like 90 percent of the stories we see about people’s off-field actions are so disturbing or disappointing. Fair or unfair, those tend to be the stories that people gravitate to.
But this one is so different. It was too good not to at least talk about what Polamalu did and what he is about.
Bruce Feldman is a senior college football reporter and columnist for FOXSports.com and FOX Sports 1. He is also a New York Times Bestselling author. His new book, The QB: The Making of Modern Quarterbacks, came out in October, 2014. Follow him on Twitter @BruceFeldmanCFB.