It's the first question on many people's lips when they meet Maika Polamalu.
"'Are you related to Troy?'" recounted the Navy junior linebacker, who is first cousins with the Pittsburgh Steelers strong safety. "That's always the first thing. It doesn't matter where I am or what I'm doing. That's always the first question."
It's an inquiry that might grate someone with a thinner skin, but Maika (pronounced MY-kuh) Polamalu, 21, just smiles.
"I'm proud of my cousin, and I'm proud of his accomplishments," he said. "I'm proud to be related to him."
The feeling is mutual. Troy Polamalu said he and his family view members of the armed forces as "heroes," and the fact that his cousin will serve in the Navy delights Polamalu.
"It's awesome," Troy Polamalu said. "It's awesome that he's at such a prestigious university and playing for such an awesome head coach [in Ken Niumatalolo]. I'm very happy that he's in a good place and at a prestigious university."
Senior linebacker Michael Tuimavave said rumors had floated around campus that Maika and Troy Polamalu were cousins, but that Tuimavave Maika Polamalu never flaunted that family tie.
"He mentions him from time to time," Tuimavave said. "Sometimes we ask him questions about how Troy is doing. So we get to hear stories."
Aoatoa Polamalu, Maika's father, is the younger brother of Suila Polamalu, Troy's mother. Aoatoa Polamalu was a starting defensive tackle at Penn State and helped the Nittany Lions capture the 1986 national championship. But when Aoatoa and his wife, Christine, had Maika — their first of three children — they were not as eager to get their son into football because of concerns over the physical nature of the sport.
"He wanted to play when he was really young, and we kept saying no," Aoatoa Polamalu said. "I think all his friends in grade school were playing, and we said no. Finally, he kind of talked us into it and we said, 'OK, but it's too late now because sign-ups were last month. Remind us next year.' Next year comes around, and he reminded us a week too late. Again, we said, 'It's too late. You didn't remind us in time.' The following year, he reminded us a week before, a couple days before, the day before and the day of. Finally, we said, 'I guess the kid really wants to play.'"
Like his father, Maika Polamalu was a lineman through the first three years of youth football, but at Pottsgrove High School in Pottstown, Pa., he switched to tailback and safety to take advantage of his speed.
With the Midshipmen, he spent his first two seasons at fullback, gaining 39 yards and one touchdown on six carries. But after a loss to Arizona State in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl last December, the coaching staff approached Polamalu about switching to linebacker.
"We just felt like he's such a good athlete, and we had some other guys at fullback," Niumatalolo said. "He was too good to be on the sideline. We lost some linebackers from the senior class, and we just felt like he was a guy that had all the tools — size, speed. We thought it would be the best for our team."
To prepare for the position switch, Polamalu doubled the size and frequency of his meals.With a diet of peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches for snacks and a dedicated weightlifting regimen, he gained 20 pounds and now weighs 218.
But the biggest adjustment has been a change in philosophy for Polamalu.
"At running back, you kind of have a sense of where everybody is," he said. "At linebacker, they're coming after you. You've just got to keep going. At times, I do find myself with tunnel vision, and then at the last minute, I feel someone on the outside. So I'm just trying to keep up my awareness around me."
Inside linebackers coach Steve Johns said that transition is perhaps the most difficult for players moving from offense to defense.
"It's learning to be more instinctive and reactive to what's going on," said Johns, who is also the team's special teams coordinator. "On offense, he was told what play to run, and here, he has assignments, but he also has to react to what's going on. That's the hardest thing, being told where exactly you have to go to adjusting to what other guys are doing, because you've got to be more reactive. I think that's where the improvement needs to happen, but he's getting better."
Polamalu and sophomore Don Pearson back up senior D.J. Sargenti at inside linebacker. Polamalu made one tackle on special teams in the Midshipmen's 51-7 thumping of Delaware on Saturday.
Troy Polamalu said he is hoping his younger cousin performs well.
"That's kind of our expectation," Troy Polamalu said. "We definitely have a long pedigree of Division I athletes and football players. It's something that really comes natural to us, and we also have a high expectation of moral character within our family as well as athletic prowess. So the expectations for him would be no different than they would have been for me or any of my cousins or brothers and sisters."
That might seem to be quite a burden for Maika Polamalu, but he said he has the same high expectations of himself.
"It's good pressure in that I strive to do the best I can be," he said. "But negative [pressure], not so much. I carry it with pride, and I'm glad to be a role model. I play for all of my family members, and I'm just blessed to have this opportunity."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun