Seven years ago, I got to see one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen in sports. I got to sit next to a woman named Rachel Keita as she watched her first American football game. She had just come to America for the first time, and she had been told by her son to watch the quarterback, always watch the quarterback.
So she watched a San Francisco quarterback named Alex Smith drop back to throw. And then she watched as a young man bashed into San Francisco’s 310-pound offensive lineman Kwame Harris, knocked him off balance, ran around him and crunched Alex Smith just as he was trying to throw. The ball popped free. Arrowhead Stadium broke out into a wall of sound.
That was Tamba Hali’s first sack as a professional football player. Rachel Keita watched her son, and there were tears in her eyes. She had not seen Tamba in 12 years.
“He’s so good,” she shouted after he made that play. “I never could have known he was so good.”
* * *
The story of Tamba Hali’s childhood journey from Liberia to America is unfathomable. It’s worth repeating every now and again. But his journey from moderate NFL prospect to flaming disappointment to NFL superstar for an undefeated Kansas Chiefs team is pretty wild too. We shouldn’t forget that.
Tamba Hali, you might know, grew up in war-torn Liberia. He was called Tamba because it a custom in the Kissi culture to name the second-born son “Tamba.” He has a half brother who is also named Tamba.
He has flickering memories of early childhood before the war, when he lived in a village home without water and with electricity only part of the day -- he and his family bathed in the river. He remembers generally happy feelings. He remembers good food. When he was six, civil war broke out. Gunfire was ever-present. Danger was constant. He tells a story of the first time he found himself in the middle of all that shooting, and this overpowering feeling he had that it all had to be a mistake. He stood up in the middle of it all and shouted, “Don’t shoot! Stop shooting!” It was his older brother Tamba who grabbed him and held him down while bullets zipped overhead.
Like other refugees, the family fled into the wilderness. There were five of them -- Rachel and four children. They lived for a time on cabbage and roots and whatever food they could find. Tamba’s memories of this time are not very clear. He remembers that they had to keep moving, always keep moving, there was death all around them. Tamba’s father Henry had escaped to America years before and wanted to bring his children too. But that seemed impossible. The only palpable hope was the hope of making it to tomorrow.
At some point, Rachel understood that their only chance of survival was to escape Liberia. They went on a risky escape mission into the Ivory Coast -- something out of a movie, really -- and through luck and small kindnesses and their own determination they ended up at a monastery in Ghana. That is when Henry went through the complicated, frustrating but ultimately successful process of bringing Hali and his three brothers and sisters to America.
“My father lived up to his word,” Hali told The Sporting News in 2006. “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.”
Rachel stayed behind -- she and Henry were not married. Rachel would say that the night she saw the plane leave was the longest of her life. Her life would be filled with tragedy after that. Her son Joshua would be found dead at the bottom of a well. Rachel herself would be shot in the leg when she went back to Liberia on a missionary trip (Rachel is a Christian minister). She would watch friends die. She would say she gained her joy knowing that Tamba and the others were safe.
Meanwhile Tamba, at first, found America inscrutable and lonely. He hated the food. He spoke English -- it is the language of Liberia -- but he could not read or write. He desperately missed his mother. Rachel would admit that she worried more about Little Tamba than the other children. “He was always so soft, so kind, he would cling to me,” she told me that day she watched him get his first sack.
In time, Hali found his way. Henry was strict and demanding, his wife Verna was loving and reassuring. Together they formed Tamba Hali. Football helped too. He had no background in the game, no understanding of it in the beginning, but Hali had a lot of aggression inside him, some anger even he could not understand, and it all played out on the football field. His coaches told him to attack, and he did, and few could block him. Hali was heavily recruited before deciding to go to Penn State. In his first year, coach Joe Paterno told Hali he was the single dumbest player Penn State ever recruited. He left as an All-American and the Big 10 defensive lineman of the year.
The Chiefs drafted him in the first round in 2006. It was a pretty shocking pick. Hali’s stock had been steadily dropping since an unexciting performance at the NFL combines. Many of the draft experts thought Hali was too small to be a defensive lineman and too slow to be a linebacker -- a bad recipe for a pro football player. The Chiefs had already built a reputation for drafting defensive busts -- high picks Ryan Sims and Junior Siavii, in particular had come to represent the Chiefs utter inability to pinpoint and develop defensive talent. Hali was generally thought by draft gurus to not be worth a first-round pick. The Chiefs’ draft report card generally reflected the analyst’s collective yawn about the Hali pick. “Hard worker,” was about the best thing anyone could say.
Hali had a pretty good rookie season. He had eight sacks, which was more than first overall pick Mario Williams had and more than his teammate, Jared Allen. But the good news seemed to end there. The next year, Allen led the NFL with 15 1/2 sacks and Hali regressed a bit. Then Allen left for Minnesota, Hali was asked to fill his shoes, and he had a down season. He had only three sacks. The Chiefs allowed 440 points. Coach Herm Edwards was fired. General manager Carl Peterson was fired. Hali was widely viewed as another misguided pick by the Chiefs.
Here’s the thing, though: The Chiefs bet on Hali’s football character. There’s a lot of talk about tangibles and intangibles, what those mean, what those don’t mean, and it’s hard to always make sense of it all. But the Chiefs took Hali, not because of his strength or speed or size but because they believed, really believed, that he would not be deterred by bad breaks or rough seasons or a barrage of criticism. “The thing about Tamba,” his coach Herm Edwards said, “is that you can count on him working hard tomorrow, no matter what happens today.”
The Chiefs moved him to outside linebacker, and that helped too. Hali focused on his own athleticism and studying offenses. In 2009, he had 8 1/2 sacks and his first NFL safety. In 2010, he led the AFC with 14 1/2 sacks. He had 12 more the next year. He made his first Pro Bowl as an alternate in 2011. Last year, he had some personal issues -- he was suspended for a game for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy; he apologized to his friends and family for letting them down -- but played very well and was selected to the Pro Bowl again.
Hali turned 30 this month -- “my body feels 50,” he says -- and he’s having his best NFL season. There are people talking about him as a legitimate MVP candidate. Why not? He has nine sacks in nine games and has scored three touchdowns. Three. He and linebacker Justin Houston (who has 11 sacks) are intimidating and overwhelming quarterbacks -- so far this year, quarterbacks are completing just 53% of their passes and have thrown more interceptions (12) than touchdowns (9) against the Chiefs.
And the Chiefs are undefeated through nine games. They are winning, really winning, for the first time in a decade. Sure, there is all sorts of talk about how easy their schedule has been, how lucky they have been, whatever. But they are unbeaten through nine NFL games. That doesn’t happen to bad football teams. Most people seem to think that Sunday night the Broncos and Peyton Manning will destroy the Chiefs (Denver is eight-point favorites) and put an end to this charade, and that might happen. Then again, it might not. As Tamba Hali told me, “If you can create havoc in the backfield, you can beat anybody.”
Or you can go back to what he told his mother before she watched her first football game: “Always watch the quarterback.”
Anyway, it has been an amazing season for Hali. It has been a remarkable life. I remember after that game where he got his first sack, the game his mother saw, we gathered around Hali and he told us how much it meant to him to play well, how his hunger went beyond football. “I wanted to show her,” she said.
We asked: “Show her what?”
And he said: “I wanted to show her what I am.”