If anyone ever deserved to live in a place called Happy Valley, it's Penn State defensive end Tamba Hali. Born in Suacoco, Liberia, he was six years old at the outbreak of the 14-year civil war that ripped his country apart. He was eight the first time he fled gunfire, nine when his family abandoned its home in the village of Gbarnga to live in the wilderness, subsisting on cassava root and cabbage while hiding from brutal bands of soldiers who roamed the countryside. Then when he was 10, Hali left his mother, Rachel, to live with his father, Henry, a science teacher at Teaneck ( N.J.) High. "I don't remember much," Tamba says of his days in Liberia, "except moving around a lot."
A nomad no longer, Hali has found a home on the 9-1 Nittany Lions' rugged defense. With a quick first step and a motor that never quits, the 6'3", 267-pound senior has developed into one of the Big Ten's best pass rushers, leading the conference in sacks (11) and tackles for loss (16). In addition to being prolific-- Hali had a school-record seven tackles for loss and a record-tying four sacks last Saturday in Penn State's 35-14 victory over Wisconsin--he's also shown a flair for the dramatic, sealing a 17-10 upset of No. 6 Ohio State on Oct. 8 with a sack that forced a fumble.
Nothing would have seemed more improbable in 1994, when Hali fled Liberia with his sister and two older half-brothers to live with a man they barely knew. Because of Liberia's unstable politics, Henry had immigrated to New Jersey in 1985, when Tamba was two. Henry had never married Rachel, who cared for all four of Henry's kids even though she was the mother of only Tamba and his sister, Kumba. After becoming a U.S. citizen in '92, Henry brought his children over. Immigration law allowed him to petition for only direct relations, so Tamba's mother had to stay behind with her husband and their four-year-old son, Joshua. "It's complicated, but they're all my family," Tamba says.
English is the official language of Liberia, but because he had received little schooling, Hali could not read or write when he arrived in the U.S. Reluctant to speak because of his thick accent, he was a target for teasing through middle school until Ed Klimek, an assistant coach at Teaneck High, encouraged him to go out for football. Hali knew nothing about the game but was sure he had found a way to express himself the first time he put on pads. "All I wanted to do," he says, "was hit somebody!"
"I told him to forget technique--just put your hand on the ground and go," says Teaneck coach Dennis Heck. "That's still what he does best."
In four years Hali went from greenhorn--"My first year, I didn't even know we had plays," he says--to blue-chipper, recruited by Miami, Penn State, Syracuse and USC. Henry took notice. One of Hali's older half-brothers is also named Tamba, so Henry had called the elder one Big Tamba and the younger one Little Tamba. Now, however, he speaks of Big Tamba and Football Tamba.
Liberia's civil war ended in 2003, and a presidential election was scheduled for Nov. 8. Still, Hali fears for his mother's safety and wants to bring her to the U.S. as soon as possible. One year after he moved to Teaneck, Rachel found Joshua dead at the bottom of a well; last year she was hit by a stray bullet below the left knee. "It's only by the grace of God that we're still alive," Rachel said last Thursday. "Things are getting better here, but I'm still scared."
Rachel was denied a U.S. visa four years ago when she tried to visit for Tamba's high school graduation, and he can't help her come over because he's not yet a U.S. citizen. While immigration law grants citizenship to children under 18 who have been in the country for five years, Henry forgot to file Tamba's paperwork. With the help of Penn State officials, Tamba recently sent in his papers and expects to take his citizenship test by the end of the year.
Hali is on pace to graduate with a journalism degree this spring, but he's eager to pursue an NFL career--a prospect no doubt enhanced by his record-setting performance on Saturday. A possible first-round pick, he wants to be able to take care of Rachel when she arrives. "I'm playing for her," Hali says. "Every time I get to the ball, every time I make my name more known, I feel like I'm closer to her."
Out of Africa