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HEAD FIRST POLAMALU A WARRIOR ON THE FIELD, A THINKER OFF IT.

Byline: Billy Witz Staff Writer

PITTSBURGH - Somewhere from the hidden corners of restaurants, Troy Polamalu and his wife, Theodora, are watching.

They're not looking for anyone in particular - perhaps an older couple who look like they've been married a long time or a family they can see is enjoying a meal in each other's company. Just somebody who touches them.

Then, quietly, they ask their server for that table's bill and cover it.

``We like to spot a couple, just see somebody that makes us think, `Man, they're having such a beautiful time,' '' Polamalu said. `` 'Let's make this even more beautiful for them and share this blessing that we've received.' ''

Such random acts of kindness might surprise people who know the Steelers' All-Pro safety only for his wild hair and wild-eyed play, which seems to earn him as many personal-foul penalties as it does plaudits.

But when Polamalu, who will lead Pittsburgh into Indianapolis in an AFC Divisional playoff game Sunday, sheds his uniform and wraps his hair into a bun, it's as if he's transformed, from warrior to ascetic.

He speaks softly and gently, as if in an amplified whisper. If the subject is not Xs and Os, for which his answers are brief and rote, he is thoughtful and engaging.

``He has an intellectual bent to him. He likes to know the why and wherefore,'' Pittsburgh defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau said. ``He's probably the exact opposite on the field.''

In the locker room, Polamalu is considered a good teammate, but not one of the guys. When teammates at USC tried to drag him to parties at the Playboy Mansion, he passed. Not once in his three years in Pittsburgh, he says, has he been out to a bar or night club.

He'd rather be home with Theodora and their three dogs, studying video, reading, or pursuing his passions outside of football, which have ranged over the years from cultivating orchids and wood carving to fly-fishing and wine-making.

``The stereotype of the pro athlete - the guy who flaunts his money, has lots of cars, jewelry, women, that's not Troy,'' said fellow Steelers safety Chris Hope.

As compliments go, it's not a bad one to Polamalu.

He grew up in a family of football players, a half-dozen relatives having excelled at the sport. His brother, Kaio Aumua, played at UTEP; his cousin, Nicky Sualua, played at Ohio State and then with the Cincinnati Bengals and Dallas Cowboys; and his uncle, Kennedy Pola, was a fullback at USC and now is the Jacksonville Jaguars' running backs coach.

Polamalu figures one of the first sentences he uttered was that he wanted to be a football player.

Still, he never envisioned himself as just a football player.

``Some people are attracted to acting or any big job for the prestige,'' said Polamalu, 24, who has been named to the Pro Bowl the last two seasons. ``But some people act because they love to act and some people play football because they love to play football. I have the feeling I have a calling to play football.

``I won't say I don't do it for the fans, but I don't do it for prestige and to get my face out there so I can be famous.''

In a city like Pittsburgh, where fans ask to be buried in Steelers jerseys, that can be problematic. Having your dinner interrupted by autograph seekers is one thing; having them knock on your front door is another.

``You can take any guy on the 53-man roster and stand them next to Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie and walk down the street here and people would go, 'Oh, that's so and so - and who are those other two people?' '' Polamalu said. ``It's nice that you can affect people's lives in a positive way, but there's a down side to it. Sometimes people can be a little insensitive.''

And so, while Polamalu did pose for a Sports Illustrated cover earlier this season, you're unlikely to see him endorsing any hair-care products. It is also why he declined a Pittsburgh reporter's request to discuss his good deeds for a story.

``We didn't do it for (the attention), we did it for the moment,'' Polamalu said. ``It's not like we're just paying for their meal. We'll write a note and give them a Bible verse and put that on the receipt because we really don't feel like we want any prestige.''

Religion plays a central role in the Polamalus' lives. He went to Catholic schools, and spent time in Mormon and Protestant churches when he was younger, but there was no epiphany. Instead, as he grew older he began to consider where he came from, and his faith deepened.

``My parents divorced before I turned 1. All three of my older brothers and sisters were in and out of jail. My brother (overdosed). When I was a kid, I started getting in trouble, which made me move to Oregon, where I was raised by my aunt and uncle, away from my immediate family,'' said Polamalu, who lived in Santa Ana until the fourth grade. ``Honestly, I would be a fool not to recognize the work that God has done in my life.''

If there is a trait Polamalu carries with him on the football field or away from it, it is passion. On the field, it shows up in the frenetic way he bounces around the field, leading Hope to dub him the Tasmanian Devil. Or the way he diligently studies film. Away from football, it is evident in the way he pours himself into whatever interests him at the moment.

In high school, near his hometown of Tenmile, Ore., (pop. 701), it was wood-carving, which he learned at the knee of his wood shop teacher. Polamalu made cabinets, mirrors, end tables and coffee tables that he sold to make money.

At USC, he learned to play the piano and read music, and also began to explore his Island roots, joining Polynesian dance clubs and learning the Samoan language.

His more recent interests include growing orchids and learning to fly-fish, hobbies that don't quite fit under the rubric of ``when in Pittsburgh. ...''

Nevertheless, explain to Polamalu, apologetically, that you don't really know much about orchids and he jumps right into a dissertation.

``Orchids are one of the most amazing plants out there,'' he said, later explaining that he's always found a peace while tending to plants. ``They are very delicate, very temperamental. You've got to take great care of them, even more than a child, for them to even think about blooming. Some are easier to grow than others, but they're very, very beautiful flowers.''

And the next thing you know, he's explained that there's roughly 25,000 species of orchids and the difference between epiphytes (grow on trees), lithophytes (grow on rocks) and terrestrials (grow on the ground), some of which grow only in cold weather, others that do best where it's humid.

As for fly-fishing, well, who knew that a place called Spruce Creek, out near State College a few hours to the east of Pittsburgh, was one of the best places in the country to match wits with trout?

Polamalu smiles when he's asked how many of his teammates would be interested in these pursuits, noting that he prefers reggae to rap and probably feels more at home with the veterans who have families.

But it doesn't seem to be an issue - with him or them.

``Troy doesn't like to party, he doesn't like to hang out with the fellas, but that doesn't make him a black (sheep) or a loner,'' Hope said. ``He's different, but that's who he is.''

And it's also why he met his wife, the younger sister of former USC teammate Alex Holmes.

``I know the life of college and pro athletes going out and stuff and there would never, ever be the possibility of any guy even talking to my sister,'' said Holmes, a tight end with the Dolphins. ``But when Troy asked me if he could go out with her, I couldn't have been happier. He's such an exceptional person.''

If nothing, Polamalu undertakes is without purpose or is accomplished without patience, then it stands to reason the same could be said about his most distinguishing feature - his hair.

He hasn't cut his black, wavy locks, which hang down over the back of his shoulder pads, since he was a sophomore at USC. Actually, the idea started out as a lark.

``In college, you don't care about these things,'' Polamalu said. ``Then all of a sudden, it started to become my fifth appendage. I'm too scared to cut it off now.''

Most of the time, Polamalu keeps it under wraps. In practice it's tucked under his helmet. Afterward, he dresses at his locker with it wrapped up in a towel and leaves with it tied in a bun. As a rookie, he planned to keep his hair under his helmet until he had earned a starting role.

``Then we go to San Francisco on a Monday night game and Ronnie Lott was there, I think getting his number retired, and I was back in California, the air was great, the energy was there - I finally just let it out,'' he said.

``Some people say it's a Samson thing, but I don't think so. I didn't take a Nazarene vow or anything. It's just hair. The best explanation is that throughout history, every great warrior - the Greeks, the Samurais, the American Indians, the Mongolians, you name it - had long hair and would dress it before battle. I don't know why today is so different. In the military, you've got to have short hair.

``If there's significance, it's that you let everything loose on game day.''

Game day is the one day of the week that Polamalu isn't so soft-spoken or thoughtful, the one day on which he can play the role of the frenetic warrior. It's the one day when he is more likely to hand someone his lunch, rather than pay for it.

Billy Witz, (818) 713-3621

billy.witz(at)dailynews.com

CAPTION(S):

11 photos, 2 boxes

Photo:

(1 -- color) Troy Polamalu, known for his wild style of play, ``has an intellectual bent to him,'' says Steelers' coordinator Dick LeBeau.

Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

(2) Steelers All-Pro safety Troy Polamalu has diverse interests off the football field, from cultivating orchids and wood carving to fly-fishing and wine-making.

Tom Pidgeon/Getty Images

(3 -- color) ANDRE AGASSI

(4 -- color) DENNIS RODMAN

(5 -- color) JOHNNY DAMON

(6 -- color) DON KING

(7 -- color) DOROTHY HAMILL

(8 -- color) DAVID BECKHAM

(9 -- color) BEN WALLACE

(10) STEVENS

(11) PLUMMER

Box:

(1) DIVISIONAL PLAYOFFS

(2) TODAY'S GAMES
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Copyright 2006, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Jan 14, 2006
Words:1788
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