Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Tamba Hali’s story seems almost unbelievable. He and his seven siblings fled war-torn Liberia to the Ivory Coast during his youth and later joined their father, a chemistry and physics professor, in New Jersey.
There Tamba played both basketball and soccer, but he didn’t discover football until a coach finally persuaded him to try out in high school. And the rest, as they say, was history. Tamba discovered that he had a real talent for it, landing him an athletic scholarship to Pennsylvania State University and a coveted spot on their football team.
Tamba went on to play in the NFL and finally brought his mother to the US from Liberia. His drive, dedication, and athletic ability are inspiring.
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Tamba Hali CHAPTER 1 WELCOME TO THE RED SEA
In the bright sunshine of a beautiful autumn Sunday, the red helmets of the Kansas City Chiefs glistened like candy apples. It was eighty-two degrees at midday, almost as if summer had packed its bags but decided not to leave when fall officially arrived a week and a day earlier. It was a perfect day for football.
As usual, the stands at Arrowhead Stadium were packed. From the blimp shot high above the stadium, the scene, with fans dressed in home team red and white, looked like a giant candy dish overflowing with peppermints. It was a typical Chiefs crowd: large, lively, and loud.
Kansas City loud is different from the kind of loud you hear in most football stadiums. Once, in 1990, Denver’s Hall of Fame quarterback John Elway found himself pinned back to his own goal line, and the Chiefs fans were loving it, cheering so loudly that Elway couldn’t hear himself shouting instructions at the line of scrimmage. Twice he was forced to turn to the officials for help, unable to get the ball snapped to start the play. The referee actually had to address the crowd, like a parent scolding a teenager to turn that music down or else! He warned that another noise-related interruption would result in a delay of game penalty against the Chiefs.
That was no one-time incident. Kansas City is known for its unique brands of jazz and barbecue, and sometimes it is referred to as the City of Fountains; in football circles, though, it’s known more for its shoutin’. In 2014, the Chiefs invited a representative from Guinness World Records to a Monday Night Football game against New England. The fans were planning to reset a record that had long belonged to them before being stolen by the Seattle Seahawks—the Loudest Crowd Roar at a Sports Stadium. Sure enough, during a play stoppage, the Chiefs faithful reclaimed their title, cheering at an ear-splitting 142.2 decibels (a scientific measure of volume). By comparison, if you were fifty feet away from a military jet taking off from the deck of an aircraft carrier, that would only register at about 130 decibels—as loud as a two-hundred-person marching band. Chiefs fans were louder than that. Any louder and your eyesight could go blurry, because your eyeballs would vibrate from the sound waves. Seriously.
Kansas City fans are loud and proud. But when they flocked to Arrowhead on October 1, 2006, they hadn’t had much to cheer about recently.
Sure, sports fans on the other side of the state were pretty happy. The St. Louis Cardinals used a three-run rally the day before to beat the Milwaukee Brewers. One more win and the Cards would clinch the National League Central Division and qualify for the playoffs (which, by the way, they did . . . on their way to winning the World Series that year).
Back in Kansas City, though, the only things looking rosy were the Chiefs jerseys. Their own baseball team, the Royals, was lousy, stumbling to another last place finish and finishing off the worst three-year stretch in their history. Since the start of September, football season had no competition in the sports pages or the hearts of Kansas City fans.
Things were supposed to be better for the Chiefs, but so far they were not. Kansas City entered the 2006 season with a new head coach. Dick Vermeil had retired back on New Year’s Day after failing to reach the playoffs the year before, despite a 10–6 record. He had been replaced by Herman Edwards, the former New York Jets coach, who had been a Chiefs assistant coach ten years earlier. Edwards brought his trademark positive energy and motivational rhetoric to his new job, but even his optimism must have been tested in those early days.
The Chiefs lost their first two games of the 2006 season. Even worse, they had lost their starting quarterback—Trent Green, a Pro Bowl quarterback. He had thrown for more than four thousand yards in three straight seasons—a pretty rare accomplishment—and was a key to the Chiefs’ hopes for a successful season. But in the second half of the first game, Green was knocked out. Literally. He was scrambling with the ball and was starting to slide to avoid a tackle when his head collided first with the shoulder of a defender and then with the ground. Green was knocked unconscious, and the game was stopped for fifteen minutes while doctors and trainers attended to him. Green had suffered what was later called a “very, very severe concussion” (medical note: It’s never good when someone uses the word “very” in describing an injury), and he would be sidelined until mid-November.
As they prepared to play the San Francisco 49ers on October 1—on their home turf, in front of their loud crowd—the Chiefs were 0–2. Perhaps the only reason they weren’t 0–3 was that they had a bye in Week Three, meaning they had a week off, which they desperately needed to try to get their new starting quarterback, Damon Huard, ready to play. Before replacing Green in Week One, Huard hadn’t completed an NFL pass in six years.
There were a few positive signs, though, if you knew where to look. Kansas City’s star running back, Larry Johnson, had rushed for 126 yards in Week Two against the Broncos. The team’s defense, steadily improving since being second worst in the league two years earlier, was playing well. They hadn’t allowed a touchdown in six quarters.
And fans were getting their first taste of the team’s first-round draft pick, a defensive end from Penn State named Tamba Hali.
Much of the attention during the buildup to the 2006 NFL Draft was focused on the quarterbacks. Fans across the league were wondering where Matt Leinart, a former Heisman Trophy winner from USC, and Vince Young, the Heisman runner-up and the quarterback who led Texas to the national championship, would wind up. On draft night, however, the drama centered on the surprise top two picks.
Houston stunned many draft experts by selecting Maryland defensive end Mario Williams instead of USC do-it-all running back Reggie Bush, the Heisman Trophy winner. Second-guessing began as soon as the first pick was made, and it hadn’t subsided much by the time the Chiefs were on the clock with pick number twenty.
Commissioner Paul Tagliabue stepped to the podium and announced the Chiefs’ pick, and Hali’s unique journey to professional football had taken its next step.
Kansas City fans might not have known much about Tamba’s background. Maybe they’d heard that he was born in the West African country of Liberia and that he hadn’t played a snap of football before high school. More likely, they probably knew that he was a consensus first-team All-American, which means every publication, association, and media outlet named him to their All-America lists after the 2005 season. Chances are they looked up his stats—65 tackles, a forced fumble, and 11 sacks (most among any defender in the Big Ten Conference)—and figured the Chiefs had drafted another pass rusher to bookend the one they already had. Jared Allen was a third-year defensive end who had 20 sacks in his first two NFL seasons. At least the fans knew more about Hali than they had about Allen when Kansas City drafted him out of Idaho State in the fourth round two years earlier.
Some draft analysts felt the pick was a bit of a reach, speculating that Hali might not be one of the twenty best players available in the draft class. Others felt it was a solid pick, especially if Hali continued to develop the way he did at Penn State. After all, he had only played two seasons at defensive end.
The rookie showed his new coaches enough during training camp to earn a starting job. Indeed, he was the Chiefs’ starting left defensive end those first two games of the 2006 season. And while he didn’t have a sack, he made 11 tackles. If Hali hadn’t yet given the Chiefs fans something to crow about, he certainly hadn’t given them anything to complain about either.
And so Kansas City’s faithful, full-throated fans filed into Arrowhead that first day of October in a happy, hopeful mood. And why not? The 49ers team they would see that day had lost two of its first three games. This wasn’t exactly the Joe Montana–Jerry Rice Niners of San Francisco’s glory days. Maybe there were a few more empty seats than normal, but that wasn’t because anyone was down on the Chiefs—there was a NASCAR race, the Banquet 400, being run at the same time at the Kansas Speedway, located in the “other half” of Kansas City, a few miles across the border into Kansas. But those who were on hand were ready for their beloved Chiefs to turn their season around.
Coach Edwards’s team wasted little time in giving the home crowd reason to cheer. They took the ball first, went seventy-three yards in ten plays, scored a touchdown, and took a 7–0 lead. A much-needed good start.
Hali and Allen and the Chiefs defense took the field for the first time of the afternoon. San Francisco had a powerful running back of its own, Frank Gore, and he hammered straight ahead for five yards on the first play against the Kansas City defense. On second down and five yards to go for a first down, San Francisco quarterback Alex Smith dropped back to pass. And Tamba Hali officially introduced himself to Arrowhead Stadium.
When the ball was snapped, Hali charged at the man assigned to block him: 49ers right tackle, Kwame Harris. At six feet, seven inches tall, he was four inches taller than Hali; Harris also outweighed Hali by about forty-five pounds. Unconcerned, Hali exploded into his blocker, forcing the bigger man back onto his heels. He then accelerated to his left and blew past Harris, once honored as the top offensive lineman in the PAC-10 Conference, and made a beeline toward the quarterback.
At the thirty-two-yard line, Hali clobbered Alex Smith’s throwing arm with his left hand. The ball dropped from Smith’s hands and started to bounce away. The quarterback was able to recover the loose ball at the thirty-five-yard line, but he was down and the play was dead. And Tamba Hali had just recorded the first sack and the first forced fumble of his NFL career all on the same play.
Arrowhead Stadium erupted. A red sea of fans began hollering its appreciation for their first-round rookie, and it wouldn’t be the last time either. Hali would share another sack later in the game with linebacker Derrick Johnson (the team’s first-round pick the year before), and the Chiefs would go on to demolish the 49ers, 41–0. They would win seven of their next nine games, finish the regular season with a record of 9–7, and return to the playoffs.
Over the next decade, Tamba Hali would collect more quarterback sacks than any player in team history except the legendary Derrick Thomas. Not as many as Jared Allen would have before he retired in 2015 (long after he had left the Chiefs) or as many as Mario Williams, that controversial first pick in 2006. But Hali would move into the top fifty of the NFL’s all-time list of quarterback sacks.
On that day 77,609 people were on hand to witness that first sack of Tamba Hali’s career. One of them, seated in the end zone, overwhelmed by the noise and the colors in the stands and the violence on the field, was Rachel Keita.
She had never been to a football game before, hadn’t watched much more than the occasional highlight on television. She didn’t know the rules of the game, though she could follow the crowd’s reaction to tell when something good had happened. Like Hali’s sack of Alex Smith.
Rachel had been watching the San Francisco quarterback. That’s what she had been instructed to do: “Keep your eyes on the quarterback. My job is to get him.”
That’s what Tamba Hali had told her a few days earlier, after she arrived in America from West Africa to see her son for the first time in twelve years. The last time they were together, he was a ten-year-old boy, and their family was trying to escape the bloody civil war tearing Liberia apart.
Now, a dozen years later, her Tamba—in the tradition of the Kissi tribe, that was the name given to a woman’s second son—was a grown man, six feet three, 265 pounds, wearing a candy-apple-red helmet and a jersey to match, with his last name on the back. People in the stands were wearing the same jersey, some with his number 91 on it. And right now, right in front of Rachel, who was awestruck and unsure what to make of this spectacle, they were standing on their feet and cheering her son’s name.