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Reno Fonua
NFL football star Haloti Ngata and his wife, Christina, right, give a $30,000 check from their foundation to T. Richard Davis, left, of the Salt Lake Education Foundation and Katherine Kennedy of the Salt Lake City Board of Education.

SALT LAKE CITY — Haloti Ngata will not soon forget the day he got beat to a pulp by a piece of paper.

He was a big-time high school football star at Highland High. Universities were lined up, hoping he’d pick one of them to pay for his room, board and tuition.

All he had to do was pass the ACT college entrance exam and the nation was his buffet table.

But he didn’t. Didn’t come close. Math, science and English threw him around like a walk-on.

Two words — “junior college” — raced through his mind.

Until the cavalry arrived, aka Mom.

Ofa Ngata knew her son. She knew he was smart enough to pass the ACT. She also knew he needed help preparing for it. She looked into classes and tutors that helped students get ready for college entrance exams, but they all cost more money than the family could afford.

So she talked to an administrator at Highland and the PTA, and together they developed an ACT prep class anyone could attend, because it was free.

Haloti enrolled in the class, and after a few sessions took the ACT again — and failed to meet the Division-1 standard yet again.

So he hunkered down and went through an entire semester of ACT prep.

And this time he sailed through the test.

Without that class, and his mom, Haloti said, shaking his head, “Who knows where I’d have wound up?”

As it was, he wound up at the University of Oregon, three years later became the school’s first consensus football All-American in 43 years, was selected in the first round of the 2006 NFL draft by the Baltimore Ravens, and 10 professional seasons later has a Super Bowl ring (2013), five pro-bowl selections and something approaching $100 million to show for it.

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If you think becoming a big deal has caused the 6-foot-4, 350-pound Ngata to even for a second forget where he came from, you weren’t at the second annual Ofa Ngata College Preparation Fund Luau last Thursday night at the downtown Marriott.

Not only did Haloti and his wife, Christina, present a check from their family foundation for $30,000 to the Salt Lake City School District, but when the Polynesian dancers and musicians took the stage, there was Haloti, shirt off, bare feet, feathers in his hair, dancing right along with them.

That wasn’t an earthquake, it was the haka.

All of it was done in the name of the greatest woman Haloti ever knew, and also the greatest man, his father, Solomone, who was honored and remembered when coaching legend Ron McBride was brought to the stage and presented the Solomone Ngata Outstanding Contribution to Education Award.

Solomone Ngata died in a truck rollover in 2002 and Ofa Ngata died from complications from diabetes in 2006. Neither of the Tongan immigrants got to see their son play a down of football in the NFL, not in a traditional stadium at any rate, but before games Haloti regularly points to the sky to acknowledge their attendance.

He’s been holding his luaus — part fundraiser, part excuse to roast a pig and dance — ever since he started life as a pro a decade ago. He held them in Baltimore when he was with the Ravens, but after being traded last year to the Detroit Lions, he moved the location to his and Christina’s hometown. Previous luaus raised money to help other causes, such as juvenile diabetes, but in Salt Lake the time seemed right to bolster the ACT prep classes that Ofa, with the help of PTA member Kristi Swett, got going back in ’01.

“We’ve come full circle,” said Haloti. “It started with my mom, and now we can expand on her vision and validate her dream and legacy.”

The Ngata Foundation, which is also involved in many other charities, funds college prep exam classes at the three Salt Lake City District high schools, Highland, East and West, paying administrators to run the program and instructors to teach math, science and English classes. It also pays for gift cards and snacks to keep the students motivated.

“There’s no middle man,” said Jeff Adams, Ngata’s brother-in-law who helps administer the fund. “All money raised goes to the program itself.”

It’s not about football, Haloti pointed out. “It’s to help kids get into college. My mom’s vision was to change lives.”

He smiled. “Good thing I bombed the ACT, right?”

And then he went back to dancing.

Lee Benson's About Utah column runs Mondays.

Email: benson@deseretnews.com