Many questions have followed Dalvin Cook’s surprising fall to the Vikings in the second round of last week’s NFL draft.
Is he the fumbler from Florida State? Can he pass protect? Is his character a concern? Who the heck is Kennedy Polamalu and can the new Vikings running backs coach help Cook reach his stated goal of “being the best Dalvin Cook” he can be?
“I’ve always been around young men who are learning their way,” said Polamalu, who has coached at the high school, college and NFL levels since 1986. “I have a feel for the support system they need. Dalvin is serious. He’s got a kid on the way any day. It’s early, but I believe he wants to be great.”
Before the draft, Polamalu spent time with Cook as the Vikings researched the 21-year-old’s brilliant playing career and a spotted personal life that includes being cleared by a jury on charges of punching a woman. After the draft, well, no coach will have a bigger impact on shaping Cook than Polamalu.
“We’re getting to know each other, trust each other,” Polamalu said. “The communication is good. He’s been honest. I don’t know what’s not to like about him.”
Polamalu was born in Pago Pago, American Samoa, on Nov. 22, 1963, the day President Kennedy was assassinated.
“It was a little hospital and I was one of two babies born that day,” Polamalu said. “That night, when my parents heard the news, they named me Kennedy.”
When he was young, Polamalu’s family moved stateside and shortened its name to Pola, as many immigrants did. In 2011, Kennedy changed his back while in Pago Pago to work a summer camp hosted by his nephew, Troy Polamalu, the former Steelers safety.
“It was the first time my wife and three kids went to Samoa,” Polamalu said. “We decided to change our name back. It took a while to get used to.”
Polamalu grew up loving football and had the necessary size, toughness and discipline from being born into a family of Marines. He was the starting fullback at Southern California but went undrafted in 1986.
Tampa Bay needed a fullback that year. Or so it thought. The Buccaneers selected tailback Bo Jackson first overall and signed Kennedy as Bo’s lead blocker. Only Bo refused to play for Tampa Bay, took up baseball and went back into the draft in 1987.
“I lasted about as long as Bo did in Tampa,” Polamalu said. “That was my only NFL shot. I had six knee surgeries in high school and college. Three on each knee. It takes a toll.”
Polamalu was working residential construction in Los Angeles when he “fell into coaching.” A buddy needed unpaid help coaching high school football. Polamalu coached on game days and one practice per week.
“I was a defensive coordinator,” he said. “I blitzed every down.”
Polamalu coached six seasons at Crespi and Westlake high schools before UCLA coach Terry Donahue called.
“He asked if I wanted to coach for a profession,” Polamalu said. “I asked, ‘How much does it pay?’ It didn’t pay much.”
Polamalu went to UCLA as a graduate assistant. Since then, he’s coached every fall but one and running backs every year but four. He has coached at San Diego State twice, Colorado, USC twice, the Cleveland Browns in 2004, the Jacksonville Jaguars from 2005 to ’09 and UCLA from 2014 until last season, when he was fired as Bruins offensive coordinator.
After the Vikings fired quarterbacks coach Scott Turner, they replaced him with running backs coach Kevin Stefanski and targeted Polamalu. Among other things, they liked how Polamalu handled Jaguars stars Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew, who went from having a reputation as a fumbler to fumbling only two times in 365 touches as a Pro Bowl player in 2009.
“We need our backs to be explosive and violent,” Polamalu said. “But they need to understand when to give up the collision. Make the ball the most important thing.”
Ball security is priority No. 1 for Cook, who fumbled 13 times at Florida State. Pass protection is a close No. 2. “I’m not worried because he’s willing,” Polamalu said. “If he was a ready-made guy, maybe we wouldn’t have him. This is fun, molding a young guy like this.”
Cook, meanwhile, sure sounds like a willing student, vowing to do whatever Polamalu tells him to.
“I feel like we’re off to a great start,” Cook said. “We’re off to something special.”