Tamba Hali knows what it means to be a good player on a bad NFL team. In his first seven seasons with the Kansas City Chiefs, the outside linebacker racked up 62½ quarterback sacks and forced a remarkable 23 fumbles … and yet his team won just 38 of the 114 games that they played.
The 2012 season was especially disappointing. Touted as a possible playoff dark horse, the Chiefs instead finished with the joint-worst record in the league – a miserable 2-14. If it was tempting to describe this as a new low, then in truth there was nothing novel about Kansas City’s struggles. They had posted the exact same record just four years earlier.
Through it all, Hali maintained his own usual high standards. Nine sacks in 15 games last season were enough to earn him selection to the Pro Bowl for a third consecutive year. But he never fooled himself into thinking that he alone could turn his team’s fortunes around. Nor, indeed, did he believe that any other player might.
“We play in a very competitive league and we get paid well to do it, so you’re not going to find a lot of teams that are not good,” says Hali, unwinding by his locker at the Chiefs’ practice facility after a weekday morning session. “The system is what needs to work for you. Bringing in a system, with a head coach and assistant coaches that understand the game, that is what is going to work for you.
“You’re always going to have good players; some of them will even be great, but they cannot win you the game.
Barry Sanders, back in the day, he was a great player, and I’m not taking anything away from the system that he was in, but I don’t believe that Barry achieved the team goals that he set out to achieve.
The point is well made. Sanders shattered all manner of records during his 10 years as starting running back for the Detroit Lions, becoming the first player to rush for at least 100 yards in 14 consecutive games as well as the first to go for 1,500 or more in five straight seasons. He was named to the Pro Bowl in every year that he played. And yet Sanders retired in 1998 with only one playoff victory to his name. His decision to walk away came as a shock – he was just two seasons into a six-year contract with Detroit, and stood less than 1,500 yards shy of the all-time NFL rushing record – but he would later cite the Lions’ “culture of losing” as a key consideration.
For Hali and the Chiefs, however, the tides appear to be turning. This offseason, the team fired head coach Romeo Crennel and replaced him with Andy Reid – whose 14-year tenure with the Philadelphia Eagles had come to an end a few weeks earlier. The improvements under the new man were immediate. Just over a month into the new season, the Chiefs are 5-0.
What has changed under Reid’s leadership? “I think we’re more productive,” says Hali. “Coach has come in and he’s treated us like men, and we’re just utilizing our skills, individually but also together as a team, working as a whole. We’re playing three phases of the game – special teams, offense, defense. You know, if one of those phases is not playing well, you’re going to lose games. Once those three different teams come together, and work towards a goal, we do well.”
Hali has played his usual leading role on defense, registering four sacks so far and returning an interception for a touchdown during a 28-2 win over Jacksonville in week one. But his contribution extends beyond the plays that he makes. His fellow outside linebacker Justin Houston has racked up 8½ sacks so far, and was named as the AFC defensive player of the month for September. He is quick to credit Hali for making it all possible.
“He’s the reason why my career has improved so much,” says Houston. “He taught me pretty much everything I know in the pass rushing game, he taught me how to rush the tackles, how to read the tackles. The pass rush, it was all him.”
Asked if any specific advice from Hali had stayed with him, Houston does not hesitate. “My rookie season, Tamba taught me that pass rush was a game within the game,” he says. “Once you figure that out, it will help you a lot.”
Sharing knowledge is an important principle to Hali. He arrived in Kansas City in 2006, hoping to learn from the Chiefs’ then leading pass rusher, Jared Allen, but his new team-mate was too consumed by his own issues with management and would leave at the end of the year.
Hali was disappointed, but hardly deterred. He had overcome more profound obstacles in life. Born in Liberia in November 1983, he was barely six years old when the country plunged into its first civil war, and just nine when the fighting around his town, Gbarnga, became so dangerous that his mother, Rachel Keita, gathered him and his three siblings and fled into the countryside – where they subsisted on what food they could forage.
The violence was inescapable; Hali has recalled seeing dead bodies stacked up in heaps. Eventually, the five of them managed to escape across the border to Ivory Coast. Not long afterwards, Hali would be swept away to America.
His father, Henry, had left Liberia in 1985, emigrating to the US and using his degrees in chemistry and maths from Cuttington College, near Gbarnga, to find work as a teacher and part-time professor in Teaneck, New Jersey. After achieving citizenship, he was able to acquire visas for Tamba and his three other children to join him.
Two decades later here is Hali, a star performer in a sport that he had never even heard of before leaving Liberia. Does he ever find himself stopping to reflect on such an improbable life journey?
“My childhood is my childhood, it’s my past. I’ll always have many reasons why it has been a blessing …
…me playing in the NFL, it doesn’t happen to a lot of people. You can break it down to a tee from my high school, or even from my college – only two or three guys might leave that team and do well in the pros, maybe.
“God has been a blessing in my life. My faith in Jesus Christ has really brought me this far.”
Hali has never been back to Liberia. The civil war lasted until 1996, and a second conflict broke out in 1999. That too has now ended, but the country is yet to fully recover. “I’ve thought about [going back], but I’ve been advised not to, not yet,” says Hali. “Just from a security standpoint in the country.
“Plus we have work to do here. When time permits, I think I’ll go back. Right now I want to finish what we’ve started here.”
In the meantime, his family is at least together in America. When Hali and his siblings first relocated across the Atlantic, his mother was not able to come with them. The US government had been prepared to grant visas only to the children, and not to Rachel Keita – who was never married to their father.
For the next 12 years, Hali achieved only sporadic contact with his mother. Months could pass without her having access to a reliable phone line, or being able to let him know where she was. News would arrive in snippets, and without its proper context. He learned that she had moved back from Ivory Coast to Liberia. In 2004, he found out that she had been hit below the knee by a stray bullet, while doing missionary work in the country.
Not until 2006, when Hali himself was granted full citizenship, did he finally succeed in bringing his mother to America, initially on a one-year visa. The player’s already soft voice drops a little quieter as he remembers that moment. He says:
It’s my mum, you know. My mum was in my life from day one. So having her here after being away from her for 12 years … it was a situation almost like your parent was dead for 12 years and now she’s back in your life.
“You can see the difference in me – to have mum and a dad. It just keeps me grounded to have them proud of what I’m doing and being generally home and nearby emotionally.”
Rachel, now a full-time resident of Kansas City, is certainly proud of her son, attending all of his games even though he concedes that it took her several years to really understand what she was watching. “I just had to tell her what my job is,” he says. “She looks at that, and she at least understands what I’m doing.”
Her support for his career is matched by his appreciation for her cooking. “She makes Liberian food and does her own stuff too,” says Hali. “Liberia is a small country but very diverse when it comes to the different groups. I’m from a Kissi tribe, but my mum is from another tribe, and they each have their own different dishes.
“But an example could be like cassava leaf with potato greens, and stuff like that. There’s always rice, usually with a soup or a stew. It’s nice!”### the Guardian