Mike Petri is one of the most-capped Eagles with the squad as it heads into its first matchup of the 2014 IRB Pacific Nations Cup, but it might be forgotten he earned his first cap the same day Thretton Palamo set a new record for youngest player at an IRB Rugby World Cup. His debut against South Africa on the Stade de la Mosson pitch might have only lasted five minutes, but it was a deserved call-up for a 19-year-old who could have represented a different nation at the tournament.
Though he did not pick up the sport until high school, Palamo had always been around rugby. Born in Woodland, California, to Samoan great Arona Palamo, Thretton watched on the touch line as his two older brothers, Seta and Toshi, trained with his father.
“I’d be in the sand pit playing with sand,” the 25-year-old laughed.
At Davis High, Palamo played basketball – and represented the United States at the U16 Junior Olympics Basketball Tournament in 2004 – and American football while playing rugby on the side with the Sacramento Lions and San Francisco Golden Gate.
While he remembers the days of watching his brothers prepare for a career in rugby, the game was never pressed upon him – even during his time in his father’s homeland.
Palamo went to school in Samoa with a name recognised by most. When asked of his relations, the youngest Palamo learned of his rugby roots.
“When I started going to school in Samoa, I’d tell people my last name and they’d ask who I was related to,” he said. “I told them who my dad was and that’s how I found out he was like a legend.
“The cool thing about [my dad] is that he never really told me that he played rugby growing up. I never knew.”
It may be hard for some young athletes to feel pressured in following his or her parent’s footsteps, but Palamo was more interested in following his older brothers.
“I just wanted to do whatever they did,” he said. “They played rugby. I thought it would be cool to be on the same field with them, so I played with them.”
As coach of Sacramento Lions, Arona gave Thretton his first taste of senior rugby during high school. He then went on to play with Danny Barrett and Samu Manoa at San Francisco Golden Gate before representing Samoa’s under-19 team.
“I started playing everything my senior year just ‘cause, senior year, you do whatever you want, really,” Palamo said. “It just kind of took off. I played at the U19 World Cup, did that for two years, then I made their men’s sevens team.”
Palamo decided he did not want to represent Samoa on the national stage and, due to caps earned before he turned 18, began to play for the U.S. Then-Eagles Head Coach Peter Thorburn went to a San Francisco Golden Gate match, saw Thretton, and it snowballed from there.
“I went to a few camps and after that I started making the teams. After that I just kept making the next team, the next team, until finally I made the World Cup team.”
On a roster with current Eagles stalwarts Todd Clever, Louis Stanfill, Chris Wyles, and others, Palamo befriended fellow youngster Taku Ngwenya, who would go on to score one of the tries of the tournament against South Africa.
“Me and him were pretty close; we were the youngest,” Palamo said.
An injury ruled Palamo out of the Eagles’ match against Tonga, when he was originally supposed to make his test debut. Before the match against South Africa, however, Thorburn gave the recently-turned 19-year-old a choice he has never regretted.
“He pulled me aside before the South Africa game and told me everything I had to know. If I went in that game that meant I could only play for America, I had no chance of playing for Samoa anymore. So I thought that was really cool that he would do that. He wanted to make sure I fully knew what was going on.”
Palamo stayed in France for a while longer, earning a professional contract with Biarritz, Ngwenya’s current club. He saw the differences between rugby in America and other countries and did not stay for long.
“I remember thinking every time we’d mess up, ‘Someone’s about to take my job,’” Palamo said. “And it was really like a job at the time. I think that was kind of my problem, because I was 19, so rugby was just fun to me.
“My dad was always, like, ‘Make sure you’re having fun.’ Then it got to the point where it was really serious and it hit me; this isn’t fun anymore, this is a job.”
Palamo returned to America and played for the U20s at the 2008 Junior World Championship before attending school at the University of Utah. Blake Burdette, a teammate of Palamo’s at the World Cup, was the rugby coach in Salt Lake City.
Thretton’s collegiate career careened towards American football after he walked on to the Utes in his freshman year as a running back, helping to earn a scholarship to pay for his education.
The transition to a higher level of competition once again stifled some of Palamo’s aspirations with the sport.
“It was hard to adjust to pads,” Palamo recalled. “Every kid grows up playing this game, they know the ins and outs of football, they know all of the little cheap ways, techniques. It was a lot harder for me to catch up.
“A lot of it was mental for me. It was a struggle, but there were glimpses. If I was ever in the backfield with the safeties and corners, for me, I felt like it was a mismatch. I could just step them because no one’s familiar with rugby. But the initial trench, trying to get out of the offensive line and defensive line, I could never figure it out. It was kind of frustrating.”
Palamo sat down with the head coach and figured out a new role: linebacker.
“That was fun. I liked that a lot.”
Palamo was able to use his six-foot-two frame and newly-gained mass from playing football to punish the opposition from the opposite side of the ball, something reminiscent of his family’s sport.
“I realized towards the end of my football career I kept comparing everything to rugby, how this would be cooler if this was in a rugby setting,” he said. “So then I just decided I’d rather play rugby. It’s also been in my family for so long, so I don’t think I had a chance playing football.”
Before calling it quits on the gridiron for good, Palamo went to the National Football League’s Pro Day, where he heard multiple teams could have been interested, and was one of two rugby players at the inaugural National Rugby Football League combine earlier this year.
“It was different,” Palamo said of the event in Minnesota. “It was super basic, but I understand why. These men never really played rugby, so you want to get a base for what kind of rugby talent you have. It was just too new for them. I felt for them because I was in their shoes when I played football.
“It’s always been the American theory: imagine if you had all of the NFL players playing rugby. We’d be the best in the world, right? I got invited because I played football. It was all football except one kid.”
Palamo was seen by scouts from clubs in England, France, Italy, Scotland, and others, and received an offer from Saracens, where Titi Lamositele, Hayden Smith, and Wyles are currently signed.
The stars did not quite align as quickly as they may have for Palamo in the past, as his first priority was to graduate from Utah, but the opportunity could still be afforded him in the near future.
Until then, Palamo has rejoined the Eagles for another go on the international rugby stage with a bigger body and a better understanding of some of the finer differences between the two sports.
“On offense [in football], if one person of our eleven makes a mistake, the whole play goes,” Palamo said. “The whole time in training it was always me doing the wrong thing. That’s why I like rugby so much: you can always make up for your mistakes, someone’s always got your back if you make a mistake.
“Before football, I wasn’t as physical. I never lifted. Now I’m a lot more physical, a lot more confident.”
Though he has not earned a cap since returning to the team this year, there will be plenty of opportunities to get a spot on an improved Eagles side still featuring the likes of Clever, Petri, and Wyles.
“It’s weird how everyone’s older,” he said. “It’s weird how I’m older. I’ll see the other guys and they’ll tell me they’re 19 and I’m like, ‘Last time I was in this I was you.’ That’s also what’s exciting, to see younger players.
“Mentally, the guys here now see things players in 2007 couldn’t figure out. A lot of people had a problem watching the ball, watching the rucks, not scanning the field. The problem is we’re getting better, but every other team is getting better, too.”
The Eagles hosted Scotland last weekend in a World Cup preview and will do the same with Japan Saturday. Both nations are in Pool B with the Eagles in next year’s competition in England. While the level of play both domestically and internationally has stepped up since he was last with the team, Palamo keeps his father’s advice in mind when he steps onto the pitch.