Hopefully I can continue to make a big impact on this team. That’s why they brought me here. Just that hopefully I can make some plays and help other players make plays. —Haloti Ngata
He was finished with exams and had a few days off football, so Haloti Ngata decided to surprise his family with a trip home from school in December of 2002.
Ngata was a freshman at Oregon at the time, a newly-anointed starter and one of the Ducks’ most promising young players, and he had no idea of the unspeakable tragedy that was about to unfold.
On the second day of Ngata’s trip home to Salt Lake City, Solomone Ngata, a proud truck driver for Metro Waste who was so determined to get his commercial license that he had the study manuals translated into his native Tongan, asked his son if he wanted to join him at work.
Haloti and Solomone were close. Solomone flew to every one of his son’s games that year, and occasionally came up early on home weekends just to watch his boy practice.
But Haloti said no that day. He had to get a workout in and he was planning to have lunch with his then girlfriend and now wife, Christina.
It wasn’t long after Solomone left home that morning that he lost control of his truck, slid off an icy freeway on-ramp and rolled several times before coming to a stop, cab down, in a nearby canal.
Onlookers tried to help, but Solomone was pronounced dead at the scene. He drowned in several feet of muck.
“It was definitely tough,” Ngata recalled this week. “I was actually home when I visited him and he died that day and that’s when we had his funeral. It was amazing just to have his co-workers out there at his funeral and honking their horns. It was powerful. But yeah, I didn’t know what to think when I was a freshman, just kind of angry at everybody, everything, and you just try to move on. And I ended up moving on, but I think I was definitely mad for a while.”
Those who know Ngata said that tragedy and one a few years later, when his mother, Ofa, died during dialysis treatment, helped shape the new centerpiece of the Lions’ defensive line.
The Lions traded two draft picks to the Baltimore Ravens for Ngata on Tuesday, and they are counting on the five-time Pro Bowler to be the anchor of a revamped defense that lost Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley in free agency but still has Super Bowl aspirations.
“Having Haloti here is a significant addition,” Lions president Tom Lewand said. “It means that in a lot of ways we won’t miss a beat. He is a tremendously accomplished player and is a guy that brings a lot more than just his on-the-field presence. The kind of leadership he exhibited in Baltimore is something that will be a tremendous asset for us in our locker room, and we look forward to getting to work with him starting in April.”
‘Make them proud’
Solomone Ngata was born in Tonga, an island nation in the South Pacific of about 105,000 people. He was a champion boxer with slabs of concrete for hands, and he passed his athleticism on to the third of his five children.
In high school, Haloti was a star football player who started on the varsity team as a freshman and a standout rugby player who was courted internationally to play the sport after high school.
Ngata played a position called “lock” in rugby, where his massive frame — he weighed 265 pounds as a freshman — moved piles with ease and his light feet in the open field stunned onlookers.
“The size, the athleticism, he just had, even at a young age, he had an explosiveness, he had an athleticism that was very, very rare for someone of his size,” said Larry Wilson, the former football and rugby coach at Highland High and a surrogate father for Ngata. “Great explosion. Very quietly competitive. Not a rah-rah guy, not a screamer and yeller, but a very deep intensity that you always saw in competitive situations. And he had a very, very good work ethic as a ninth-grader, which is something that you don’t find very often.”
Ngata never seriously considered playing rugby after high school, Wilson said, because of his love for football. His uncle, Haloti Moala-Liava’a, Ngata’s namesake, played linebacker at Utah, and Ngata was one of the top football recruits in the country. He played four seasons at Oregon, including a medical redshirt year in 2003 when he tore his ACL in the first game of the year, and the Ravens took him with the 12th pick of the 2006 NFL draft, three choices after the Lions selected Ernie Sims out of Florida State.
Ngata left school with one year of eligibility left in part to help care for his ailing mother, but she passed away while he was in Houston training for the combine.
“That was really tough,” Wilson said. “He just didn’t really have much of a time to mourn and be around family and relatives and friends. I think he felt very isolated, very alone back in Houston. He was back there for a couple days and was just struggling, felt very alone, so his uncle and I flew down there. We went down there for about a week and lived with him in his apartment.”
Ngata, who roomed with former Lions center Dominic Raiola’s brother, Donovan, during his combine training, said his parents remain a significant influence in everything he does today.
He often points to the sky in their memory when he runs out of the locker room tunnel on gamedays, and after reaching the NFL, Ngata started the Haloti Ngata Family Foundation that, among other causes, helps raise money to fight juvenile diabetes.
Ofa, whose name is emblemized in the foundation’s logo, suffered from diabetes.
“They’ve kind of made me the person I am today,” Ngata said. “Learning a lot of things from them as a high school kid, or just growing up and just having them pass away really sucked, but you just learn to persevere and just move on and try to make them proud and excel and succeed in whatever you do.”
Ngata had a standout rookie season with the Ravens in 2006 and was selected to his first of five consecutive Pro Bowls a few years later. But it was in that first year in Baltimore when he met one of his best friends, former Ravens and Lions offensive guard Edwin Mulitalo.
Mulitalo, who’s Samoan, said he and Ngata bonded over their shared Polynesian culture and taste for island reggae music, and became so tight they considered themselves brothers.
Ngata stayed at Mulitalo’s home so often as a rookie that when other visitors came over, Mulitalo’s kids said they couldn’t use the guest room because it was reserved for Uncle ‘Lo.
In one offseason early in his NFL career, Ngata and Mulitalo were at a charity event hosted by former Miami Dolphins star Doug Betters when the two 300-plus-pounders decided they wanted to learn how to snowboard.
Three hours later, they walked off the hill happy they didn’t kill anyone and hooked on a new pastime.
“Just picture this: Two big bears on this kiddie hill, and the guy that we were with said that we couldn’t leave that bunny hill until we got five turns without falling,” said Mulitalo, now a teacher in Samoa. “So me and him on this hill, this bunny hill with about 40 different kids and we didn’t even have a lift. We would get on the magic carpet, one of those conveyer belts. It’d be the funniest thing ‘cause you’d see like him, then like 10 or 15 kids between us, then me, on this conveyer belt.”
Ngata learned how to snowmobile from Wilson, when he joined his old high school coach and some friends at their cabin in Idaho one winter when he was home from school — he has his own custom snowmobile now, one with a heavy-duty suspension to support his 340-pound frame.
He’s an avid hunter and fisher, according to his brother-in-law, Jeff Adams, and Ngata once made a 305-mile trek from Salt Lake City to Moab, Utah, on back roads and jeep trails while riding in side-by-side Polaris RZRs.
“He’s not that guy that’s going to South Beach in Miami and hang out, that’s just not who he is,” Wilson said. “He loves outdoors. He loves challenges. He loves to — when we were teaching him how to snowmobile, he spent the first two, three days just relentlessly trying to learn how to ride a snowmobile and how to do the things off trail. Side hilling and going up the side of the mountains and that kind of stuff. And he was so determined, and sure enough he’s a pretty accomplished snowmobiler right now.”
Ngata, of course, is pretty accomplished as a football player, too.
Along with those five Pro Bowls, he has two first-team all-pro selections, 25.5 career sacks and should one day be in conversation for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Last year, Ngata was suspended four games for violating the league’s policy on performance enhancing substances when he tested positive for Adderrall, but the Ravens’ decision to trade him was as much a financial one as anything. Ngata was set to count $16 million against Baltimore’s cap this year, and the two sides could not reach agreement on a restructured deal.
Most believe Ngata, 31, still has a couple good years left, and after the way things unfolded in Baltimore, he should be motivated to have a big season.
“He’s excited,” Mulitalo said. “It’s a new challenge, a new everything. And I told him, maybe this is the spark he needs to revitalize and recharge your career. I’m not saying he was down, but I was with him when he was suspended his last few games and he talked about how much he wanted to get back on the field and that he didn’t want this to happen again.”
Ngata said he has no animosity toward the Ravens’ organization and enjoyed his time in Baltimore. Now, he just wants to make his new team, like his parents, proud.
“Hopefully I can continue to make a big impact on this team,” he said. “That’s why they brought me here. Just that hopefully I can make some plays and help other players make plays.”