Chief's No 1 pick is to get mother to U.S.

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Chief's No 1 pick is to get mother to U.S.

By ELIZABETH MERRILL
The Kansas City Star

The cell phone is their link, his sanity, and when Tamba Hali calls his mother, he knows everything, for a few minutes, is OK.

Her first phone was stolen by bandits. The second one, Rachel Keita keeps close. She carries it to a friend’s electronics shop, because she has no electricity to charge it, juices the phone and waits.

She’d never hear from him on Friday nights before football games. Tamba shut off his phone and popped in his rap music until it was time to play the next day. He didn’t want to know whether something bad had happened to his mom until after the game.

Two weekends ago, Hali called to tell her he’d been drafted in the first round by Kansas City. He was decked out in a prom-like suit, and everyone in the room was either laughing, crying or high-fiving.

The voice on the other line was serious.

“Be careful,” she said.

“It’s strange,” Hali says as he stands in the middle of a practice field Saturday. “I should be telling her to be careful. But she’s my mother. She’s just trying to look out for me.”

He is 22 and seemingly has the world clutched in his massive hands, but Tamba Hali doesn’t have everything. Today will be the 12th Mother’s Day that he’ll spend without Rachel, who is trapped in war-torn Liberia, and said goodbye to her skinny and scared son at the airport in 1994.

This is Hali’s story, the one he opened up at the NFL combine in February. Pens scribbled, jaws dropped and Hali became the draft’s poster boy for persistence. Now he almost wishes he hadn’t said anything. The Chiefs worry about an opportunistic kidnapper in Liberia waiting to capitalize on his fortune. Hali’s agents recently turned down a big interview from CNN because they couldn’t guarantee that it wouldn’t be shown internationally.

Hali wonders whether anyone wants to talk to him about football.

“I hope when this is all said and done, people see who he is as a football player,” says Larry Johnson Sr., his defensive line coach at Penn State. “He is not walking around every day with this heavy heart. He celebrates life.”

Henry Hali is an early riser who went from a $1-a-week job to teaching at Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey. As the father who fought for years to bring Tamba to the United States, he represents the second part of Tamba’s life, one that picks up where Rachel leaves off.

Henry left Liberia in 1985, before the civil war, and remembers saying goodbye to his son while Rachel was holding Tamba, 3, in her arms. He promised to send for his children and give them a better life. He had been to the United States before, getting his master’s degree in chemistry in 1980.

Before the civil war, there were curfews and molestations and people being shot if they were out after 6 p.m. Just before Henry left, they were rounding up people who were celebrating the attempted overthrow of the dictator.

After he left, it got much worse. Rebel soldiers were recruiting 9-year-old kids to tote guns and kill. Tamba’s older brother Saah walked over bodies every morning on the way to his grandfather’s farm.

“Once they shoot you,” Henry says, “They’re not going to pick up your body. They let you rot. My friends used to tell me that the dogs went out and ate the bodies because they had no food to eat.”

With no refrigeration, electricity or indoor plumbing, Rachel would cook at night, and the children ate in the morning. Planes would buzz over and spray their home with bullets. When Tamba and his siblings eventually made it to America, they ran and hid at the sound of an incoming plane.

Henry made a trip to Africa in 1993 to try to retrieve his four children. It would take him another year to get them to American soil on Sept. 15, 1994. Rachel had to stay in Liberia because she wasn’t married to Henry. Tamba said goodbye to his mother, not knowing when he would see her again.

“I don’t recall him ever saying to me that he didn’t want to be here,” Henry says. “They behaved because they didn’t want to go back to Africa. They behaved because you can eat three meals a day here.”

Ed Klimek doesn’t remember how skinny Tamba was when he arrived at Benjamin Franklin Middle School in the fall of 1994. But he can’t forget Tamba’s smile. Hali couldn’t read or write English, but he listened to Hooked on Phonics tapes and spent hours with a reading teacher.

Hali quickly developed a love for basketball, but Klimek, an assistant football coach at Teaneck High in New Jersey, tried to steer him a different way when he saw his large hands and feet.

It was there that the first coach started calling Hali relentless. He didn’t know the rules, and his freshman season, by all accounts, was rough. Hali discovered weight training, and he was up by 6:30 every morning, before school, pumping iron with Klimek. They called him Bumba Train, and Klimek doesn’t know why. But he still calls him that.

In Hali’s last high school game, Teaneck played Hackensack, its big rival. They rarely beat Hackensack. Hali had about 16 tackles that night and four or five sacks, and Teaneck won.

“I’m sure he was scared on the first day of school here,” Klimek says, “but he didn’t show it. I’m sure he was scared on the football field for the first time, but he didn’t show it. And I’m sure he’ll be scared the first day of rookie camp, but it won’t show because he’s just going to work his butt off.”

Hali was recruited by USC and Miami and could’ve gone practically anywhere. He went to Penn State because of its high graduation rate. The boy who couldn’t go to school until he was 10 will graduate sometime this summer, after four years, with a degree in journalism.

“When I sent for them to come to this country,” Henry says, “my main goal was for them to be educated. When he’s educated, he can help his mother.”

Larry Johnson Sr. needs more than a sentence to describe Hali. He’ll use the word relentless, like every other coach has in the last eight or so years. He’ll throw in humble, innocent, enthusiastic, and, most of all, team player.

Hali dutifully played tackle for the first part of his career at Penn State because of personnel issues, then dominated at defensive end. The Wisconsin game in his senior year is the tape coaches and personnel people at Arrowhead Stadium gush over.

He had four sacks that day and helped the Nittany Lions return to their place as a football powerhouse with a trip to the Orange Bowl.

“He’s relentless because at a young age, he was running all the time,” Johnson says. “He was running away from trouble, running away from guns. He has a lot of pride inside of him to be the best.”

It was at the Orange Bowl that Rachel saw Tamba play for the first time. A special link was set up for her in Liberia, and she watched the Nittany Lions beat Florida State.

She was troubled by the violence of the sport.

When Hali told Rachel that he was drafted in the first round, she asked, “What’s the draft?” She doesn’t understand football, Hali says, or what being the 20th overall pick means.

But Jim Ivler does. As a New Jersey native and a rabid Penn State fan, Ivler, a sports agent/attorney, has followed Hali since his high school years and now represents him with Sportstars.

It’s Ivler’s task, in addition to hammering out Hali’s contract, to bring Rachel Keita to America.

“It’s not as easy as, ‘Hey, why don’t we get her on a plane and bring her over here?’ ” Ivler says. “You have immigration quotas. It’s a tremendous amount of paperwork on this side. Around the same time with this we’re in the process of getting him naturalized as a citizen.

“It really isn’t about the money. As part of the process, Tamba was going to need to show financial wherewithal to show he could help support his mom, and we provided that months ago. Now that his celebrity has increased, maybe that will help.”

Ivler’s hope is that Tamba’s mom will be in America by the time the football season starts in September. That would undoubtedly unburden a rookie who’s expected to make an immediate impact with the Chiefs.

But whatever happens, Ivler isn’t worried about Hali being distracted.

“It’s almost like he doesn’t know any other way,” Ivler says. “Since the time he started playing football in high school, his mother wasn’t with him. I would imagine at the time he started playing, he probably doubted that he would ever see her again, just because of the danger to herself and other citizens.

“I know she’s been an inspiration to him. He’s dreamed about getting her over here. It’s something he’s excited about, but we’re also trying to temper that enthusiasm.”

Hali is up early for the first day of rookie camp. He can’t sleep much of the night, but when he hits the field, the Chiefs say he’s everything that was advertised.

He runs through a drill that defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham barks at a lineman to do again. When Hali bursts through the tackle dummies, Cunningham says, “Excellent.”

He wants to focus on football in Kansas City. He says he wants to be the best defensive end in the NFL. He giggles like a kid when he slips into his jersey and pads for the first time.

The other rookies say it’s hard to tell by Hali’s demeanor what he’s been through. And what he’s waiting for.

“It’s a great story,” rookie Nick Reid says. “For him to be in the position he’s in to help his family …

“But it would definitely be hard. My mom’s a huge part of my life, and I can’t imagine her not being a part of it. I can’t begin to imagine how he does it.”

He does it and is ready to stop talking about it. He sprints to the huddle, full speed, then dashes 100 yards across the field to catch a meeting. This part is easy. He’s been running all his life.

http://www.kansascity.com/mld/kansascity/sports/football/nfl/kansas_city_chiefs/14574326.htm
 
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