The image bothered Ken Polamalu to the point he knew he had to do something about it.
He came across a photo of a football player in his homeland of American Samoa wearing a helmet with the facemask secured with a zip tie.
While the helmet standards there are not as strict as the United States, it still didn’t sit well with Polamalu.
“They have a lot of old, old equipment,” he said. “Heck, they still use the old Riddell (helmets) with the water capsules in them. I just felt like we can’t have this; something should be done about it.”
Polamalu, 44, certainly was in a position to help.
So, he did.
Since 2011, Polamalu has been collecting and taking used football equipment from Arizona and some surrounding states to American Samoa every other year with help from his cousin, former Pittsburgh Steeler All-Pro safety Troy Polamalu.
Ken has been at Skyline High since the school opened in 1999, starting out as security, and was part of the football coaching staff until he was forced off the sideline after he was slowed by a stroke when a blood clot formed in his brain stem in 2012.
Ever since he has been the equipment manager for Skyline athletics. Add those connections along with some naming dropping of his cousin, and Polamalu has been doing a great deed by giving back to the football programs on the islands located in the South Pacific Ocean.
“It’s a tremendous undertaking, and our players help out with the sorting and loading,” Skyline football coach Angelo Paffumi said. “Our whole hallway just gets filled with shoes, pads and helmets. It’s amazing all of things he does for us, but this is probably one of the greatest, most unselfish things I’ve seen someone do in high school sports.”
It has become a labor of love for Polamalu.
The collection of equipment is tied to Troy’s football camp in American Samoa called the Fa’a Samoa Initiative, which has expanded to include a volleyball division, academic and life skills workshop for the athletes in 2013, now features an enhanced Academic and Life Skills Division as well as a comprehensive medical mission since 2015.
Back in the 2011, Ken just wanted to send equipment overseas to help so by the time he collected a decent amount from other high school programs in Arizona he had to find a way to get everything over to the camp.
Suddenly, he had to find a shipping tanker, deal with the Transportation Security Administration, itemize every piece of equipment and a bunch of other logistical matters.
“All I wanted to do was drop it off at the dock and get it there,” said Polamalu, who credited his wife, Nichelle, for being patient during his recovery. “I found out that there’s a little more to it than that. I had no idea what I was getting into.”
As he collects for the 2017 camp, he has it down to a science and word has spread to where he is getting donations from the Arizona Cardinals, University of Arizona, local high schools along with some from Nevada and California as well.
“We are so grateful to everyone that has helped out,” said Polamalu, who is related to several high school players in the area like the Pola-Mao brothers at Mountain Pointe and Williams Field’s Noa Pola-Gates. “It has become a collective outpouring. It’s means so much to everyone over there. To see their smiles when they see the equipment is what it is all about.
“To us it is old or used, but to them it is brand new and something special. It’s what it’s all about.”
Polamalu, who played junior college ball in California after high school, has had a similar impact on Paffumi and the Skyline football program.
He might be the equipment manager but the athletes still refer to him as coach, and he still works a little bit on technique with the offensive and defensive linemen.
“I cannot tell how much he does for me and the program,” Paffumi said. “Anything I need, from a special face mask or a certain clip for shoulder pads, he knows exactly what it is I need because of his background in football. It takes so much off my plate and allows me to put attention elsewhere.”
For Polamalu, who has four daughters, it is about being involved with football and treating the boys – overseas and in northeast Mesa – like they are his own, and continuing one of the characteristics of the Samoan way in that everything comes back to family.
In his mind, working for Skyline, the place where individuals gave up their own vacation time when he was on FMLA, and the equipment collecting for the football camp is just like helping family.
“The stroke forced me to change my lifestyle,” said Polamalu, who was temporarily paralyzed on the right side and still walks with a hitch in his gait. “I lost a bunch of weight, and I’m doing pretty good, but I can’t be out there coaching the way I want.
“This allows me to still be part of it, be around the game, the coaches and the kids. It was tough giving up coaching, and having to do it cold turkey was incredibly hard. We are a football family, going way back in the NFL and college, and this is the best way for me to stay part of it.
“The service itself to my father’s motherland is enough, but when you get to see kids excited it does something for your soul, and when you are able to provide that happiness it really does your heart good.”
– Jason P. Skoda is a senior writer at MyNewsMesa.com. Send story ideas, especially human-interest stories, to firstname.lastname@example.org.