Inside Polamalu’s homecoming

Pittsburgh Steelers safety Troy Polamalu (center) poses with the rowers of the Matasaua Manutele team.

In June, Troy Polamalu vacationed in American Samoa and allowed ESPN The Magazine to join him.

The Pittsburgh Steelers star brought not only The Mag, but his family, business advisors and eight NFL ‘usos’ (brothers in Samoan): They included Steelers teammate Ryan Clark, Bengals LB Rey Maualuga and Cardinals OT Deuce Lutui (who’s from Tonga).

You can read all the details and see all the pictures in The Magazine‘s NFL Preview issue, in mailboxes Wednesday and on newsstands Friday.

Senior Writer Carmen Renee Thompson (pictured in the pickup truck bed below) gave Front Row a behind-the-scenes look at the trip, sharing her personal photos here.

FR:  How did the assignment to tag along with Polamalu come about?

Thompson: I was interviewing Bengals LB Rey Maualuga for another assignment and being inquisitive about how he was spending his time during the lockout. His publicist had tipped me off that Rey, who is Samoan, was planning a trip to American Samoa to coach at Troy Polamalu’s football camp. As I learned more details about Polamalu’s plans, I realized that I knew very little about Samoa and that Polamalu’s trip would probably be much deeper than the average summer vacation plans.

FR: What challenges did you face with this particular assignment?

Thompson: Keeping up with Polamalu’s schedule was amazing. He had so many engagements lined up that tagging along meant knocking out a sun-up to wee-hours marathon each day. I’ve done that before, but the twist here was the code-red, sunburn-level heat. Dealing with the elements and the schedule gave me a firsthand perspective on the sheer amount of energy Polamalu has — and the importance of staying hydrated.

FR: Were there any surprises or unexpected experiences while on assignment in the Samoa?

Thompson: Surprises included learning that it would be much appreciated if I wore a traditional Samoan puletasi (dress) to the dinner in Polamalu’s honor at the Governor’s mansion. It was surprisingly fun to go to a Samoan fabric store, pick a favorite out of a rainbow spectrum of flowered fabrics, get measured and have the dress made by the end of the day. Unexpected experiences included feeling very James Bond-like while riding with marine patrol cops on a jet ski in Pago Pago harbor to get a better view of Polamalu and friends rowing in the 46-person capacity Matasaua I boat. The boat was about 90 feet long and much harder to row than anyone, including Polamalu, imagined. His whole crew, big guys and all, was totally gassed after doing a quarter mile. And then they had to row a quarter-mile back. I was pretty psyched to be on the jet ski.

FR: What can you share about your trip with Polamalu that most people would not know or expect?

Thompson: Watching Polamalu experience that much attention and adoration was very much like the movie When We Were Kings. The festivities, ceremonies and outpouring of affection for him were kind of like it was his birthday all day, every day we were there. But Polamalu handled it all with a notable amount of wry, self-deprecating humor. He’s got great comic timing.

FR: How did this differ and/or compare to the stories you have covered to date with The Mag?

Thompson: This story ranks pretty high up there: It had all the elements that I love as a writer: a thoughtful subject, interestingly extreme surroundings and a really rich culture to try and do justice to.

FR: You’ve been working for The Mag since 2003. What’s been your favorite experience?

Thompson: There have been many, but aside from this story, my top three are: Visiting the Pine Ridge Lakota Sioux Reservation in South Dakota to write about Rezball, the Native American style of basketball; going to Mumbai, India to write about tennis player Sania Mirza, who’s like the Maria Sharapova of India; and lastly, interviewing Jay Z and Carmelo Anthony for the first-ever Hookup column and cover for the Magazine.

Polamalu received lots of smiles in return for tossing out tons of Terrible Towels.

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