This was not a surprise, exactly, but still. His family members say they expected a small crowd would want to be there with him on this day, the first day of the NFL draft, and a day where everyone he talked to seemed to be certain - absolutely certain - he would be a first-round pick. They told the Las Vegas ESPN Zone to prepare for about 40 people, 50 tops, but no one was particularly shocked, relatives said, when more than 100 showed up."Polynesian people don't get invitations, they get information," says Haloti Moala, Ngata's uncle, who was with him that day.
For Ngata, to look around the restaurant that day and see so many familiar faces, and then soak up so much of their love, their prayers and their nervous energy, was to understand, for the first time, that it was real. After years of dreaming, Ngata's big moment had arrived.
When word finally came, when Ngata practically shouted to Moala that the Ravens had just called his cell phone, told him they were trading up in the draft to take him with the 12th pick, there was an eruption of joy, but also, soon enough, the quiet, steady drumbeat of sorrow. Haloti Ngata (pronounced Ha-LOW-tee NA-ta) came together with his closest family members and wept, then one after another, they took turns disappearing inside his enormous, tender, tearful embrace.
It was a wonderful day. It was a difficult day. It is impossible, for the most part, to explain exactly how it felt. But this much everyone who attended can agree on: Had Ngata's parents, Solomone and Olga, lived to see it, they would have been so very proud.
He was a boxer. She was a talker. He spoke mostly in broken English and worked with his hands, which were huge. She had an infectious laugh and joined every organization she could find, simply because she wanted to meet people. His friends called him the Gentle Giant, hers called her the most selfless person they'd ever met.
They both came to America in the early 1970s, chasing the dream of a better life, from the tiny island nation of Tonga, a country with 102,000 people situated 1,200 miles north of New Zealand in the Pacific Ocean. They saw each other for the first time at a Tongan dance in California; in front of a live band, and beneath the brightest lights you could ever imagine, he asked her for her number.
She was seeing someone else at the time, but she gave it to him anyway. A month passed, but she didn't stop thinking about him. One night, Olga (or "Ofa" as she is sometimes called) joked with her sister that if Solomone were to call her, she was going to marry him. An hour later, her phone rang. It was him.
They were married in 1979 in Inglewood, Calif., and before too long, they had a family of large boys who looked just like Solomone, with big mouths to feed. First came Finau, now 26, then Solomone Jr., now 24. In January 1984, Haloti Moala got a phone call from his sister, Olga, telling him she had given birth to a third son.
Moala had just started playing football for the University of Utah and had already fallen in love with the state's majestic mountains and the quiet family atmosphere. In time, with encouragement from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the rest of the family would follow, moving to Salt Lake City in 1990.
"When Haloti was born, Olga called me and said, `We've got this third boy. Can we name him after you?'" Moala says. "I said, `Of course!' ... Solomone, his dad, he was my best friend. I'm closer to him than I am to most of my own brothers. I was honored to share Haloti's name."
All the Ngata children - including Ngata's younger siblings, Vili, 20, and Ame, 18 - were athletic, with impressive strength and surprising quickness, but none was as physically blessed as Haloti Ngata. He was the biggest kid, the fastest kid, and the strongest kid for his entire childhood, which made it easy to overlook that he was also one of the nicest.
On the rugby pitch, though, he was a force of nature, bowling over grown men even when he was still just a boy. The game, especially when played by Tongans, was both spiritual and brutal. It was about friendship and family as well as flexing some muscle. It remains, to this day, his favorite sport. On the football field, he cast an equally large shadow, tossing aside blockers and running down speedy quarterbacks from the time he was 8 years old.
"When he was young, I found out that Haloti had a picture of me in his journal from when I was playing at Utah," says Moala, who started at middle linebacker for the Utes as a true freshman before knee injuries derailed his career. "On the back of it, he wrote, `This is my uncle Haloti. He didn't make it to the NFL, but I will.'"
Solomone Ngata was the kind of man who worked hard for everything he ever owned in life. It was not unusual for him to hold down three jobs at once, as he often juggled landscaping, construction, masonry and truck driving. As a result, he detested laziness, especially from his sons.
This created something of a problem for Haloti Ngata because, as a boy, he absolutely loved to sleep. He could sleep anywhere and at odd hours, but he was especially fond of sleeping in the basement of his parents' house. More than once, Solomone Ngata came thundering down the stairs, furious that his son, Haloti, was snoozing when he should have been helping around the house.
"He was a very loving and supportive dad outside the home, but inside, he was all discipline," says Haloti Ngata. "He was real strict, a real work-ethic guy. He wanted to see us kids doing something besides sleeping or sitting around being lazy. What people didn't understand, though, is that I needed to sleep a lot back then because I was still growing."