Unlike the three other major pro sports in America, the National Football League is almost entirely comprised of native-born players.
The typical life story of an NFL player involves him growing up poor or working class in a small rural town or inner city neighborhood, possibly from a broken home, who then succeeds widely on the gridiron.
Linebacker Tamba Hali had a different kind of story, as he is an immigrant from the Eastern Hemisphere. But his story is no less inspiring than those of his American counterparts.
Growing Up In Turmoil
Tamba Boimah Hali was born on November 3, 1983 in Gbarnga, Liberia, a small nation on the southwest coast of Africa.
A few years before Hali was born, a military coup was staged in Liberia, which led to political instability, including at least one election that was considered fraudulent.
Hali’s father, Henry, fled Liberia and came to the United States in 1985, settling in Teaneck, N.J., just outside of New York City. That left Hali to be raised by his mother, Rachel Keita, amidst worsening conditions.
In 1989, Liberia plunged into a full-fledged civil war, and by the time Hali was nine years old, the violence in his town had become intolerable.
As a result, Keita took Hali and his three siblings into the countryside to try to stay safe. They lived the hard lives of refugees, foraging for what little food they could find while having the withstand the sight of dead bodies being stacked up around them.
The family eventually made it to the Ivory Coast, and at the age of 10, Hali made it to Jersey, as his father used his new U.S. citizenship to get Visas for him and his siblings.
But Keita did not receive one, possibly because she had never married Hali’s father, and therefore she was left behind in war-torn Liberia, where she would have very little contact with Hali for the next dozen years.
In 2006, once Hali himself became a citizen, he was able to bring Keita to the States on a visa, and he would reflect on that moment and on what helped him get out of his native country in one piece.
“It’s my mum, you know,” said Hali. “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.”
Once safely settled in Teaneck, Hali attended Teaneck High School. At first, he played basketball and dreamed of becoming an NBA star, but his aspirations started to change when one of his teachers called Dennis Heck, the school’s football coach, and told him that Hali had potential as a football player.
Heck got Hali to play on the varsity football team, and he found that it was fun and easy for him. He lettered in both football and basketball, and on the gridiron, he excelled at the position of defensive end, getting 45 solo tackles, 24 tackles for loss and 12.0 sacks as a junior.
The following year, he improved to 64 solo tackles while also recording 23 stops for loss and eight sacks. It earned him an All-America nod while also being a nominee for the New Jersey 2001 Gatorade Player of the Year.
In just several years, he had gone from a skinny, unassuming 11-year-old to a 6-foot-2, 270-pound monster on the field. Off it, he had become Americanized, taking an interest in rap music and developing a Jersey accent.
By now, Hali was considered a four-star college recruit and one of the best defensive ends in the nation. He earned a scholarship to play football for Pennsylvania State University, one of the most storied college football programs in the nation, under legendary coach Joe Paterno.
Hali was already living the American dream, but he was just getting started.
An Impactful Nittany Lion
At Penn State, Hali would go from a refugee getting to play a sport that he loved, to a serious prospect who had serious value.
He played very little in his first three years with the Nittany Lions, but he took off like gangbusters in his senior season of 2005.
📽️ November 5, 2005: #OTD 2005 All-American and future NFL All-Pro Tamba Hali (@TambaHali91 ) had as dominant a DE performance as you'll ever see as #10 Penn State defeated #14 Wisconsin 35-14. #TBT #WeAre #PSULegends pic.twitter.com/v37EBXHXBn
— WeAreLegends (@WeArePSULegends) November 5, 2020
That year, Hali had 65 tackles (27 solo), 17 tackles for loss and 11 sacks. Penn State went 11-1 on the season, and it advanced all the way to the Orange Bowl where it beat Florida State University 26-23.
The adopted Jersey native won a number of honors in 2005. He was a unanimous All-American, the Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year and a member of the All-Big Ten first-team.
Six-time Pro Bowler and Penn State legend Tamba Hali is officially retiring from the NFL
His forced fumble to seal an upset win over Ohio State in 2005 produced one of the loudest moments in Beaver Stadium history😤
— Barstool Penn State (@PSUBarstool) May 10, 2021
He was also a finalist for the Ted Hendricks Defensive Player of the Year award, as well as the Bronko Nagurski Trophy, which is given to the top defensive player in college football.
As a participant in the 2006 Senior Bowl, Hali was named the contest’s MVP.
Headed To Kansas City
Initially, as the 2006 NFL Draft approached, Hali was not a hot prospect. But once The Sporting News did a cover story on his escape from Liberia and his subsequent success at Penn State, pro scouts started to pay attention to him.
His stock rose even more when he impressed scouts at pre-draft workouts and at the annual NFL Combine, both on and off the field. Although Hali wasn’t expected to be a first-round pick, the Kansas City Chiefs took him right then and there with the 20th overall selection.
At the time, the Chiefs were a decent team, but their defense was lacking, especially their pass defense. New head coach Herm Edwards was so impressed with Hali in training camp that he made the rookie the team’s starting defensive end.
Hali recorded 62 tackles (44 solo), 10 tackles for loss, seven quarterback hits and eight sacks in 2006, which earned him the Mack Lee Award for being the Chiefs’ best rookie, as well as a spot on the NFL’s All-Rookie Team. The team won nine games that year and made the NFL playoffs for the first time in three years, where it lost to the Indianapolis Colts.
Hali’s rookie season was also eventful for him off the field. During training camp, he became a permanent U.S. citizen, while his mother arrived in the States in late September.
She got to see Hali play live and in-person during Week 4 when the Chiefs blanked the San Francisco 49ers 41-0 in Kansas City. She would eventually attend his games on a regular basis, although it took her a while to learn and understand the American variety of football.
Over the next few years, the Chiefs went through tough times. The team’s QB play was pitiful, and its offense would suffer as a result.
But Hali would continue to emerge and thrive as one of the league’s better pass rushers. In 2009, he was moved to outside linebacker, a position he wasn’t too familiar with, when new head coach Todd Haley switched to a 3-4 defensive front, but it didn’t affect his performance, as he recorded 8.5 sacks, 63 tackles (48 solo), 11 QB hits and a safety.
Then in 2010, Kansas City enjoyed a resurgence. Quarterback Matt Cassel had a career season, and so did Hali, as he registered 14.5 sacks along with 12 tackles for loss and 27 QB hits.
He was rewarded with his first selection to the Pro Bowl, although he didn’t actually play in the game due to personal reasons.
The Chiefs returned to the playoffs, and although they lost to the Baltimore Ravens by a wide margin, Hali did well with seven tackles, one QB hit and one pass defended.
The NFL experience a labor stoppage in 2011 due to a lockout, but it didn’t prevent Hali from becoming a very rich man. He was given a five-year contract that August that was worth $60 million, $35 million of which was guaranteed.
When some pro athletes get their big payday, they become complacent and their production may dip a bit. But that was not the case for Hali.
He continued to feast on opposing offenses with 66 tackles (48 solo), a dozen tackles for loss, 27 QB hits and 12.0 sacks in 2011, which earned him another Pro Bowl nod, as well as a spot on the All-Pro team.
I think one of the most memorable games of my life as a Chiefs fan was also one of the most dominant performances of Tamba Hali's career. 3 sacks and he took over the game. Relentless effort from start to finish. @ArrowheadLive pic.twitter.com/uYwCEK75Qs
— Caleb James (@CJScoobs) May 11, 2021
Although Kansas City missed the playoffs, it wasn’t Hali’s fault; the Chiefs ranked 12th in points allowed, but next-to-last in points scored.
The 2012 campaign would be even worse for the team, as it won just two games. But it was another strong season for Hali, who had nine sacks, 51 tackles (43 solo) and 13 tackles for loss and was named again to the Pro Bowl, this time as a starter.
Finally, in 2013, the Chiefs would field a strong team. Under new head coach Andy Reid, quarterback Alex Smith, who had recently been acquired from the 49ers, had a Pro Bowl year, and as a result, Kansas City finally had one of the NFL’s better offenses.
On the other side of the football, Hali continued to do his thing with 11.0 sacks, 12 tackles for loss and 15 QB hits, which got him his third consecutive selection to the Pro Bowl and his second selection to the All-Pro squad. He even recovered a fumble for a touchdown, the first time he had ever done so.
By now, he was also playing a leadership role within the team. Justin Houston, the Chiefs’ other outside linebacker, was emerging as a Pro Bowl pass rusher in his own right, and he felt Hali helped him get to that level.
“He’s the reason why my career has improved so much,” said 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.”
With an 11-5 record, Kansas City returned to the playoffs, where it faced Andrew Luck and the Indianapolis Colts. It held a 38-10 lead early in the third quarter and seemed to be on its way to an easy win, but the Colts stormed back with an incredible comeback, taking a 45-44 lead with 4:21 left in the fourth quarter.
Smith couldn’t get his squad into field goal range, and the Chiefs suffered one of its more heartbreaking playoff defeats in recent memory.
Hali only managed one tackle and one QB hit in the contest, and Kansas City certainly could’ve used more from him, especially as its lead dwindled.
But he would continue to be a major factor for the Chiefs. In 2014 he had 59 tackles (47 solo), and he followed that up with 48 tackles (39 solo), 11 tackles for loss and 18 QB hits in 2015, while getting named to the Pro Bowl both years.
Kansas City narrowly missed the playoffs in ’14, but it qualified for the postseason in ’15 by posting an 11-5 record. Once there, it shut out the Houston Texans in the wild card round 30-0 to give Hali his first playoff win and the franchise its first such victory since way back in 1993.
However, in the divisional round, the Chiefs couldn’t hang with the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots, as they lost to Tom Brady and company 27-20.
By now, Hali was in his 30s, and age seemed to be catching up with him. Although he had always been a high-energy, high-intensity player, he wasn’t sacking opposing quarterbacks as much as he had when he was a little younger.
For the 2016 season, Hali got a new three-year contract to remain in Kansas City, despite rumors that the team would release him. Reid would make him a second-stringer, and he would only get two starts that year.
Hali still managed 34 tackles (24 solo), 3.5 sacks and nine quarterback hits. By now, the Chiefs were building a winner, as they boasted young offensive stars in tight end Travis Kelce and wide receiver Tyreek Hill.
Tamba Hali left many memories in KC, but this play has always stood out to me. My first year on the beat. This was a wily 33-year-old veteran on third down with 9:33 left in overtime mustering all the juice he had left. Siemian went down, and Hali didn’t even have to touch him. pic.twitter.com/lzZnAFPHCa
— Matt Derrick (@mattderrick) May 10, 2021
They won 12 games in 2016, earning them first place in the AFC West and a date in the divisional round versus Ben Roethlisberger and the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Hali only took the field for seven snaps in that contest, and the Chiefs came up just short, 18-16.
The next year, he was unable to participate in training camp and the preseason due to an injury that the Chiefs kept undisclosed. He was finally activated just prior to their Week 9 game against the Dallas Cowboys and appeared in five contests that season, but he was only able to record a grand total of one solo tackle and one QB hit.
Although Hali played in Kansas City’s wild card playoff contest versus the Tennessee Titans, he recorded no tackles, and the Chiefs suffered yet another heartbreaking loss, blowing a 21-3 halftime lead in a 22-21 defeat.
The following March, the Chiefs released Hali, although, in a classy gesture, he did sign a one-day contract with them three years later so that he could officially retire as a member of the only team he had ever played for.
We have signed Tamba Hali to a one-day contract. The six-time Pro Bowler will officially retire as a member of the Kansas City Chiefs 🙌 pic.twitter.com/UDTIvjl7pb
— Kansas City Chiefs (@Chiefs) May 10, 2021
It’s too bad Hali didn’t get a chance to take the field with them during the 2019 season when they won the Super Bowl, but he still made an indelible mark on franchise history, as he finished second in team history in sacks, trailing only the legendary Derrick Thomas.
Two years before his retirement, Hali experienced a harbinger of his next life when he and his fiance Mary Glasgow celebrated the birth of their first son, who they named Tamba Hali II.
Throughout his NFL career, he spent some of his spare time training in Brazilian jiu-jitsu with the help of well-known coach and competitor Rener Gracie. After several years of training, Hali earned his purple belt late in 2017.
One of his big interests off the field has always been music. He has spent years writing rap songs, with the help of his own studio that is located in the basement of his home.
Nigerian songwriter, D.J. and producer Masterkraft produced a single by Hali, “The One For Me,” that was released in June 2017 on Apple Music.