Sense of loss drives Ravens' Haloti Ngata

In Polynesian culture, a celebration, by definition, is not a private affair. Word of good news spreads as if it were carried by the wind, touching uncles, cousins, brothers, friends, sisters, girlfriends, ex-girlfriends and strangers, and without hesitation, people simply show up.

This, it seems, is how it came to pass that on the morning of April 30, 2006 - on one of the most anticipated days of his young life - Haloti Ngata found himself completely and totally surrounded.

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.

With enthusiasm, Moala says, they crammed themselves into a private room inside the restaurant, ignored the menacing glances from an already overworked wait staff, and gazed up at the pixilated television screens broadcasting images of men wearing makeup and expensive ties.

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.

Growing family

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."

Occasionally, Ngata found a way to beat the system. Once, he awoke as his father was coming down the stairs, and he immediately dropped to the floor and began doing push-ups. Solomone Ngata took a look around, surveyed the situation and nodded his head.

"Good boy, son. Good boy," he said.

He was not a man of many words, but Solomone Ngata was extremely proud of his boys. His hugs alone could give you a sore back for the rest of the day, he was so strong. And as Ngata became a star at Highland High School in Salt Lake City, leading his team to the state championship game as a junior while causing mayhem on the defensive line, Solomone Ngata became a vocal fixture in the stands.

"My dad was crazy at games," says Ame Ngata. "He could be so loud. His famous saying was always, `That's my son!'"

She's No. 1

But at the heart of things, Haloti Ngata was, and still is, a mama's boy. Quiet, polite, soft-spoken and kind, he would do whatever Olga asked, whenever she asked it, without complaint.

"He would never do anything to discourage her or distress her," says Olga Ngata's sister, Ema Fuatapu. "She was the No. 1 woman in his life from Day One."

Ngata was known as the "perfect one" in his family, and his siblings ribbed him about it constantly. While his older brothers ran wild, terrorizing the neighborhood, spray-painting graffiti on buildings from block to block, Ngata was usually at home, sleeping.

"It was kind of funny because my brothers would tag all over our neighborhood, and then my mom and her neighborhood watch group would be the ones painting over their stuff the next day," says Haloti Ngata. "It was funny but sad at the same time, I guess."

When she wasn't working with the neighborhood watch group, Olga Ngata could be found running Parent Teacher Association meetings (she was the president), organizing volunteer trash pickups on the highway or putting together dance lessons or pageants at her church. She wanted her neighborhood to feel as safe and as welcome as her home, and she did not like sitting still for very long.

"She was a real loving, emotional mother," says Haloti Ngata. "She put her heart and mind into everything, especially that neighborhood watch thing. Whatever she did, she worked hard at."

Ngata learned to trust her judgment above all others, so when it came time to pick a college, her final blessing was essential. As a high school All-American, he was torn.

He could go anywhere in the country, he could pick up the phone (which never seemed to stop ringing his senior year) and make any coach's day with a simple "yes," but there was tremendous pressure for him to attend Brigham Young University. In his heart, he was leaning toward the University of Oregon, but he also knew he couldn't go there against his mother's wishes.

Answer in dream

As decision time drew closer, Olga Ngata had a dream. In the dream, she saw a red brick building and a bridge crossing some water. When she told her husband what she'd seen, Solomone was stunned. That's Oregon's campus you're describing, he said. You need to go and see the place, Olga. Right away.

When she arrived in Eugene for the first time, she realized, according to her family, what it meant. God was giving her a sign. This was the right place for her son Haloti. Without question, this was it.

Faith shaken

It happened early in the morning, on a cold day in December 2002. Solomone Ngata - who had attended every one of his son's football games (both home and away) during Haloti's stellar freshman year at Oregon - was driving a truck for Metro Waste, a company that had employed him for the past two years.

The roads were icy and, while trying to climb the on-ramp to Interstate 80 from Route 215 just outside Salt Lake City, Solomone Ngata's rig slid off the road, flipped several times and landed upside down in a canal full of water. Rescue workers tried to save him, but ultimately, they could not. He was 45.

"The actual cause of death was drowning," says Haloti Moala, his eyes welling up with tears. "They found mud in his lungs during the autopsy. There were people who got there and tried to get him out, but they couldn't get his seatbelt off. They tried to move the mud so he could breathe, but every time they moved it, the mud slid right back toward him. He was my best friend, and not a day goes by that I don't think about him."

There are countless ways to grieve, and who, really, can say what's right or wrong? Who is the judge of what is healthy or unhealthy? What's important to understand in Haloti Ngata's situation is that, when he learned of his father's death, it shook his Mormon faith. It did not shatter it completely, but it would be months before it could be repaired.

'Wanted to quit'

"I think I lost my sense of religion," Ngata says. "I lost the sense of Christ and kept asking myself, `Why did he do this to me?' I blamed a lot of things on myself. It was a real hard time. I went down in school because I couldn't focus on anything. I was really down on myself. Then, when I tore my [anterior cruciate ligament] the next year, I just wanted to quit. I wanted to be home with my mom and family, to help them out."

He nearly did quit several times during his joyless sophomore year while he rehabilitated his knee, and he went through a period of wondering whether a mission for the LDS Church might be what he needed to get himself right again. Gradually, though, with the help of some teammates, mainly his best friend and roommate Matt Toeaina, things improved. The pain didn't go away, and in many respects it never would, but he learned how to live with it.

"I just started praying a lot," Ngata says. "I decided to grow up and be mature. I told myself, `Worse things happen to other people.' I figure, my dad was proud of me when he died, and I just went with it."

He covered his walls with pictures of his father, then rededicated himself to football. In time, his strength and confidence would return.

"Physically and mentally, he didn't want to live or do anything for a while," says Moala. "But somehow, he was able to find himself and start living for himself."

Slipping away

The sad reality of things is that Haloti Ngata was not the only person at the time who was having difficulty dealing with Solomone's sudden passing. Olga Ngata kept herself busy over the next two years, but she didn't take care of herself, at least not as much as her family would have liked. She had serious kidney problems, and still, she worried about everyone else before thinking of herself.

"My personal feeling is, once Solomone passed away, Olga missed him so much, she was finding a way to be with him sooner rather than later," Haloti Moala says.

In the fall of 2005, with his mother's health deteriorating a bit more each month, Haloti Ngata played the best football of his entire life. He bulldozed offensive lines and battered Pacific-10 quarterbacks and running backs with no remorse. If he could just play well enough to become a first-round draft pick, he could get his mother the best medical care available. He could make sure that she never had to work again. He could give her the kind of life she always tried to give him.

But it was too late. She made it through the season, but died while he was preparing for the draft. His uncle called him with the news Jan. 13, saying that her heart had simply given out. She was 44.

"I just wish I could have been there for her last couple of days," Haloti Ngata says. "But from my dad passing away, I learned that I can't go down that road again. I looked at things and started praying more. I started thanking God that I had both of them in my life. Knowing that they both were proud of me when they died has helped me move forward."

Difficult move

Shortly after his mother died, Ngata asked Moala, though tears, whether Moala and his wife would come and live with him in Baltimore, help him adjust during his rookie year. But in time, he realized it was not necessary. Make the trip with me back east, he said. Drop me off like my parents did when I went to Oregon.

Of course, they said. Of course.

"Every now and then I'll have an emotional moment or day, just thinking about them," Ngata says. "But what makes me most happy is knowing they're together, watching me play football in the NFL."

Life's seminal moments, like today's game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, will still come and go, and his parents' absence from them will still occasionally hurt. Some events, though, will simply be too important for him to do without them nearby, so he will instead go to them.

Next summer, when his rookie season is over, Ngata will return to Salt Lake City, gather his family once again and head north a few miles to a little town called Bountiful that sits at the foot of the Wasatch Mountains.

If you wind your way through the countless blocks of American suburbia, passing perfectly manicured lawns and basketball hoop driveways, the street will eventually rise, until it hugs the mountain for nearly a mile. It climbs gradually until it levels out on South Bountiful Boulevard, nearly a thousand feet above Salt Lake Valley.

There is a Mormon temple there, one of the most beautiful in all of Utah. It's also the place where Ngata plans to marry his longtime girlfriend Christina Adams.

The celebration will be held there for a reason. Just up the road, not more than a few hundred yards, is also the cemetery where his parents were both laid to rest. "Forever My Darling," their headstone reads.

From this spot, if you're lucky enough to come here on a clear day, you can see some of Utah's most majestic sunsets. Just before the sun slips behind the mountains to the west, it paints the sky orange at first, then pink, then scarlet.

Some of the light bounces off the glassy surface of the Great Salt Lake, splashing the clouds with shades of purple and blue, an effect that makes the sky, somehow, seem beautiful and sad at the same time.