Sunday, February 26, 2006
By Nick Wagoner
INDIANAPOLIS – As a broadcast journalism major at Penn State, perhaps Tamba Hali is the best person to tell you this story.
Maybe it’s more believable that way. Maybe it will tug at your heartstrings a little harder if it comes from him. The only problem with that is Hali would be telling a story about himself. A story that seems too unreal. His is a story of pain, a story of emotion and, ultimately, a story of triumph and joy.
On the surface, Hali doesn’t seem much different from any of the rest of the prospects in Indianapolis. He’s 6’3, 275 pounds, about average for a defensive end. But there is nothing average about the path Hali took to arrive in Indianapolis.
“I was just overwhelmed, not only with his story, but the way he told it," Giants general manager Ernie Accorsi said. "He's such a thoughtful, intellectual, moving person. You could hear a pin drop in our interview room when he was done telling his story."
Hali’s story begins in Liberia, located on the west coast of Africa. It is there where Hali was born to parents Rachel Keita and father Henry. He lived in the capital city of Monrovia for the first part of his life.
Not that Hali’s upbringing was going to be normal anyway, his father departed to become a professor at Fairleigh Dickinson University in 1985. Tamba was 2. As he grew older, Hali began to see and understand the horrors of war.
Liberia was in a state of civil war. According to Hali, people were running around killing each other for no particular reason. People who had no real basis for fighting were fighting. To say the least, it served as a scary awakening for a young Hali.
“It’s hard to explain to somebody what it’s like on the other side when you haven’t really gone through it,” Hali said. “It’s hard to explain to people what it’s like to actually be in that situation and feeling like maybe today I could die or see other people get killed.”
Hali vividly recalls the first time he and his family were attacked by rebels. He remembers the sound of a plane coming down right at him while he sat with his family. As his mom was cooking, gunfire broke out all around him. In a haze of bullets flying around him, Hali started to see the deep and terrifying effects of war.
That became an everyday practice and it became clear that if Hali and his family wanted to have any kind of future, they must flee. So, Hali, his mother and siblings hopped in his stepfather’s car (his mother remarried after her husband left for the United States).
They drove and drove until stopping in a village far from Monrovia. After six months in the village, the family would come out of hiding to find a place that was finally starting to cease. But that didn’t last and the family was forced to flee again.
Before, Hali could recall hearing the bullets and seeing the potential for horrific happenings. But now it was there as plain as day, right in front of him. Everywhere he went he had a constant, bloody reminder of the dangers of his homeland.
“Sometimes you’d see a stack of bodies sitting on the side of the road while you’re walking,” Hali said. “A lot of kids (in Liberia) weren’t educated. A lot of them would be running around killing people for no reason.”
Fearing that her son would one day be one of those uneducated children, Rachel decided that Hali, two brothers and a little sister, should find a way to find safety and, ideally, end up in the United States with their father. The group moved from hut to hut before landing on the Ivory Coast, a safe area where they could find a way to communicate with their father.
When they got to the Ivory Coast, Hali had to find a way to contact his father so they could move to the United States. But there were no cell phones or calling cards available so they had to find other means of communication. Hali’s father was good with amateur radio and got in touch with his children.
Hali and his siblings had found their way out. Unfortunately, their mother couldn’t join them. Since departing for the United States, Hali’s father and Rachel had both remarried. To be eligible to enter the United States, you have to be a direct relative of the person who is bringing you in. Since she remarried, Rachel was ineligible to join her children.
It was there at the Monrovia airport in 1994 where Tamba Hali last saw his mother.
“It’s been tough,” Hali said. “First, going through life with your mother, than going through the second half of your 22 years without her. You deal with it and work through it. That’s how life is. Full of adversity.”
As Hali settled in to his new home in Teaneck, N.J., he looked for ways to escape from the world that had been so harsh to him in the first half of his life. As he searched for that outlet, he found football.
Hali has never been an angry person, but the pent up energy and frustration of his childhood easily translated to a football field.
“I found myself enjoying myself when I was playing the game,” Hali said. “Being out there (on the field), having fun with my teammates and being able to go out there and hit other people and you don’t get fined for it.”
While Hali knew that he enjoyed football, he really didn’t understand the opportunities it could provide him. Middle school coach Ed Clements told him to play football in high school.
Hali had great size and raw ability even then, but had no real comprehension of what could lie ahead. He played for four years in high school and became a coveted recruit at defensive end.
But Hali wasn’t even sure what recruiting was.
“I didn’t even know about college scholarships,” Hali said. “I was just playing to play. When I first got offered (a scholarship) by Boston College, I went to my coach and said what am I supposed to say to the guy?”
Hali told that coach no, but he would eventually say yes to Joe Paterno and Penn State. Hali played basketball in high school also and said he was taken with how down to earth Paterno was.
“He said we’re not selling you something that we’re not going to do when you get there,” Hali said. “He approached me in a way that I liked. When I made my decision, it was like I was coming to a family instead of like a military type thing. I kind of liked that.”
The need for family is big in Hali’s world. Being separated from your mother for half your life tends to have that affect on you. For the most part of his high school life, he had had little contact with his mother.
Finally, a few years ago, his father sent Rachel a cell phone. Hali was finally able to talk to his mother on a semi-regular basis.
He was finally able to assure her that he was OK and find out that she was OK. Explaining to her what football was was a different story.
After settling in with the Nittany Lions, Hali started his career as a defensive tackle. But, after two relatively average seasons, Hali found his true calling.
Hali moved to defensive end before the 2004 season. He finished that season with a pair of sacks and 51 tackles, solid if unspectacular numbers for an end. But it was that year when Hali started to really, truly love the game.
The results came last year, in his senior season, when Hali helped revitalize a fledgling Penn State program. He racked up 11 sacks with 17 tackles for loss on his way to All America honors.
All of the sweat and tears and especially the blood, whether it was his or that of a stranger on the street of Monrovia, is about to pay off.
Arriving at the combine this week, Hali is expected to be one of the top two or three ends taken in the draft and could go as high as the top 15. But his list of offseason activities goes far beyond any silly 40-yard dash time or bench press numbers.
“I really feel that,” Penn State teammate Alan Zemaitis said. “A fast 40 and all of that mean a lot to get you in the door. It’s what’s inside that is really going to carry you throughout your career and Tamba has got that.”
Hali has filed all of his paperwork to become a U.S. citizen. Now, he is waiting for a phone call to take the citizenship exam, a test far more important than the Wonderlic Test he will take this weekend.
Hali is also hoping and fighting to get his mother into the United States, along with a sister who remains in Liberia. Things have calmed some in Hali’s homeland since he departed, but not to the point where everything is fine. His mother was shot a couple of years ago.
“She was walking with three or four other friends,” Hali said. “They were walking in Monrovia. What I hear is that three other people got killed and she got shot in the knee. By God’s grace, she’s still alive.”
Hali hopes to have his mother in the United States sooner than later. Though he has tried his best to explain football to his mother, she has no real understanding of the game other than the potential that her son could be hurt playing.
According to Hali, she also has no comprehension that her son is about to become an extremely wealthy young man. But, should Hali find success in getting her to the United States, he has a plan to show her what football has given him.
“It’s going to be drastic for her,” Hali said. “She’s going to go from living like in a hut to living in a nice home. I hope that will be able to explain a lot.”
Hali said he chose broadcast journalism because he likes the idea of being able to tell stories. As he stood in front of a captivated group of reporters Saturday, he told a part of his story, though Zemaitis said he was just scratching the surface.
“You guys only heard a little bit,” Zemaitis said. “It’s amazing the things he has gone through just to get where he is at. A lot of the things that he has told us about when we have been together makes my jaw drop. It’s unbelievable the kind of adversity he’s battled to get where he is at.”
Some day, Hali would like to return to Liberia to see what direction it has taken since he left. And maybe Hali will be able to use his status in America to help people like himself find an opportunity.
For now, Hali is going to be a football player instead of a journalist. Maybe he wasn’t the right person to tell his story, maybe because it isn’t over. For Tamba Hali, it’s only the beginning.