For better or worse, the Hall of Fame is an opportunity for the game of football to honor not only the player, but also his personhood, and his legacy. A lot of times, that personhood, and that legacy, transcends the self, which we saw from Pittsburgh Steelers safety Troy Polamalu when he gave his induction speech on Saturday night.
He carries with him the legacy and the future of Samoans and all Polynesian people who have been, are, and will be a part of the game. He has already inspired a generation of young Polynesians, and will continue to do so, seeing him, and his hair, immortalized in the form of a bronze bust, with a face that is different from most others surrounding him.
“I come from a culture where discipline, humility, and respect are not only the foundation to our survival, but the key to our existence”, Polamalu said early in his induction speech. “I am a first-generation American Samoan, and proudly representing my family’s lineage to American through the NFL”.
He then removed the tie that bound his hair to reveal that so memorable mane that he played with throughout his NFL career, one of the most iconic and defining traits of any athlete of his generation. But that hair is much more than just a fashion statement; it’s also part of his heritage, and his sons wear their hair the same way.
While Polamalu represents the Samoan and Polynesian people in the NFL and the game of football at large, he is hardly alone. Current Steeler JuJu Smith-Schuster is of Samoan descent, and he paid his respects to the Hall of Famer, calling him a “true inspiration and role model for everyone, especially for a Samoan and USC Trojan like me”.
— JuJu Smith-Schuster (@TeamJuJu) August 8, 2021
Cleveland Browns linebacker Sione Takitaki also spoke to Polamalu following yesterday’s practice. “Troy’s been an inspiration, especially to all Poly kids. He’s Samoan and Tongan. I say we’re the same, coming from those islands. We definitely looked up to him. Troy was an amazing football player, did amazing things on the field, and just off the field, too. I’ve been to his camps, little things that he did, and especially at an early age, just looking up to him, definitely a guy you want to look up to”.
I felt like that was my uncle”, he said of watching Polamalu get inducted on Saturday night. “I felt like that was my family member, just because at a young age, looking up to him”.
For me, this gets at the heart of one of the most valuable assets of sports in general. No matter who you are, as long as you’re good enough, you can make it. And when you see somebody who looks like you up there with all the greats, that’s a moment of representation is an inspiration of untold impact. I have a feeling that was probably Polamalu’s favorite part of the night.