The Vertical Game of Football

–with Troy Polamalu

Early Struggle, Then Divine Intervention

Troy’s upbringing — a mixture of struggle within his birth family and support given by his extended family — may have helped to emerge his compassionate nature. Born in Santa Ana, California, the youngest of five children, his mother, Suila, raised them on welfare. His brother had run-ins with the law and his sisters became mothers while in high school. I was just a little ‘hood rat walking around parks by myself, hanging out with homeless guys. I witnessed that side of things.”

When Troy was eight, his family drove to Ten-mile, Oregon to visit his Uncle Salu and Aunt Shelley who lived with their three sons—one of whom, Joe Polamalu, played football for Oregon State. Ten-mile was bucolic in comparison to the streets of LA. “I saw my first pine tree and was like, ‘oh man, this is awesome!’ There were cows and sheep and horses out in the pastures.” Troy begged to stay behind. Realizing that rural Oregon was a better situation for her child, Suila acquiesced. “It was nice and sunny there. Everybody said I could stay. Then the rains came and I was miserable!”

Salu instilled in Troy an appreciation for his familial heritage of Fa’a Samoa, the Samoan way, which teaches reverence for faith, family, and personal honor. He also encouraged him toward another Polamalu tradition—football. Troy lettered in high school, returned to southern California in 1999 as a freshman for the USC Trojans, and, upon graduation, was drafted by the NFL.

Looking back on his childhood, he cannot recall a single spiritual mentor. To him, God was ultra-personal. “The beautiful thing about the way I was raised is that I didn’t really have parents and in that way, I HAD to rely upon God.” Troy learned to pray to his heavenly Father, “the same Father that Jesus cried out to, right? That’s the awesome thing about it. When Jesus was on the cross, He didn’t say ‘Father in Heaven.’ He said, ‘Daddy.’ This is an intimate relationship. This isn’t praying to the unknown.”

“People are never the same from one moment to the next; in that sense, we’re continuously reborn.”

He also sought spiritual knowledge through books and seems to have defined which teachings of metaphysics and the world’s great religions resonate with him. On Zen Buddhism: “I appreciate the aspect of ‘let a thought come, let it go, don’t wrestle with it’ but I don’t think you can find peace out of nothingness.” On karma: “I don’t believe it in the Dalai Lama sense; I think karma is instant in that I lessen myself and my relationship with God the moment I sin.” On reincarnation: “People are never the same from one moment to the next; in that sense, we’re continuously reborn.” On organized religion: “We get into problems when we try to define and put labels on God. I understand that religion is to be lived and martyred for. I say ‘martyred’ because we can die for God but I don’t believe we should kill for God. These idiosyncrasies within religions and how this can cause wars —it’s crazy because they lose their religion’s foundation in the process.”

While he is a student of various philosophies, the bedrock of Troy’s faith is firmly grounded in Jesus. “I believe that Jesus Christ is God. Whether I’m Catholic or Protestant doesn’t really matter. My passion for Jesus is there.”

Tackling the Issue of Faith

Like all of us, Troy has times of vulnerability. When in doubt, his inner position switches to that of eligible receiver—he asks for, and gets, higher guidance. In making the Sign of the Cross before or after some plays, “I’m asking for God’s support in those moments—and in everything I do,” he says. “Sometimes, I’m just scared to do wrong. I wish not to do wrong.”

Referring to Paul in Hebrews, Troy defines faith — particularly when we fumble in life — in a word: surrender. “It’s knowing in your heart that God will take care of you—which might mean going head-over-heels into a situation having one percent for you and 99 percent against you. We all have to deal with uncertainty in life, no matter how long we’re in the desert.”

One such time was during his second year in the NFL. “My first year was a huge battle, coming from California to Pittsburgh. California doesn’t enjoy football the way Pittsburgh does. In LA, I could walk the streets and nobody would know who I was.” Coming off that rookie year in 2003 as the Steelers’ 16th draft pick — hardly playing, and not playing well when he did, — he was miserable. “I really questioned my life and my manhood. During the off season, I went totally into football—training like crazy.

“That second year, I was playing against my college roommate Carson Palmer [quarterback for the Cincinnati Bengals] in the third game of the season. They were getting ready to score. I had the ball in my hand and dropped it with 80 yards to go and no one in front of me. I thought, ‘dang, there went my chance to make everybody happy, to get all these doubters off of me.’ I was so angry and frustrated that I started crying on the sidelines. I sat there with my head in my hands, oh man, crying as I was praying! Then I heard a song on the PA: Los Lonely Boys singing, ‘Lord, take me from this prison, I want to get away’.”

Something shifted. “Just like that, I felt everything was going to be great.” Later in that game, Troy copped an interception off of Palmer and ran 26 yards to score a touchdown with little more than two minutes left in the game. “You better believe I was on the ground, saying ’Thank you, God, thank you!’ That’s one of the many ways He has revealed Himself to me.”

When defining faith, Troy also draws inspiration from the Zen philosophy of satori (sudden sparks of enlightenment) and the Tao concept of the razor’s edge. “If we can live in that razor-sharp moment in time, which can last to eternity, then we can learn to take away all judgment and live in satori— which would be perfect faith, as well.” When asked if he’s able to bring such presence to the field, he confesses: “No! It’s a constant battle to be in the moment. It’s what makes us human.”

Staying centered would appear to be a greater challenge for a professional athlete and everything that lifestyle affords. “Football does have its demons—prestige, ego, avarice,” he notes. “To be put in a position that’s magnified to be more beautiful or worse than it is can take away from the authenticity of living.” While many athletes run toward the money, glamour and celebrity of being in the NFL, from Troy’s perspective, it’s more about football providing a means to overcome such worldly temptations and grow more unconditionally loving. “In order for us to grow, we face these adversities, yes?”

One may think these are good adversities to have—at least, they’re more exotic than those faced by store clerks and accountants. “We don’t compare because it’s incomparable,” Troy suggests. “The struggle to overcome my adversities would be no different than the struggle that the accountant faces to overcome his. Life puts us through ‘dark nights of the soul’ in order to have the blissful experience of heaven here on earth. There will always be struggle but we can live in this bliss. It can be kissing your child in the morning, hugging your wife, hanging out with a friend, or just waking up. All of these things that we take for granted can be bliss.”

The Vertical Game of Football

Troy gets the significance of integrating one’s human, earthly aspects with spiritual tendencies toward the beatific. “The biggest battles aren’t physical wars like Israel and the Hezbollah—it’s the battle between mind and spirit,” he says.

Knowing this, Troy engages in “spirit training,” a physical workout plan that incorporates the two other prongs of the holistic triangle: mind and soul. “You can do physical training like endurance training that is horizontal in nature, but in order to transcend beyond this you have to work with such an intensity that you’re reaching for the vertical, and that’s working with the Divine.”

He begins with a system taught to him by one of his trainers. “I do a lot of work with exercise balls—stretching the muscle then strengthening that same muscle. It’s not really yoga because that’s mostly flexibility and it’s not really strength training because that’s all muscle. What I focus on is the mid-line between the two, which is what, I believe, is best suited to football. They’re athletically coordinated, balanced movements rather than doing, say, powerlifting—which is this constant grind that has no meditative nature to it.” In fact, Troy doesn’t follow the team’s weight training regime. “My rookie year I was forced to do it. With success on my own and coming into camp in shape, they’ve trusted me to do what I want to do.”

Then he adds intensity, which involves pushing the body and mind to its limits—and beyond—until they’re transcended. It’s the realm of avatars, masters, gurus—and Trojan warriors. “In order to have confirmation and really test yourself, there’s no better way to do it than physically. A Buddhist might say, ‘I can levitate.’ Well, show me! If you can’t do it physically, there’s something not authentic about it.”

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Gina Mazza
Gina Mazzahttps://ginamazza.com/
Word provocateur | creative muse | author | book editor | publishing consultant | content writer | freelance journalist | creativity coach | poetess | intuitionist | conscious evolutionist | Everything Matters, Nothing Matters