Steelers added Polynesian flavor in 2023

There are more than 1,000 islands that make up the region of the Pacific Ocean known as the Polynesian triangle.

And though the different islands of that group all have their own distinct traditions and histories, they're all closely related.

There is another area that can now be added to the Polynesian triangle – albeit perhaps in an honorary fashion. This offseason, the Steelers added four players of Polynesian descent to their roster, giving them five players of Polynesian ancestry on their roster. Second-year running back Jaylen Warren also is of Polynesian descent.

"There's more than last year for sure," Warren said. "It's a cool thing for me to see. It's always fun to see other Polys."

The Steelers have a strong history with Polynesian players. From players such as Pro Football Hall of Fame safety Troy Polamalu, to running back Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala, defensive linemen Tyson Alualu, Ta'ase Faumui and Kimo von Oelhoffen and offensive lineman Chris Kemoeatu, the Steelers have had a strong presence of Polynesians over the past two decades.

But as they enter their training camp for the 2023 season at Saint Vincent College, they have the largest Polynesian contingent on their roster in their history.

It might not be by accident. It seems general manager Omar Khan and assistant GM Andy Weidl were very aware that they had added a Polynesian wing to their locker room.

Offensive linemen Isaac Seumalo and Nate Herbig were signed in free agency, as was nose tackle Breiden Fehoko. The Steelers then selected Herbig's younger brother, Nick, in the fourth round of the draft, adding the outside linebacker to their collection of Polynesian players.

"It's so funny, when I signed here back in April, the first thing we talked about with Omar and Andy and those guys wasn't about football, it was about the Polys," said Fehoko. "They had just signed Isaac and Nate. They had Jaylen Warren. Now, they have Nate's brother. Not only that, you look at the history, Troy, Chris Kemoeatu, Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala. Growing up on the islands, Troy was a legend."

It wasn't by accident the Steelers chose to add Polynesian players to their roster. The franchise is built on toughness and physicality. And that's exactly what Pacific Islanders bring to the game of football.

"It's all we have. I wouldn't say it's all we're good at, but it's a way out for our community," Fehoko said. "Being bigger bodied, we come from small islands, not just Hawaii, but Tonga, Samoa, Tahiti, New Zealand, where rugby is kind of the main sport. It's a similar sport. Football has been a way out for Polynesians for the Troys, Haloti Ngata, Junior Seau, it's been a way out. It's been a way for the rest of the world to enjoy our physicality, our athleticism."

The rough-and-tumble lifestyles of growing up Polynesian lends itself to playing football.

The families are close-knit, but also are raised with a toughness.

"Polynesians are all about the family, togetherness, love, respect," said Vili Fehoko, the father of Breiden Fehoko. "That's what it's like growing up in a Polynesian household. Everywhere they go, they're going to bring that. They're going to bring that love and respect. I think that is what Coach (Mike) Tomlin is all about. He's an old-school coach. He's like a father figure. He brings the old school and the new school into that. Polynesian is all about love. And Polynesians like to get physical."

Warren quickly established that last season with the Steelers.

While he had a good offseason, it wasn't until the pads were put on in training camp when he really began to stand out.

The first Tomlin held the "backs on backers" blocking drill, Warren stood out in a big way, something of a surprise for a running back listed at 5-foot-8, 215 pounds.

"What I know is that they'll bring toughness, No. 1," Warren said of Polynesians. "We go hard. We won't let nobody beat us. We bring grit. We bring a hard-working culture. That's what we're trying to do here.

"It's kind of how we were raised. I wouldn't say it's the best way to be raised, but it's how we were raised. You know, you get a sprained ankle, they do this thing where you sit on a chair and they step on it with their heel. You're like, 'Are you sure that's going to work?' We believe in 'show no pain.'"

Warren took that to the extreme his senior season in high school growing up in Utah. He suffered a torn hamstring early in the season. Each week, he would be on crutches early in the week, be riding a bicycle during practice by midweek and then go out on Friday night and run for 200-plus yards. Then, he would repeat the process.

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"Part of it is a love for football for me," Warren said. "But part of it is, I heard stories in high school where a kid had broken his collarbone. His dad is calling him names, telling him to get back in there now. It's an old-school thing, I guess. You play through the pain."

That toughness lends itself well to football.

And it doesn't matter if they're from Hawaii, American Samoa, Tonga or any of the other hundreds of islands.

Rosters are expanded to 90 players on each of the 32 teams, meaning there are nearly 2,900 players in the NFL at this time of year. By the time the season rolls around, that number is trimmed to just under 1,700 on active rosters.

Each year, somewhere between three and four percent of that number are Polynesians. And it's a number that continues to go upward ever so slightly each season.

It certainly has for the Steelers this season.

"I think what Polynesians bring to the table, what they lack in speed, you have the density of our bones, it's a scientific fact that we have dense bones," Fehoko said. "And the calves. If you're not sure if someone is a Poly, look at their calves. It's core. We bring a different type of physicality to the sport. It's unique in today's day and age. I'm excited that there's other guys who look like me in the locker room."