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Tuesday, November 10, 2009

‘Perfect kid’ Ngata grows into brick wall

A majestic sun is shining with nary a cloud to be discovered as massive Baltimore Ravens defensive tackle Haloti Ngata pauses for a moment to point his meaty index finger toward the sky.

His intense gaze toward the heavens as he strides out of the players’ tunnel at M&T Bank Stadium is intended solely for two very important people. His parents.

Before Ngata’s gigantic cleats began trampling NFL backfields as one of the most dominant defensive linemen in the league, he experienced tremendous personal losses.

His father, Solomone, died seven years ago when the truck he was driving slid off an icy freeway and flipped over several times before landing upside down in a canal filled with water and mud.

And his mother, Olga, passed away from a heart attack six days after her son declared for the NFL draft nearly four years ago. She had been hospitalized for kidney dialysis.

“I always remember my parents,” Ngata said. “I point at the sky to honor my parents and I remember how they were able to raise me and what they taught me. It pushes me. It makes me want to make them proud.”

It’s a safe bet that somewhere Ngata’s parents are proud indeed, and not only because their powerful son is one of the top interior linemen in the game.

Ngata is still working diligently on fulfilling the commitment he made to his mother when he left the University of Oregon after his junior season that he would one day graduate. He’s a few credits shy of earning his degree in sociology after taking offseason classes at the University of Utah, having transferred his course load from Oregon.

“I told my mother before she passed that I would finish school,” he said. “I’m going to make sure I keep that promise. I knew she would be proud of me to see me finish what I started. It’s very important to me.”Growing up in a household defined by his father’s unparalleled work ethic — the man who would often work several jobs at a time as a truck driver, mason, landscaper and construction worker — Ngata followed his father’s counsel closely.

And he was careful to avoid the poor choices his two older brothers, Solomone Jr. and Finau, made when they got involved in a California gang called the Tongan Crip Gang.

Once the family moved to Salt Lake City, the older Ngata brothers got into even more trouble through their continued participation in the gang culture that included tagging graffiti, robberies and several other crimes.

As his brothers’ chaos unfolded, Haloti Ngata recognized at a young age what was happening and stayed focused on school and sports as a budding football and rugby player.

He repeatedly spurned his brothers’ attempts to recruit him to join the gang.

“I learned how to make family separate from what I did,” Ngata said. “I saw how my brothers made my parents argue. I didn’t want my parents to do that with me. I just shied away from them and my parents kept me away from them. I didn’t want to wind up like them. I saw opportunities slipping away for them.

“I stayed involved in school and playing sports, and that’s what helped me. I always did well in school. Every season, I had a sport. In the spring, it was rugby. In the summer, it was football camp. I was busy. I had no time to mess around.”

Ngata developed into the Utah Gatorade Player of the Year who recorded 100 tackles and 30 sacks as a senior. He was a coveted blue-chipper who ultimately chose Oregon over considerable home state pressure to sign with Brigham Young University.

At Oregon, he became the Ducks’ first consensus All-American in more than four decades. The scourge of the Pac-10 Conference blocked seven kicks in three seasons.

And the Ravens selected him 12th overall in the first round of the 2006 NFL draft, signing him to a five-year, $11.9 million contract.

“I always wanted to do the right thing,” Ngata said. “I would rather stay home and sleep than be out hanging out with a gang. That was just never for me. I couldn’t imagine doing things any differently.”

Ngata endured considerable teasing from his brothers for his devotion to doing everything that his parents asked of him. He was the so-called “perfect kid.”

While Ngata slept soundly after finishing his schoolwork and chores, his brothers were out at night causing problems around the neighborhood even as his mother was involved in the neighborhood watch group. She was the president of the Parent Teacher Association, too, also finding time to organize dance lessons and pageants at church.

“It was messed up because my mom and her friends would be out there painting over the tags that my brothers had done,” Ngata said. “Yeah, it was kinda funny and sad all at once. I never wanted to do anything to disappoint her. She was a loving, hard-working mom. I learned a lot from her.”

Both of Ngata’s older brothers wound up serving time in prison for gang-related crimes.

“It was a shame because they were better athletes than I am,” Ngata said. “They wasted their potential, all that talent and strength. It was a hard thing for our family.”

Both have gotten their lives together, Ngata said. Finau is married and is a father. Solomone Jr. was recently released from prison and is completing his parole as well as his general equivalency diploma requirements.

“They have done a lot of good things to stay out of trouble and I’m proud of them now,” Ngata said. “Everything has changed because they’re living the right way. They tell me how proud they are of me and how I represent the family name.

“I’m very proud of them. It’s not easy to change and do the right things. They have worked very hard to move on from the past and build good futures for themselves. It’s never too late.”

Ngata tells children his brothers’ story, using the danger of gangs as a cautionary tale.

“I’ve always looked up to successful people and that’s why I keep myself out of trouble and give back to the community,” Ngata said. “It’s great that I can help kids out. Hopefully, they can look at what I’m doing and succeed. You can make good choices for your life.

“After I’m done playing football, I’m probably going to coach football and rugby at the high school level. I want to help kids.”

Despite Ngata’s impressive production and durability having never missed a start in three seasons, a Pro Bowl berth has proved to be elusive. He entered this season with 222 career tackles, five sacks, three interceptions and one forced fumble.

Named as first alternate to the Pro Bowl last season, Ngata was named second-team All-Pro by the Associated Press after recording 77 tackles and two interceptions for the NFL’s second-ranked defense.

Will he ever make the league’s annual all-star game?

“If I make the Pro Bowl, if it happens, that would be great,” Ngata said. “I’m working hard. The main thing for me is to help our team win. If I get to the Pro Bowl, that would be cool. It’s something I want to accomplish.

“I feel like I can improve. I can do better as a pass rusher. I can learn more technique. I can play off blocks better. There’s always something you can get better at.”

Ngata’s rare size and mobility at 6-foot-4, 345 pounds makes him unique among NFL defensive lineman.

“Blocking Haloti is like pushing against a brick wall,” guard Marshal Yanda said. “Blocking him is a full-time job. He’s real tough to move.”

Ngata developed his athleticism as a national champion rugby player growing up in Salt Lake City. He was king of the scrum, and he misses it.

“I wish I could still play rugby,” he said. “It’s a fun sport for a big guy like me to be able to run the ball and do different things.”

There are even a few sections in the Ravens’ offensive playbook with Ngata’s name on it. He dreams of running or catching a touchdown, but has been relegated strictly to operating as a blocking tight end in the goal line package.

“Every game, I’m thinking I’m going to get the ball,” he said. “Hopefully, when they call my number, I can take it into the end zone.

During his second season, Ngata tied for fifth on the team with a career-high 94 tackles and three sacks. Last season, Ngata demonstrated his agility in pass coverage. Against the Houston Texans, he adeptly retreated into a passing lane to snag an interception in the red zone.

“Haloti is a beast,” veteran nose guard Kelly Gregg said. “He’s got size, he’s an athlete. Each year, he’s made jumps. He’s active for a big guy, he’s not just a plugger. He’s got all the tools you want. If you’re looking to make a defensive lineman, you’re looking for a guy like Haloti.

“He’s a good kid who’s been through a lot in his life. His mentality is that nothing’s going to stop him.”

Like his father, Ngata is a family man and a devout Mormon. Married to the former Christina Adams, they have a three-month-old son named Solomone III.

He said he thinks of them often when he’s on the field. And the thought of his family ever being in need drives him to collapse pockets, bulldoze running backs and harass quarterbacks.

“I don’t know what it is, but when I play the game I think, especially now, that I’ve got to make plays to feed my family,” Ngata said. “I have a son and I think of people trying to take food off his table.”

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