The scene Sunday morning could hardly have been further removed from the devastation Hali witnessed during the Liberian civil war. Looking fit and relaxed, he leaned back into his chair at the Marina Marriott hotel, where, not far away, sunbathers lounged and million-dollar yachts bobbed in the placid eddy of the Intercoastal Waterway. Hali will soon be able to afford a yacht of his own, with NFL draft experts projecting him as a potential first-round pick. It's been a good year.
But Hali hasn't been able to rest easy. He has two unrealized goals, the first involving Tuesday's Orange Bowl showdown with Florida State.
Hali, who didn't even know what bowl games were before playing in the Capital One Bowl as a freshman, has never experienced a postseason victory at Penn State. He would like to change that.
Which he very well may. To hear Florida State offensive coordinator Jeff Bowden tell it, Hali will have as big a say as anyone in the outcome of the Orange Bowl. Florida State's injury-ravaged offensive line has struggled to protect freshman quarterback Drew Weatherford. The Seminoles lack depth and are particularly inexperienced at left tackle with junior Mario Henderson having made only two career starts. Their inconsistency, coupled with Hali's portfolio he had a Big Ten-best 11 sacks in 2005 has Bowden feeling wary.
We've seen great ends, we've seen some of the best ends in the country this year, but [Hali] is as good as any of them, he said. We've blocked them well at times and not well at times. If we have trouble blocking that front and he is as good as billed we'll have a long night, no question.
The Seminoles have given up 29 sacks this season while the Nittany Lions' defense finished second in the Big Ten with 38 sacks. Although the Lions' success was due in large part to Hali, he had plenty of help. Defensive tackle Jay Alford had seven sacks while end Matthew Rice had five. That gives Florida State a lot to worry about.
If you key on me, it's a good thing, Hali said. If you see a threat on my side, you might not see another threat, and there is another threat on our defensive line. It's a good thing when the other team is looking at me, but I don't feed into it.
Hali's other goal has nothing to do with football. It involves his mother, Rachel Keita, who stayed behind in Liberia when Hali and his brother came to live with their father, a U.S. citizen, in New Jersey. Hali has not seen Keita in 12 years. He would like nothing more than to bring her to the United States to live.
Hali was separated from his mother when he was 10 years old. At the time, there was little choice but to leave. He had lost cousins and friends in the war, and the fighting was growing more intense with planes strafing the family's neighborhood and sending civilians into hiding. Said Hali: It was chaos.
Hali tells his war stories with an almost serene detachment. His speech is punctuated with bursts of staccato giggles, as if he can't quite believe the absurdity of his own upbringing or his survival. Maybe that's because the stories he shares with strangers are the ones he finds easiest to tell.
There are other things that [people] don't know, said cornerback Alan Zemaitis, one of Hali's closest friends. It's crazy some of the stuff that he's gone through and seen in his life. He's a unique human being, so loyal. I love that dude. Some of the things that he's gone though to get where he's at are incredible. I've seen the stories on TV, but they don't know the half.
Liberia is more stable now than it was when Hali left. The dictator Charles Taylor has been driven out. New president Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf has brought hope to the ravaged country. Said Hali: Maybe we needed a woman president, a female to calm it down a little bit.
Conditions in the country have improved since the civil war ended in 2003. For years, Keita would have to travel to find a working land line, so phone conversations had to be scheduled in advance. But then Hali's father sent her a cell phone. While the connection isn't reliable, she's more accessible than she once was. Hali last spoke to her on Dec. 24.
He is now working to earn his citizenship so that he can bring his mother to the United States. Moreover, there's an effort afoot to use the Paterno family's political connections to speed the process. Joe Paterno's son Scott has spearheaded efforts to reunite Hali with his mother.
Scott's been helping push my citizenship, Hali said. And I know Joe can make a couple of calls and things can happen. After the season, when I'm ineligible to play anymore, that's what I expect the deal will be.
Hali tries not to dwell on Keita's predicament, but she still finds her way into his thoughts. Even when he's dabbling in music he has a software program he uses to create rap songs she keeps coming up. He titled a recent song I Miss My Mother.
On Sunday morning, Hali revealed that his mother just celebrated her 45th birthday. He giggled, as if unsure whether she would want her age revealed, then he turned serious.
I keep her in my prayers, Hali said. I don't try to make it a burden on me and worry about her every day. I just have faith that she's doing well.
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