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Journey brings Penn State's Hali to Senior Bowl

Tamba Hali couldn't have imagined things turning out quite so well. Not as a 10-year-old fleeing civil war in Liberia.

MOBILE, Ala. (Jan. 25, 2006) -- Tamba Hali couldn't have imagined things turning out quite so well. Not as a 10-year-old fleeing civil war in Liberia. Not as a college student only able to talk to his mother a few times a year.

And not even as a Penn State starter, playing out of position.

Now, Hali is an All-American defensive end who is preparing for the Senior Bowl with other NFL prospects and looking forward to a high-paying job playing pro football. He even gets to speak to his mother once or twice a week now.

"It's like a dream come true," Hali said. "You kind of look at it and say you really appreciate what's happened and you're trying to take advantage of things. Who knows, I could have been dead by now.

"And here I am today, among the best of the best of football players. I'm just happy to be among them."

He earned the spot in the Senior Bowl with a terrific final season after finally getting his wish to move to defensive end after spending two seasons as a run-stuffing tackle.

The 6-foot-2, 265-pound Hali led the Big Ten with 11 sacks and was a finalist for the Nagurski Trophy as the nation's top defensive player. All along, he wouldn't let the coaches forget where he felt he belonged.

"I just kept reminding them that I wanted to play the end position," Hali said. "I felt like playing the end position was where I was going to excel. I felt that was where I was going to make my living."

Things aren't just shaping up nicely for Hali on the field. With Liberia recovering from the civil war, his mother, Rachel Keita, is finally able to stop constantly moving around.

"Before it was real hard getting in contact with her because we didn't know where she was," said Hali, who estimated he used to only talk to her once or twice every six months. "Now she's in a stable place.

"It's a relief just knowing she's doing better. It feels better to know that she's not in harm's way."

Hali, meanwhile, has filed the paperwork to become a U.S. citizen and is waiting to take the required exam.

He's hoping his citizenship and expected status as an NFL player will help in the slow process of bringing his mother to America. They haven't seen each other since a 10-year-old Hali fled Liberia with his father, a chemistry and physics teacher. The two settled in New Jersey.

Penn State teammate Anwar Phillips, also playing for the North squad Jan. 28, knows Hali's story. He also knows he can't really understand it fully.

"You can't imagine because you're not in his shoes," Phillips said. "You just feel sorry but you also feel like you want him to make it so he can do the best possible for himself and his family.

"It disciplined and groomed him. He had to work hard, because his objective was to find somehow, some way to get his mother over here and football could be an asset to him."

Hali, who started 34 of 35 games over the past three seasons, helped spark a turnaround season at Penn State. He made a huge play in a 17-10 victory against Ohio State, forcing a fumble with a sack in the final two minutes.

Hali wasn't among those caught by surprise by the Nittany Lions' dramatic improvement.

"You picture this happening," he said. "I stated to the media a couple of times before the season that I didn't feel anybody in the Big Ten could play with us. Some guys looked at me like I was crazy.

"We came in and we made it happen."

The Associated Press News Service

Copyright 2006, The Associated Press, All Rights Reserved

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