Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Meet The Most Interesting Man In College Football

Allow me to go back in time to last June.  I sat in Columbus Crew Stadium watching the inagural USA College Sevens rugby tournament.  The best rugby teams from around the country came together for this wide-open, entertaining competition that highlighted rugby sevens as a future Olympic sport.  As I watched several games throughout the tournament, one man caught my eye from Utah.  A mountain of a man of Samoan descent with long black hair in the red #2 jersey.  He was simply bigger than everyone else on the field, and to my shock, faster too.  And if that wasn't enough, he had the NCAA '10 highlight stick at his disposal like it was the simple flick of a thumb.  Game after game, #2 from Utah ran in try after try as the Utes advanced through the tournament.  He ran around tacklers, through tacklers, and past tacklers.  As the tournament progressed, this mythical creature became the talk of Crew Stadium.

But #2 and his Utes met the toughest test imaginable in the final - the Cal Bears.  All you need to know about college rugby is this... Cal.  Wins.  Everything.  They have only 25 National Championships to their name and the consensus favored the Bears adding the presitgious sevens tourney to the trophy case.  Except, this Herculean force of nature from Utah had other ideas.  Utah stunned the Bears in a thrilling game 31-26 in overtime, largely thanks to two tries from #2, the hero of the tournament.  

Utah's #2 was a 21 year old freshman, Thretton Palamo... the youngest player to ever take the field in the Rugby World Cup when he did so in 2007 for the USA national team in France.  A former captain of the USA rugby sevens team.  And as of this Fall, a running back for Kyle Whittingham's Utah football team.  And quite possibly, the most interesting man in college football...
For the readers that may be familiar with rugby, watching Palamo anihilate the college sevens tournament last year must have been what it was like to watch Jonah Lomu at his peak.  Even though there were dozens of games each day, I wanted to be in Crew Stadium when Utah was playing to watch Thretton Palamo.  The level of competition was inconsequential at that point and time - what I saw that weekend (and what viewers saw nationally on NBC) was transcendent.  Palamo is a world class rugby sevens player with athleticism to match.  Here's a 6'2", 240 pound rock of granite that also had the ability to sidestep any defender, the pace to outrun the others, and the power to brush off anyone else that may have gotten in his way.  Any time he touched the ball, the crowd on hand would slowly out of their seats like they would for Gale Sayers or Reggie Bush.  Any time he touched the ball, you knew he was likely to score.  It didn't just look like a man against boys, it was like watching Gravedigger do his (her?) thing.  Just see for yourself...
And now Palamo takes those talents from the pitch to the gridiron.  The trip from teenage international rugby player to Utah running back is in the words of Bill Walton, a long strange trip.  Palamo was teammates on that '07 RWC team with Utah rugby head coach Blake Burdette, who also happened to be a member of the Utes' 2004 unbeaten Fiesta Bowl team.  Utah was the perfect fit for Palamo's rugby skills, desire to play football, and committment to get an education.  In fact, Palamo chose this path at Utah turning down opportunites to play professional rugby in Europe.  To tell you the truth, I was stunned and excited when I read his name in the rotation at running back for the Utes this year because I saw his athletic genius with my own eyes.  Sure, Youtube highlight videos are all the rage for college prospects, but nobody has quite the resume of Thretton Palamo to back it up.

Just how much of a factor can he be for the Utes though?  It appears Palamo will start the season as a backup to JuCo transfer John Whitepalamorb even though he led the Utes in rushing during their first Spring scrimmage.  Palamo did play football in high school, but the learning curve is still steep.  To his credit, Whittingham and the staff see a bright future for the rugby star, but his impact may not be felt immediately.  Actually, Palamo may never make a significant impact in football, period.  Transitions between sports are always difficult, no matter the athletic gifts one may possess.  Reading blocks, running routes, and completing blocking assignments is way different than offloading in the tackle, rucking, and running through the gaps of a rugby defense.  The level of athlete from college rugby to Pac 12 football is also a huge step up in class.  No longer will Thretton Palamo be the most gifted athlete on the field by light years.  To his credit though, the coaching staff and players see Palamo's potential...

“Thretton’s doing a good job,” (running backs coach Dave) Schramm said. “It just takes time. He’s got to learn how to play. And he is learning. He’s come a long way — light years since spring ball. But football isn’t rugby.”
“He’s one of those guys who has the inner desire to be great. He’ll get better with time, I think, and end up being a heck of a football player.”
“He’s still raw,” (QB Jordan) Wynn said. “But he’s so big and he’s super-athletic. He can run inside, obviously, but he’ll turn the corner on you, too.”

Everything coming out of Utah this preseason has Palamo dedicating himself to make the transition from international rugby star to college running back a success.  If Palamo is able to grasp the position and fulfill his athletic potential, the possibilities are limitless.  My only hope is that he gets a chance to prove what he can do as a runner on Saturdays because we've never had the chance to see an international caliber rugby player take on college football.  If there is any way to translate the magic on the field at Columbus Crew Stadium last June to Rice-Eccles Stadium this Fall, Thretton Palamo may become a household name.  And even if that doesn't happen, he's still the most interesting man in college football.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Homecoming King

Steelers safety Troy Polamalu spends a week renewing his fighting spirit in American Samoa this summer

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."

photo act 4Chris Baldwin for ESPN The MagazineHigh school football players attend a three-day camp with Polamalu.
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."

photo act 3Chris Baldwin for ESPN The MagazineAfter hours of practice, Polamalu's trainees still have energy to spare.
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."

photo act 5Chris Baldwin for ESPN The MagazinePolamalu says he feels most connected to the islands during two fishing trips.
After seven hours of drills in the code-red heat, the players perform Samoan Haka war dances before a mesmerized Polamalu.

photo act 6Chris Baldwin for ESPN The MagazineHis two kids help keep Polamalu grounded during the whirlwind trip.
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.

photo act 6Chris Baldwin for ESPN The MagazinePolamalu takes a final "Samoan limo" ride before departing.
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."

Former QB Pritchard Absorbing, Spreading Knowledge as Stanford Assistant Coach

Former Stanford quarterback Tavita Pritchard (2006-09) has lots of stories he can tell the younger players on Stanford's football team.
Pick a story, any story.
How about the one where the Cardinal went 1-11 in 2006, achieving the worst record in school history?
That's more of a nightmare, but Pritchard would prefer to talk fairytales.
How about the time he engineered "The Greatest Upset Ever" on Oct. 6, 2007?

The Cardinal trekked to USC as a 41-point underdog, then proceeded to pull off a miraculous 24-23 victory. Pritchard was making his first collegiate start in place of starter T.C. Ostrander, who had suffered a seizure at a restaurant earlier in the week. Pritchard connected with Richard Sherman on a must-have fourth-and-20 play on a final desperation drive. With less than a minute to play, Pritchard hit Mark Bradford for a touchdown to tie the score. Derek Belch's extra point was the game-winner. Pritchard, who threw for 2,865 yards and 15 touchdowns at Stanford, is now a defensive staff assistant after serving as a volunteer coach last season.
"Still being around the Stanford community, a lot of people bring that USC game up," Pritchard said. "It's a good memory. It's one of the signature wins that people look back to. It's fun to think back on the players and the teams we forged. We think of that rebuilding stage, in general."
Pritchard seemed destined to be a coach. His father, David, was an offensive coordinator at Clover High in Washington, where Pritchard starred under dad's tutelage. Tavita Pritchard was a 7-year-old ball boy when David was offensive coordinator at nearby Centralia High. Tavita chose quarterback because his uncle, Jack Thompson -- known as "The Throwin' Samoan" -- was an All-American quarterback at Washington State.
"I learned tons of football from my dad," Tavita said. "My passion for football comes from my dad. I can remember the days when I was a little guy running around with my jersey hanging down to my knees when I was a ball boy. That's where I gained my passion and it blossomed from there."
While coaching is, obviously, in Pritchard's blood, he's coaching for other reasons.
"It's everything I loved about being a player," Pritchard said. "It's the camaraderie, it's the unity, the one mind trying to accomplish a single goal. I love the strategy behind it. I'm like a little kid up in the office just listening to the coaches talk. I love hearing about football and how all the philosophies come together."

Bengals Linebacker Rey Maualuga Adjusting To Transition

Rey Maualuga leads the team with eight solo tackles and that's adding into the idea that the team's starting middle linebacker hasn't even played more than a handful of snaps during maybe five quarters of three preseason games. Would it be that big of a stretch to call Maualuga the Cincinnati Bengals top defensive player?
Maualuga played two seasons as the team's starting strong-side linebacker since joining the Bengals during the second round of the 2009 NFL Draft. This year with Dhani Jones not returning, Maualuga is finally making the transition into his more natural middle linebacker spot. Even so, he's still adjusting, thinking too much about the play before letting his natural instincts take over.
"It comes and goes," he said. "I think in due time everything will unveil itself and I'm just going to go out there and play ball instead of thinking too much."
Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer agrees:
"He's adjusting to making the calls," Zimmer said. "I think he's been playing the run good and actually has been OK on the pass."
Maualuga's transition comes at a good time, considering that the Bengals are largely a team rebuilding with a new offensive philosophy with new skill players. By this time next year, with the offense having a year under their belts, so will Maualuga as the defensive leader and middle linebacker.

Polynesian Players Flocking Back to Utah State

Al Lapuaho always wanted to play in the Pac-12.
Whether it was at Granger High or at Snow College, it was all he dreamed about. So when Washington State offered the defensive tackle a scholarship, he pounced on it like it was a running back.
Only it didn’t work out. The campus was cool. The competition was top-notch. The coaching staff and the players were accommodating and friendly. But the sense of family wasn’t there when Lapuaho visited. He went back to Snow, hesitant about Washington State. He de-committed. Then he called coach Gary Andersen and pledged to USU.
“I wasn’t happy,” Lapuaho said. “The Polynesian culture means a lot to me. And that’s what eventually swayed me to Utah State.”
Yes, the Polynesian culture, which puts a premium on loyalty and a sense of family. When Andersen took over the head coaching job at Utah State three years ago, he promised to remake a roster that was devoid not only of Polynesians, but of homegrown recruits in general.
Three years later, the Aggies boast 22 players of Polynesian descent on their roster. A bunch of them are in-state recruits. And a good number of them are poised to make an impact.
Philip Gapelu, D.J. Tialavea and Kyle Whimpey will all play a lot offensively. Lapuaho and Bojay Filimoeatu are starters on the defensive line. Evan Huahulu, a transfer from SMU, will play a lot as a nose tackle. Nate Needham has carved out a role as a long snapper.
For Andersen, there may not be a better sight. He considers USU’s Polynesian players one of the foundations of his program. He has worked diligently to improve their numbers, and now he stands to reap the benefits.

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