A Defensive Anchor Walks a Spiritual Path
PITTSBURGH — Steelers safety Troy Polamalu opened his red leather-bound playbook to a dog-eared page. “The life of a man hangs by a hair,” he began reading in a voice as soft as falling snow. “At every step our life hangs in the balance.”
It was three days before the Steelers’ A.F.C. divisional playoff game against the Baltimore Ravens, a matchup in which the Super Bowl aspirations of two worthy contenders hang in the balance, and Polamalu was getting himself centered.
“How many millions of people woke up in the morning, never to see the evening?” Polamalu read. And then: “The life of a man is a dream. In a dream, one sees things that do not exist; he might see that he is crowned a king, but when he wakes up, he sees that in reality he is just a pauper.”
The book in Polamalu’s hands, “Counsels From the Holy Mountain,” guides him in football and in life. It contains the letters and homilies of a Greek Orthodox monk, Elder Ephraim, whom Polamalu described as his spiritual doctor.
Polamalu, 29, sought out the octogenarian monk, who resides in a monastery in southern Arizona, a few years ago, a meeting that led Polamalu to the place he described as “heaven on earth.” It is a summit of sorts. But not the Super Bowl, though Polamalu won two championship rings in his first seven seasons with the Steelers. Neither of those journeys shaped him as profoundly as the pilgrimage he made to Mount Athos, a Greek Orthodox spiritual center in Greece.
While there, Polamalu said he witnessed humility and sacrifice in its deepest, purest forms and realized that for all their obvious differences, the spiritual path shared much with a Super Bowl journey.
“Both require great discipline,” Polamalu said, “and a selflessness in the name of a greater good.”
A pacifist whose tough play epitomizes his violent sport, Polamalu is the anchor of both the Pittsburgh defense and its locker room. In a vote this season of the players, Polamalu was voted the team’s most valuable player, becoming the first safety since Donnie Shell in 1980 to be so honored.
“Obviously, in a lot of respects it’s a big deal,” Polamalu said, adding: “I’ve never been a fan of individual awards because football is such a team sport. There’s so many things that goes into making plays. It’s about teammates trusting one another and working together.”
Asked whom he voted for, Polamalu said linebacker James Harrison. “Nobody does what he does,” Polamalu said.
While Harrison, who amassed $100,000 in league fines this season for dangerous hits, appreciated Polamalu’s sentiments, he said, “Troy could be voted our M.V.P. every year.”
In the Steelers’ 41-9 win at Cleveland on Jan. 2, which clinched a first-round playoff bye, Polamalu was back in the starting lineup after missing two games with an Achilles’ heel injury. It didn’t take him long to get his legs back. On the second play from scrimmage, Polamalu picked off a Colt McCoy pass for his seventh interception, tying a career high. On a goal-line play at the start of the second quarter, he leaped over the line of scrimmage and was in McCoy’s face before he had time to cock his throwing arm. The play was reminiscent of one in the second week at Tennessee that resulted in a Polamalu sack of Titans quarterback Kerry Collins. Dick LeBeau, the Steelers’ defensive coordinator, noted that Polamalu did not sack McCoy, who managed to get off a pass that fell incomplete. “We prefer that he not go that far off the diving board,” LeBeau said.
Polamalu knows his freedom to roam has its limits. “When you do go a little bit off the map, you have to make sure you make the play,” he said. “If you don’t, it’s your fault.”
The Steelers’ rubber match this week against Baltimore — the teams split their regular season games — features two of the league’s best defensive backs in Polamalu, a six-time Pro Bowl pick, and the Ravens’ Ed Reed, who had an N.F.L.-leading eight interceptions in 10 games. Both are deserving candidates of the league’s defensive player of the year award, though, naturally, that is not the way Polamalu sees it. “I think I’d rather go with him,” Polamalu said, “given that he’s played in five games and has like 22 interceptions.”
The quotation was pure Polamalu. If he is overstating someone’s abilities, you know he’s not talking about himself.
Against the Ravens in the 2009 A.F.C. championship game, Polamalu stepped in front of a Joe Flacco pass intended for Derrick Mason and returned the ball 40 yards for the score that gave the Steelers a cushion at 23-14. Players from both teams — Harrison and the Ravens’ Terrell Suggs quickly come to mind — have been vocal about how deep the rancor runs in this rivalry. Polamalu said: “I don’t feel that way. There are things that are deeper than football rivalries to me.”
Polamalu was asked if he wished he could use his pulpit to address subjects other than football. “I’d rather not talk at all, to be honest with you,” he said.
Much has been made of Polamalu’s dual persona. Receiver Hines Ward described him Wednesday as “Clark Kent who goes into his phone booth on Sundays and comes out Superman.”
Off the field one sees the same dichotomy. Around the news media, Polamalu comes out of his shell and turns into the Jim Lehrer of the N.F.L. The least likely player to court the cameras is Polamalu, the Steelers’ most contemplative speaker.
After the Cleveland game, Polamalu was the last player to leave the visiting locker room. He emptied the contents of his locker into a black knapsack, fingering some of the items as if seeing them for the first time.
In the back of his locker was an 8-by-10 photo of Elder Ephraim with chin hair longer and fuller than the Rip Van Winkle beard that Steelers defensive end Brett Keisel has been growing all season. Polamalu slid the picture into a manila envelope, then carefully tucked it into his bag.
He kissed the three-inch framed photos of the Virgin Mary and Jesus, then crossed himself, repeating the sequence several times before tucking them into his backpack.
On his way out, Polamalu was stopped by a radio reporter. As a team official anxiously shouted into his cellphone, “Hold the Cranberry bus for Troy,” Polamalu serenely sat for a five-minute interview.
“At times when we need a little guidance, he’s the guy we go to,” Harrison said, adding, “Troy’s a lot deeper than a lot of people who actually preach the word.”
At the monastery in southern Arizona, the monks practice joyful mourning. Led by Polamalu, the Steelers engage daily in cheerful discomfort. They suffer together with the goal of celebrating as one on the first Sunday in February.
Troy Polamalu says 'Kala Christougena!'
The most famous Orthodox Christian in Pittsburgh, if not the nation, has a greeting for his fellow believers today:
"Kala Christougena!" said Steelers safety Troy Polamalu. That's Greek for "Merry Christmas!"
Mr. Polamalu and his wife, Theodora, actually celebrated Christmas 13 days ago, but they keep the same Orthodox traditions as those who observe today. Most Orthodox celebrate on Dec. 25, but many Slavic churches tie liturgy to the old Julian calendar, which is 13 days behind the Gregorian calendar. The Greek Orthodox Church and some others have adopted the Gregorian calendar -- except at Easter.
"We all celebrate Easter on the same day," said Mr. Polamalu, 29. Orthodoxy is the Eastern wing of the earliest Christian church, which split into the Orthodox and Catholic churches in 1054.
He and Theodora converted to Orthodoxy about five years ago. His background was Catholic and Protestant, hers Muslim and Protestant. They were Christians in search of a deeper, more consistent experience of God.
"Orthodoxy is like an abyss of beauty that's just endless," he said. "I have read the Bible many times. But after fasting, and being baptized Orthodox, it's like reading a whole new Bible. You see the depth behind the words so much more clearly."
That fasting is a Christmastime difference between Eastern and Western Christians. While many Americans pile on the food from Thanksgiving to Christmas, Orthodox Christians start fasting Nov. 15 or 28.
"Christmas Lent" or "Winter Lent" lasts 40 days, broken by a feast on Christmas, said the Rev. Stelyios Muksuris, administrative assistant to Metropolitan Maximos of the Greek Orthodox Diocese of Pittsburgh and professor of liturgy and theology at Ss. Cyril & Methodius Byzantine Catholic Seminary. Slavic Orthodox keep a strict fast, abstaining from meat, dairy products, oil and fish for 40 days. Greeks usually permit fish, cheese and oil for the first few weeks, then fast strictly for the last two, he said.
Mr. Polamalu is of Samoan heritage, and belongs to the Greek church, but fasts like a Russian.
His consists of a "fast from dairy, from meat and from oil for 40 days -- as well as from sex," he said. "It's to prepare you for the birth of Christ, of God incarnate."
Fasting doesn't affect his football fitness, he said. "When you fast, you can eat extremely healthy by eating a lot of light food, like fruits and vegetables."
There are other aspects to fasting.
"Maybe not watching as much TV, or not getting caught up in idle talk or different things, in order to keep you spiritually healthy," he said.
The most important Orthodox fast is Great Lent, for 50 days before Easter.
When he has kept longer fasts "I have never felt more spiritually strong," he said. Referring to great theologians of the early church, he said, "The church fathers have said that when you eat gluttonously or you eat a lot of meat, your passions get stronger, so your inclination toward sinning becomes stronger. ... [Fasting] really does soften your passions. It gives you spiritual insight."
In Orthodox theology "passions" are negative impulses -- such as sadness or greed -- that can harm the soul.
He doesn't claim that practicing the faith improves athletics. The player known for crossing himself on the field has seen his faith grow more from his injuries than his interceptions.
"When I got injured, I learned so much from it spiritually, just thanking God for the health that I had when I was healthy," he said.
"People have this idea that the more pious and devout I am, the more successful I am. Which is very dangerous. If you look at faith in that way, you're bound to fail at both -- spiritually and in your career."
As the Polamalus build Christmas traditions for their children, Paisios, 2, and Ephraim, 3 months, "It's become less about Santa Claus and more about the birth of Christ and the celebration of the Virgin birth," he said.
They spent Christmas Eve at an Orthodox monastery. The service lasted several hours, ending at 1 a.m. It was entirely chanted.
"Orthodox chanting is non-emotional, it's very monotone," said Mr. Polamalu, who also calls it "the most beautiful thing."
"It's the perfect environment for prayer," he said. "Chanting in Greek ... is like a beautiful opera, but way better. You have candles, not [electric] lights. It's dark. You have the women sitting on the left and the men sitting on the right. Everything is to keep your mind focused on God. ... To me the most beautiful thing anyone on earth can experience, other than maybe marriage and child-bearing, would be the Orthodox Liturgy."
Before he became Orthodox, he said, songs in church sometimes moved him to tears. He now distrusts those passing feelings.
"I'd start crying and feel 'This is awesome.' If I'd had a Red Bull, I'd feel it even more. If I'd had breakfast, I'd feel good. If I didn't have breakfast, I didn't feel anything, I was grumpy," he said.
"It was a very superficial experience. I was thinking, 'God, why did I not feel you today?' because I wasn't feeling the music today. Orthodoxy is very sensitive to that, to take the emotion out of it, to really go after the heart."
The difference between the heart and emotion, he said, is like the difference between the deep love he has for his wife and their daily ups and downs.
"I could say, emotionally, I'm mad and sad with my wife. But that has nothing to do with how much I love my wife within my heart," he said.
"Before we were Orthodox we were able to separate our spiritual lives and our daily lives. Now that we're Orthodox, because of the prayer life that is required ... and the fasting, it consumes your life. It's the number one thing in your life."
Troy Polamalu is Orthodox!
interview took place between Jason Cole, an
NFL sports writer for Yahoo! Sports and Troy
Polamalu of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Being raised right outside of Cleveland, I was born into a long legacy of die hard Browns fans. So needless to say rooting for the Pittsburgh Steelers is....well treason in my family. However, I have to admit that I did say a little prayer (tonight) for Troy and the Steelers after reading this interview. Hey, us Orthodox have to stick together. :) One of Nick's cousins met Troy at St. Anthony's monastery in Arizona and said he was very humble and didn't want anyone to know who he was while he was there. Some of you may have also noticed his lips moving (to the words of the Jesus Prayer) and crossing himself and his fellow teammates.
I think you'll enjoy this interview:
Cole: Do you have a routine you follow on your day off?
Polamalu: We work out together because that's our only day off together. It's a pretty decent workout. She does a lot of running and I do a lot of stretching. Tuesday is also our only opportunity to go to church together, so we do that.
Cole: When and where do you go?
Polamalu: It starts at 8:30 (a.m.). … It's the Nativity of the Theotokos monastery (in Saxonburg, Pa.).
Cole: I know you're devoutly Christian (Polamalu has a carefully arranged series of religious items in his locker at Heinz Field), but exactly which denomination?
Polamalu: Greek Orthodox. Theotokos literally means the Mother of God.
Cole: How long are you in services?
Polamalu: They usually go to about 12:30.
Cole: That's a four-hour service. Is that a normal service?
Polamalu: Pretty much, especially at a monastery.
Cole: Can you describe it?
Polamalu: What's really neat about the Orthodox church is that it's like walking back in time 2,000 years to the time of the Apostles, when they created these services. You walk into that and it's really like … living it. They have maintained the truth ever since the beginning.
Cole: You're Polynesian. How did you end up at a Greek Orthodox church?
Polamalu: There are different ethnicities, like Russian Orthodox. My wife is Greek. I was a non-denomination Christian before we got married. So we sit around there and meet with our spiritual mother and then we go home, maybe take a nap, work out and then go home and have dinner.
Cole: Who's making dinner?
Polamalu: My wife; I cannot cook at all. I've tried. I'm terrible. When I cook, it's something nobody else would enjoy.
Cole: You only cook specialty things for yourself?
Polamalu: No, it's not that nobody else will make it for me, it's that I'm the only one who is going to enjoy it. I'll look at the other people and say, "Did you like it?" They say, "Noooooooo."
Cole: Do you have any other hobbies or things you do away from the field? Maybe bowling?
Polamalu: No, not really. The single guys go bowl. The guys who are married go home, mostly. I really focus on spending time with my wife.
Cole: How hard is it to get time at home during the season? I know guys like (Miami Dolphins linebacker) Zach Thomas stay at the facility until very late studying film and (Indianapolis Colts quarterback) Peyton Manning is watching film at home.
Polamalu: First of all, I'm a Christian so my prayer life really comes first. Second of all, I'm a husband so my wife comes before anything else. If I have time to do anything else after that, I do it, but I don't sacrifice any time with her.
Cole: A lot of guys do it the other way around. Football comes first. They say family and faith come first, but they really do the football first. How do you reconcile it?
Polamalu: It's really easy for me. I love my faith and I know that's first. …. I really think I know what's important in my life and that's my faith and my wife.
Cole: So football is a really focused activity. There's no wasted time, right?
Polamalu: Actually, it's a lot of fun and it's something I enjoy. It's not like when I'm here it's business time and then there's family time. Football is, for me, it's something I do. It's like for you, you're a reporter. It's what you do, not who you are. Football does not define me. How I am with my faith and how I treat my wife is what truly defines you as a man. That is my goal in life to live that way and believe in it. It would be cowardly of me to say that I enjoy my time with my faith and my wife if I really didn't spend that time with them.
Cole: How long have you been married?
Polamalu: Two years now.
Polamalu: God willing, someday. But three dogs counts for one kid, I think.
Cole: Um, no.
Polamalu: Three English bulldogs count for one kid.
Cole: I have two kids. No.
Polamalu: Come on, it has to count for one kid.
Cole: I respect and admire your beliefs and your stands on many things, but I'm not buying the three dogs-to-one kid ratio.
Polamalu: OK, you win this one.
Cole: Wait till you have a child waking up at 3 a.m., hungry and then he's got colic and he's screaming and you have no idea why.
Polamalu: (laughing) Yeah, it's probably like, "Talk to me, tell me what's wrong. Oh, that's right, you can't talk to me." Yeah, with the dogs it's if they pee in the house you say, "Go to the kennel."