We’ve all read this story before, haven’t we? A devout, religious individual leads his sports team to the pinnacle of its profession. Treated as an outsider by some of his teammates and viewed as a cultural anomaly by many sportswriters, this athlete has earned the respect of those with whom he works—both for his work ethic on the field, and for his moral consistency off of it. In interviews, he is always willing to proclaim his faith in a clear and unambiguous fashion.
Think you know who this story might be about? You might be surprised.
Pittsburgh Steeler safety Troy Polamalu has become one of the most recognizable players in the National Football League—and it’s not just because of the long black hair protruding out the back of his helmet. In his seven seasons with the Steelers, Polamalu has displayed an uncanny ability to make key plays at crucial times, and has been a large reason Pittsburgh has won two Super Bowls in the last four years.
An interview in the current Pittsburgh Magazine offers a closer look at the man underneath the mane, and finds a contemplative, serene, and pious man—devoted to his family and his faith, and very comfortable talking about his Christian convictions.
Such a story is not unique in sports, of course. One only needed to look across the scrimmage line from Polamalu at Super Bowl XLIII to see Kurt Warner, a professing evangelical Christian who has received both praise and condemnation for his regular proclamations of faith. Others, such as former Washington Redskins coach Joe Gibbs and former NBA superstar David Robinson, are also well-known for their Christian beliefs and philanthropic endeavors. Indeed, the “evangelical athlete” has almost become a caricature of itself—to the point that one would be surprised not to hear a player thank God for his success in a postgame interview.
The thing that makes Polamalu unique is not that he is willing to make such a profession of faith, but rather what faith he professes. Polamalu is a convert to Greek Orthodoxy—a tradition largely unknown to the majority of American Christians (apart from the occasional references to it in the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding).
In the Pittsburgh Magazine article, Polamalu talks of family, the importance of his religious beliefs in his everyday life, and his fascination with Orthodox monasticism. Both he and his wife are regular visitors to monasteries in the United States, and Polamalu made a personal pilgrimage to Mount Athos in Greece in 2007. His infant son is named Paisios, after a contemporary Orthodox monk.
Yet, despite the differences between the Greek Orthodox tradition and the experience of most of American Christianity, there is much in the interview that will strike a chord with believers of all stripes.
“For me,” says Polamalu, “faith is to be simple in this way. If anybody believes in God and believes in the Holy Bible, how can you be in any grey area? I'm talking about myself here, how can ‘I’ think one way and do another way? To me, Christianity is very black and white. Either you take it serious or you don't take it serious at all.” In describing his “spiritual struggle,” Polamalu says, “It's the struggle of good and evil, and with that comes the struggle with greed, jealousy, materialism, sexual morality, pride, all these types of struggles that we face every day, in every second of the day.”
The whole interview is worth the read. Special kudos to interviewer Gina Mazza, who displays an understanding of the Orthodox faith, and doesn’t treat it as a cultural or religious oddity.