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For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
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Mother's battles motivate DE
By BRIAN LANDMAN
Published January 2, 2006
FORT LAUDERDALE - There was a time as a youngster when Penn State defensive end Tamba Hali would hear a plane overhead and instinctively duck and cover.
He had to be told that it was a commercial liner, not a military jet ready to fire.
After a while, he realized he was in New Jersey and not his native Liberia where, as a 10-year-old, he fled in the midst of a bloody and horrifying civil war.
"It was chaos," he said. "We had to go into hiding all the time. At times, planes would come out and start shooting down. We didn't understand why. We knew they wanted to get our president out of office, but I didn't know why they're killing civilians and it just got worse and worse."
He saw 5-year-olds carrying AK-47s. He was told a younger half-brother died at 6 when he was thrown down a well. He had cousins killed. If any of his family left the house, he couldn't be sure he would see them alive again. His father, Henry, a teacher, had remarried, lived in America and was able to bring his children to safe haven.
Tamba's mother, herself remarried, is still in Africa. Tamba, 22, hasn't seen her since and has to settle for letters and an occasional attempt with a cell phone. Once every six months, his mother, Rachel Keita , 45, goes to a place with a land line at a specific time to talk to her son.
"I keep her in my prayers," said Hali, who is working toward obtaining U.S. citizenship so he can bring her here. "I don't try to make it a burden on me, every day worrying about her. I just have faith that she's doing well."
She is his inspiration, and he hopes that a lucrative job in the NFL also can help him get her out safely. That may come. The 6-3, 267-pound Hali led the Big Ten in sacks (11) and was tied for the lead in tackles for a loss (17). He was named a first-team AP All-American and certainly has the full attention of Florida State offensive linemen who must block him in Tuesday night's Orange Bowl.
Not that his mother understands the first thing about football. She doesn't know the terms or rules and has seen nothing more than pictures her son has sent her.
"If you said "World Cup,' she would understand that," Hali said. "The only thing she might think (of football) is it's risky."
Contrary to hyperbole, it's not war. He knows that and so do his teammates.
"There's things you guys don't know; some of the things he can tell you will make your jaw drop," senior cornerback Alan Zemaitis said. "It's crazy some of the stuff he went through and saw. He's a unique human being. I love that dude."
"To come from that and to rise up from that situation, especially having his mother still over there in that situation, speaks tremendously for the type of person Tamba is," senior defensive end Matthew Rice added. "Regardless of the awards he's received, he's done a lot just to become a man and surviving due to the situation he's come from. To me, he deserves a lifetime achievement award, something bigger than just football. It's something greater than that that he's achieved."
KNOWING HOW IT FEELS: Oft-criticized FSU offensive coordinator Jeff Bowden hated to see the local newspapers, at least the stories about how the University of Miami needs to shake up its offensive coaching staff in the wake of an embarrassing 40-3 loss in the Peach Bowl.
"That's hurtful to read," he said. "It's hard to read that about fellow coaches, but that is the way it is and you just better be able to handle it when it comes."
He said he has developed a thicker skin and done a better job of ignoring the chatter, something he couldn't do when he was first promoted after the 2000 season, and keeping "a tunnel vision" on his offense.