Sense of loss drives Ngata

September 10, 2006|By Kevin Van Valkenburg | Kevin Van Valkenburg,Sun reporter

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.

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