When the door closed and the New York Giants personnel people gathered around Tamba Hali two months ago, the probing nature of the NFL scouting combine evaporated. The 30-minute private interview – the one where teams often assault prospects with demanding questions about character – took on a different tone.
For the better part of their meeting, the Penn State defensive end told his life story. And in what is a rare occurrence at the combine, he left an NFL team largely speechless.
"I was just overwhelmed with not only his story, but the way he told it," Giants general manager Ernie Accorsi said. "He's such a thoughtful, intellectual, moving person. Obviously, you see these players as players, but the one thing about this interview process – even though a lot of them are coached and they're prepared for you – you still get to sit and talk to them for the first time.
"I tell you what, you could hear a pin drop in our interview room."
When reporters gathered to talk with Hali at the combine, the crowd around him began in modest fashion for a player expected to be a first-round pick. But as Hali began to talk about his flight from Liberia in the mid-1990s – at a time when the country was in the throes of civil war – the gathering began to swell. Soon, reporters from the other side of the room and the cavernous walkway in the RCA Dome added to the swell.
And as he had done with Accorsi, Hali's tale silenced what is typically a non-stop buzz in the interview room.
"A lot of the things he's told us since we've been together make my jaw drop," Penn State cornerback Alan Zemaitis said. "It's unbelievable the kind of adversity he battled to get where he's at."
Leaving his mother and sister behind, Hali and three of his siblings fled Liberia when he was a child, heading to the relative safety of the Ivory Coast. It was there that he was put in contact with his father Henry, who had moved to the U.S. when Hali was 3. Nine years had passed since Hali and his siblings had been able to reach their father, who became a chemistry professor at Farleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey.
They would be reunited in 1994, but it would come at a bittersweet price. Hali's mother couldn't make the trip.
U.S. law allowed Hali's father to sponsor his four children and bring them stateside, but because Hali's mother had remarried and was not considered a blood-relative of his father, she has had to stay in Liberia, along with her daughter from the second marriage. Hali hasn't seen his mom in 12 years – since the day she shepherded he and his three siblings to the airport and out of the country.
"It's been tough," Hali said. "First, you go through life with your mother, then you go 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."
And full of perspective. Despite becoming one of the best defensive ends in the country over the last two years and leading the Big Ten with 11 sacks in 2005, Hali displays more of a determined maturity than the arrogance or cockiness exuded by so many top prospects. While his stories of living in Liberia's upheaval as a child are captivating, Hali's unexcitable fashion when telling them can be equally mesmerizing.
He swings from one topic to another, navigating a schizophrenic line of questions – about coach Joe Paterno, about Penn State, about escaping Liberia. And sprinkled into the queries are always the morbid curiosities about the slayings he witnessed as a child.
"Sometimes it would be a lot [of killings]," Hali said. "Sometimes it would be just one. Sometimes you'd see a stack of bodies sitting on the side of the road while you're walking. … A lot of [Liberian] kids weren't educated. You have kids carrying guns. A lot of them would be running around killing people for no reason."
"[To stay alive], certain people would hide us. We'd have places to stay in little huts. You find ways to manage. You find ways to eat, cook and all of that.
"The first time we got attacked [by rebels], the plane came down [and] we were just sitting there. I remember my mother was cooking. Gunfire just started erupting all over the place. That just started happening all the time – frequently. So we went into hiding.
"My step-dad got a car and we went to a village far away from the city. We'd spend six months there and then come back out and things would cease a little bit. Then they would start again. After a couple of times of that, [his mother and step-dad] thought we should flee the country."
That eventually led Hali to the U.S., where he has found a level of stardom unimagined when he began playing the game in middle school. In the coming months, he's expected to gain his U.S. citizenship, which will in turn allow him to sponsor his mother and step-sister's departure from Liberia.
Since Hali's father sent his mom a cell phone, Hali has had the opportunity to talk with her on a weekly basis, though he's sure she still doesn't grasp the strides he's made in football.
"She has no clue what's going on," Hali said. "If it were soccer, maybe.
"It's going to be drastic [change] for her. 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 [the success]."
MORE IMPACT DEFENSIVE LINEMEN
Here are five more difference-making defensive linemen:
Mario Williams, DE, North Carolina State – Williams is the draft's most complete package of measurables and skill at the defensive end spot since Julius Peppers. He'll still need to add some polish and consistency to his game to become more than a one- or two-move pass rusher. But if he fulfills his potential, he could be the NFL's next dominant rusher.
Haloti Ngata, DT, Oregon – He's a massive defensive tackle who will be a run-stuffing plug rather than a pass-rushing tackle in the NFL. He has good quickness for an interior lineman and is adept at shedding blockers in the hole. He can suffer from fatigue late in games and have some trouble locating the ball, though.
Brodrick Bunkley, DT/DE, Florida State – Bunkley has the strength and skill to be a tackle in a 4-3 scheme and the size to be an end in a 3-4. He has very good upper body strength and gets off the ball fast enough to beat blockers with his first move. He's still a few pounds undersized, but he has the frame to add more weight if a team needs him to play as a two-gap tackle.
Kamerion Wimbley, DE/OLB, Florida State – If he adds weight, Wimbley has the edge speed and explosion to be a pass-rushing end similar to Indianapolis Colts end Dwight Freeney. Several teams are looking at Wimbley as a hybrid defensive end/outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme, but Wimbley could just as well end up as a traditional end in a 4-3, cut in the mold of the NFL's lighter, faster pass rushers.
Gabe Watson, DT, Michigan – Watson has an absurd amount of athleticism and has shown he can be a dominant player when motivated. His weight and conditioning have a lot to do with his lack of consistency. On the upside, he has the talent to be Shaun Rogers. On the downside, he has the motivation of a Gerard Warren.
- Tamba Hali