Homecoming King

This story appears in the Sept. 5 issue of ESPN The Magazine

The alofa (love) for Troy Polamalu is evident as soon as he arrives at Pago Pago International Airport. Polamalu, 30, was born to Samoan parents in Garden Grove, Calif., and grew up in Tenmile, Ore. He says the entirety of his only other trip to Samoa, taken a decade ago when he was a relatively unknown USC safety, was less eventful than the initial moments of this visit. "It reminds me of that documentary When We Were Kings," he says. "Everywhere Ali jogged, there were a hundred people jogging behind him. That's what I felt."

Polamalu, with wife Theodora (bottom), is seated and honored as a visiting matai (chief) at his first 'ava ceremony, a welcoming gathering. Because he didn't grow up here, Polamalu leans on former Steelers teammate Shaun Nua (behind Polamalu in yellow) for guidance throughout the trip. Nua, a BYU graduate assistant, is from the same village (Ta'u) as Polamalu's family. Says Theodora, "Troy is trying to learn all the true Samoan ways."

Wearing equipment donated last year by Polamalu, 660 football players from seven high schools show up at Veterans Memorial Stadium in Pago Pago for his three-day camp. "Our football here is very raw," Polamalu says. "It's big hits and very physical."

After seven hours of drills in the code-red heat, the players perform Samoan Haka war dances before a mesmerized Polamalu.

During the week, Polamalu husks coconuts, weaves baskets with palm leaves, swigs kava (a root drink) and eats a freshly killed pig that's been roasted in an umu (earth oven) -- all Samoan traditions. But he feels most connected to the island on two fishing trips and swimming around with pals. "The ocean has so much energy," Polamalu says.

Polamalu admits that all the attention during the trip freaks him out a bit. "A few women even tried to make out with me," he says, laughing. "If you fight it, it will be like a confrontation, so you kind of give in -- to a point." To keep himself centered, he spends time with sons Paisios (left), 2, and Ephraim, 11 months. "You have to tell yourself, I'm no better than anyone else," he says. "That's a real spiritual battle. If I would have done this trip even two years ago, I wouldn't have been ready for it."

After a beach feast, Polamalu and crew take a final "Samoan limo" ride before returning to the airport. "Every day I've had to fight back tears," Polamalu says. "I feel joy." It's a feeling that he's eager to bring to the Steelers' locker room. "I've never felt comfortable helping guys on my team," he says. "I was really introverted, and that was all ego, because everything was about me doing what I needed to do to be successful. But I'm becoming a little bit more extroverted now, because I'm starting to take a step back. Now it's time for me to share."

Carmen Thompson is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.