View Full Version : Tamba Hali

10-05-2006, 12:33 AM
I don't know if anyone knows his story, but it's remarkable. I was looking up stats for him to see how he's doing so far with the Chiefs so I figured I'll post the story the Sporting News ran on him before the draft. How can you not root for him? (I have to split the article into two posts in order for it too fit)


'By the grace of God, I am alive'

They are identified as government sympathizers. The rebel soldiers line them up along the road, near a ditch. They point their guns and shoot them and drive away and leave them, piled dead.

Some of the killers are young, no more than 9 or 10.

Some of the onlookers are young, too. Tamba Hali is 8. He probably should cry. But he can't. He already has seen too much killing, and all he is now is scared.

The soldiers are always saying to him, "Join us." He is eager to be one of them. He is hungry, and they have food. And guns. What youngster wouldn't want a gun?

But his older brother tells him no. "You will have to kill me first," his brother says. It takes guts to say no because every day friends and relatives are killed, even while just walking to the market for food.

Ten-year-olds with AK-47 machine guns don't hold discussions; they just pull the triggers.

It is 1991, two years into the civil war in Liberia. There is no electricity, no infrastructure, no sanity. Gbarnga, a small town in north central Liberia where Tamba and his family live, is headquarters for Charles Taylor -- the most powerful of the warlords trying to overthrow the government. There are no schools, no police force, no laws.

Henry Hali, Tamba's father, is in the United States. Troubled by increasing government corruption and growing political unrest, he fled Liberia in 1985, leaving four of his children with Rachel Keita. She is the mother of two of them: Tamba, almost 3 at the time, and his sister, Kumba, who had just been born. Henry is a teacher with a master's degree from Fairleigh Dickinson University; he tells his children he will bring them to the United States. It is the only way they will have a better life.

But in 1991, six years after Henry's departure, life in Liberia is even worse. To protect her family, Rachel decides they must escape Gbarnga and go into the countryside. They are not alone; before the fighting ends in August 2003, more than 1 million Liberians will be displaced from their homes and another 300,000 will be dead. The family leaves in a truck, passing through a series of checkpoints manned by soldiers. As they drive away from one, gunfire erupts. Tamba stands up. "Don't shoot! Don't shoot!" he yells.

The bullets dance around him. His brother grabs him. "What are you doing?" he screams. "They will kill you."

When you are 8, why would anyone shoot you?

Today, Tamba Hali is 22 and an All-America defensive end from Penn State, a first-day draft talent who could not read or write a word of English 11 years ago when he first arrived in the United States. His is an almost unfathomable journey cluttered with obstacles so immense it is remarkable he is alive, much less an athletic standout who is on schedule to graduate this spring after four years. And he is weeks from having the financial means to realize another improbable goal: bringing his mother to the United States to end a separation that has lasted since 1994.

When she was last with him, before he came to the U.S. to live with his father in Teaneck, N.J., he was a skinny 11-year-old with glasses who never had seen football or shopping malls or computers and hadn't been to school in years. He has grown into a 6-2, 270-pound hunk with upper arms the size of a normal person's thighs and with interests reflective of his generation. He talks with a New Jersey accent, writes rap

songs, produces minidocumentaries for one of his college classes. And he is about to become a millionaire.

He looks now at Liberia and can only imagine what life once was like there, before the war destroyed his homeland.

Hali's father has been fortunate. Henry was educated at a school run by Christian missionaries and worked part time for Peace Corps volunteers, doing chores for $1 a week. The missionaries helped cover his tuition to Cuttington College outside Gbarnga. He graduated with degrees in math and chemistry, then received his masters before returning to Cuttington to teach. In a country where even now the average income is $110 a year and life expectancy averages 42 years, his salary provided a quality life.

But that changes after he moves to the States. Rachel and he aren't married, and now, besides Tamba and Kumba, Rachel must care for two boys from Henry's previous relationships -- Saah, 3, and the oldest, also called Tamba, 13. There are two Tambas because of a custom in the Kissi culture. The second son born to a woman is always named Tamba, the first Saah. When this family is together, they call the eldest Big Tamba and his half-brother Little Tamba. In Liberia, they live in a house that has electricity only part of the day. It has no indoor plumbing; they bathe in nearby rivers or with water brought in buckets. And, because of the heat, they cook outside.

Then, on Christmas Day 1989, the civil war begins.

Previously, Liberia and its 3 million people avoided the unrest that disrupted so many African countries. Founded by American and Caribbean slaves, Liberia's official language is English and many of its national symbols are modeled after American ones. But when William Tubman, its longtime president, died in 1971, a different Liberia evolved, with increasing corruption and discontent that finally led to terrible upheaval.

"You would look at someone wrong and they would shoot you," Big Tamba says. "It was unimaginable, the horror. You would see bodies everywhere, all the time." Big Tamba has learned from Henry how to operate a short-wave radio; he can provide some protection to the family by serving as a radio operator for the Taylor forces. Still, they are not sheltered from hardship. In the countryside, they eat fruits, cassava roots and game they hunt. In 1992, after neighboring countries become involved as peacekeepers, the family feels safer in Gbarnga. Then the planes start coming.

The first time, the planes are gliding over Gbarnga before they restart their engines. They open fire, ostensibly targeting rebels but shooting at anyone who moves. Rachel is cooking dinner outside; her children scramble. Little Tamba, who has been singing gospel songs, grabs the food, heads into the house and hides it.

Other days, they can hear the growing roar of the approaching jets. People dive into ditches, bushes, anything to escape the bombs and machine gun fire that rip apart bodies. For years after they are in the States, the children duck and hide every time they hear a jet overhead.

For Rachel, this new terror is too much. In early 1993, she decides they must escape to the Ivory Coast, a half-day's journey by car to the east.

Because Liberia's phone system and banking network are disrupted, Henry has little contact with his family during this period and must rely on Liberians traveling home to carry the money he sends as frequently as possible. While getting his green card in 1988 and his U.S. citizenship in 1992, he initiates attempts to bring his children to Teaneck, where he teaches chemistry and physical science at the local high school and general chemistry and lab two nights a week at Fairleigh Dickinson. But he is stalled by a government in ruins.

When Rachel and the children near the Ivory Coast border, no one is being allowed to cross. But Big Tamba convinces a colonel in the Taylor forces to drive Rachel and Kumba out of Liberia. Both Tambas and Saah stay behind. For weeks, Big Tamba plans how he will talk his way past rebel guards who protect the bridge. "I had to go through with it," he says. "I was running out of time. I was afraid. I knew we could die." He practices acting perfectly calm; any sign of fear and they all could be shot.

He negotiates with the guards. If they let him take the children to their family in the Ivory Coast, he will return with food for them.

They go over the bridge. "I was really frightened," says Little Tamba. But the guards don't stop them. They are free.

Henry, married to another woman, flies to the Ivory Coast to visit his children for just the second time since 1985. He also hopes to persuade the U.S. Embassy there to issue the visas needed for them to come to America. He is turned down. Desperate, he arranges for the family to stay in a monastery in neighboring Ghana and hopes to have better luck with that U.S. Embassy. He does; after blood tests, visas finally are granted. In December 1993, U.S. Immigration approves the relocation of the four children. On September 15, 1994, they board a plane and fly to Newark. Fifteen months later, the family is tragically reminded of the horrific danger they escaped. Rachel's son, Joshua, 5, who is Little Tamba's half-brother, is found dead at the bottom of a well in Ghana. The family is convinced someone tossed him in.

"My father lived up to his word," says Little Tamba. "Most fathers from our country, once they get to the United States, don't try very hard to bring over their children. But he promised he would not forget us, and he didn't."

Still, Little Tamba wonders about his new home. He likes television, and he wears out his dad's computer playing Doom. But he misses his mother. His father is strict. The milk and orange juice are not sweet enough, the pizza tastes awful, and the pace is too frantic. School makes it worse. He is enrolled in the fifth grade. On his first day, he fights with a student who calls him "Kunta Kinte." Although he speaks English, he hears words every day that have no meaning to him. Until he learns to read and write, he has no chance of succeeding.

Henry buys "Hooked On Phonics," a popular at-home method of teaching how to write and speak. The kids begin with basic sounds: met, hat, cat, max. They learn simple songs. They receive more drilling during English as a second language (ESL) classes in school. Tamba is quiet, shy; if he doesn't speak, no one can laugh at him. It takes him two years to catch up with his peers.

One day in 1998, Dennis Heck receives a phone call from Ed Klimek. Heck is the football coach at Teaneck High School; Klimek, one of his assistants, is a middle school teacher. He tells Heck about this student, Tamba Hali, who is 6-0 and 160 with big hands and feet. "You have to see this kid," says Klimek.

They want Hali to play football next year, in the ninth grade. Tamba thinks football is stupid. "I saw a game on TV and thought it looked too easy," he says. "I looked at the running back and wondered, Why can't he just run around everybody? Why is that so hard? And what was the point anyway? Everyone rushes to one spot and piles on." He played soccer in Liberia but fancies himself a future NBA star. Still, football lets him hit people legally, which seems fun. As a lineman on the freshman team, he doesn't realize he has to memorize plays. He can't understand why teammates are upset when he asks out loud what to do on every snap.

"He was OK as a freshman, but as a sophomore there was something about him," says Heck. "The way he worked, the way he practiced hard, his effort -- it was better than anyone we had on the team." Hali starts and begins attracting attention as a defensive lineman. Boston College offers him a scholarship. Until then, he has no idea he can attend college free as a football player. He asks Heck, "Should I tell them yes?"

By his senior season, he is a high school All-American pursued by more than 60 major colleges. He chooses Penn State over Syracuse; he and his dad are impressed with the former's high graduation rate. He knows Henry expects him to graduate in four years; education is first, playing football is a bonus. Besides, Tamba likes Penn State coach Joe Paterno. The day Paterno visits Hali's high school, a classmate doesn't finish braiding Tamba's long hair. So he meets the coach sporting a Mohawk, with only part of his remaining hair in braids. Paterno never says a word.

Tamba's early days at State College are frustrating. He reluctantly moves from end to tackle, where he plays as a true freshman and starts as a sophomore. But early on, he considers transferring. He also switches majors twice. As a junior, he makes second-team

All-Big Ten. As a senior, he has 11 sacks, including four against Wisconsin, and helps Penn State reassert itself as a football power. "He practices 100 percent, and he plays that way," Paterno says.

"He has a lot of talent. He is a 260-pounder who has quickness and strength. He has everything you are looking for in a defensive end."

Hali is relentless, too talented for most college offensive tackles. His name appears in the first round of some early mock drafts. But the last few months have been stressful. He's usually high-energy, even-keeled, level-headed, sometimes too loud. Now, he's tired a lot. Time is an issue. Most top draft prospects quit school in the spring to train for the NFL Scouting Combine and private workouts. But he is taking a final 15 credits, living in a dorm room.

He knows what it means to his dad for him to get his degree on time. They laugh that he has spent almost all of the past four years at Penn State going to class and changing interests and accumulating 21 extra credits he can't apply toward his major, broadcast journalism. He also is working with Scott Paterno, Joe's son and a lawyer, to bring his mother to the United States. Liberian officials want to know whether Hali has the resources to care for her; his NFL earning potential has eased their concerns. Rachel could be here before the draft, but more likely, she will arrive this summer. At some point, Hali also will take a test to become a U.S. citizen.

There is urgency behind these immigration efforts. In 2003, Rachel and three friends are walking in Monrovia, Liberia's capital. They are caught in a gunfight; she is shot in the knee. The family is told some of the friends died.

10-05-2006, 12:34 AM

Recently, Rachel didn't feel well and was hospitalized. Even though there now is an uneasy calm -- in November, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf was elected president -- Liberia still has U.N. peacekeepers, overwhelming poverty, unemployment and disease. Tamba wants his mother to be safe.

For years, because of communications problems within Liberia, mother and son talked only about once every six months. But now Rachel has a cell phone, and they have frequent conversations. "She has no clue about football," Hali says. "And she just doesn't understand what is taking so long to get her here. I tell her, 'Mama Rachel, be patient. It will happen.' "

Still, it is a joyous time for Henry and his children. Besides Little Tamba's accomplishments, Kumba, 20, who graduated from high school last year, will attend college in the fall, and Saah, 23, will graduate in May from Caldwell (N.J.) College, where he played soccer. And Big Tamba, 33, is an assistant manager at a local Walgreen's. They have felt the American Dream.

Inside the football building at Penn State, a long hallway leads to the practice locker room. On each side of the hallway are pictures of 86 Penn State All-Americans. Soon, Tamba Hali's picture will be added to those of John Cappelletti, Jack Ham, Lydell Mitchell, Matt Millen, LaVar Arrington.

"Pretty amazing," he says, looking at those pictures. "I never thought anything like this would happen. When I came up here, I didn't know about All-Americans or the Combine or anything like that. Now all this."

Rachel is a minister in Liberia. Her son refers frequently to God in his conversations. He knows he should be dead, another victim of civil war. "By the grace of God, I am alive," he says. He remembers what it was like in Liberia. "Sometime, you knew you were going to die. If you did something wrong, death was at hand because people were all around the place, shooting guns, killing people. Battles would erupt within the town and planes would come and people on the ground would just start killing each other. It was just how it was. Chaos all over the place."

He understands he sees life differently than his peers. "He has a maturity level that I think is a result of what he has been through," says Heck. "What happens with him in the NFL will be gravy. How far he has come, to be here, it blows you away."

For sure, Hali pushes himself a little harder, realizing he has opportunities he needs to appreciate. "It is," he says, "a gift. I just want to make sure I don't blow it."