THE ANNOUNCEMENTarrived shortly after 11 a.m. local time last Saturday in Las Vegas, andmoments later Haloti Ngata broke down. As nearly 100 relatives and friendspoured into a cramped private room of the ESPN Zone, cheering his name and thenews that the Baltimore Ravens had selected the 6'4", 338-pound Oregondefensive tackle with the 12th pick in the draft, Ngata hugged his foursiblings, one after another, clutching them tightly. Each time he let go of onefamily member and reached for another, more tears welled in his eyes.
For the Pac-10co-defensive player of the year, widely considered the best run-stoppinginterior lineman in the draft, becoming a first-round pick was the culminationof a long journey filled with heartbreak. While Ngata savored every minute ofthe celebration with his brothers, Finau, Vili and Junior, and his sister, Ame,on Saturday, his thoughts were with the two people who were gone from hislife.
In December 2002Ngata's father, Solomone, was killed in a single-vehicle truck accident. Andlast Jan. 13, shortly after the end of Haloti's junior season, his mother,Olga, who suffered from diabetes, died of a heart attack while receivingdialysis treatment. "They were all I could think about when I heard my namecalled," said Ngata (pronounced NAH-ta), whose parents had both emigratedfrom the Pacific island of Tonga before Haloti was born, "It's a greatmoment for me, and I wish they could've been here to be a part of it."
Olga's declininghealth had factored heavily into Haloti's decision to turn pro early.Distraught after her husband's death, she had failed to take proper care ofherself and suffered from kidney disease, a common complication for diabetics.Haloti nearly left Oregon before his sophomore year to return to his hometownof Salt Lake City and help support Olga. When she entered a Phoenix hospitalfor dialysis treatments on Jan. 1, he asked his mother if she approved of hisdecision to enter the 2006 draft. Olga said yes.
Twelve dayslater, while Haloti was training for the draft in Houston, he received the newsthat Olga had died. He was stunned--he and his family had understood that hismother's health was improving and that she might soon leave the hospital.
After the funeralon Jan. 24, three days after his 22nd birthday, Ngata returned to Houston toprepare for the NFL combine. His uncle, Haloti Moala, joined him there for fourweeks to provide emotional support. "This had always been his dream, and hewanted to follow through on it, especially because his mother had supportedit," Moala said. "He wanted to make sure he was in the best shape hecould be for the combine. Football kept him going when his father died, andit's done the same for him through his mother's death."
When Ngata talksabout how he has endured the tough times, he mentions his Mormon faith and thesupport he's received from Moala; from his longtime girlfriend, ChristinaAdams; and from his high school coach, Larry Wilson. They were among themultitude crammed into the room when Ngata's dream was realized on Saturday.Fittingly, as he received word from the Ravens, he stood close to three framedphotos of his parents. "I'm thankful to have had my parents for as long asI did," Ngata said. "I'm happy they left this world knowing that theywere proud of me, and I know that they're watching me right now."
Ngata was surrounded by family and friends when the Ravens came calling at No.12.
RON HALT/SPORTSPICS, UNIFORM BY BILL FRAKES, IMAGE DIGITALLY ALTERED BY SI IMAGING