KANSAS CITY, Mo. —A big man in football pads walks through a hallway at the Chiefs' practice facility, talking about greatness.
He says talent isn't enough. A man has to be willing to make changes in his life. He needs a mind like a sponge, an attitude like a shield, and a work ethic that doesn't stop.
Sometimes he needs to do more than he says.
Tamba Hali doesn't do interviews, or hasn't for a long time. He prefers to remain quiet. It's not that he doesn't enjoy discussing things that are important to him. To Hali, the Chiefs' 27-year-old linebacker, hard work and silence are deep- rooted, and he learned two decades ago that speaking can have consequences.
Back then, in his native Liberia, the wrong combination of words could get a man killed. In the years since, Hali found that the consequences aren't as dire — but that words can sometimes take all a man knows, or thinks he knows, and twist and bind it like a piece of fabric.
He passes through a set of double doors, the border of where players usually roam in this building, and eases himself into a chair in a small office. Today is different.
"I promised you a story," he says, and he begins to pull the thick tape from his hands.
X X X
In the old days, Hali was a wanderer. He took walks often through his village near Monrovia, the capital of this civil war-torn nation in West Africa. People worked hard here, and he liked to watch them. Some days, he'd watch men as they went on a hunt; one day, he watched a woman using a giant mortar and pestle to grind cassava leaves — which are delicious when ground into a paste, but poisonous when eaten whole.
"It might not make sense," Hali says.
These are the contradictions he grew up surrounded by. His village was a place of peace, but murderous rebels were never far away. His stepfather was a strict Muslim, a man proud of his faith, but because Muslims were being killed throughout Liberia, each time a stranger asked what he believed, he lied. Hali learned to adapt. He also learned that, while his family was in hiding during the war, he was to follow instructions without questioning them.
When he was 6, young Tamba's mother introduced her younger son to a man he'd never met.
"Go with him," she told him that morning, and the boy did what his mother said. His older brother, who's also named Tamba, went in another direction with a different stranger.
Young Tamba and the man walked beyond the outskirts of the village, into the jungle and to places the boy had never seen. Why were they walking so far? The man wouldn't say. They kept walking.
When the sun tucked behind the hills, hours after they had begun their walk, the man stopped. This was as good a place as any to make camp, he told the boy. Would he like to sleep here? No, Tamba said. He wanted to turn back. Could they go home?
Of course, the man said. But they wouldn't be back until morning. By then, the threat would surely be over. The villagers had heard earlier that the rebels were coming; bloodshed and unthinkable things transpired when a village was invaded. Whatever had happened, it was over now. Hali's family sent their sons away; they believed the boys would be safer in the wilderness with strangers than at home among rebels.
"Whatever they were doing," Hali says now, "my mom didn't want me to see it."
Tamba cried most of the way home. The sun was rising when they returned. He found his family safe, but he never asked what had happened.
"In that culture," he says, "it's best to keep quiet. You always stay quiet."
X X X
The time came, and Tamba was sent away from Liberia, to a promising land on the other side of the Atlantic. His father was a chemistry teacher, and Hali moved in with him in New Jersey.
He took the lessons from the old days with him to America. He didn't mind hard work, and he didn't ask many questions or talk out of turn. He listened to instructions and did what he was told. Exactly what he was told. When a high school coach told players to run the track, most walked. But that's not what Hali did, because that's not what the coach said.
"My mind," he says, "was to run the track."
Later, his football coach told him he didn't have to worry about footwork and hand placement and technique. Hali's assignments were easy. Stand here. Put your hand on the ground. Then, whoever has the ball, go get him. Simple as that.
He used to hear the other coaches bragging about his work ethic. He could never understand why this was unusual. On cold mornings in north Jersey, Hali wouldn't wear a shirt under his shoulder pads; it was his plan to work harder and be tougher than his teammates, and if he did that, maybe the cold wouldn't catch up with him, either.
This was the way he knew.
X X X
Here's another story: Football and hard work took Hali to Penn State, and after four seasons there, he was one of the nation's best defensive ends and became the Chiefs' first-round draft pick in 2006. The strange thing, at least to Hali, was that at first, the NFL was easier in some ways than college.
Offseasons with the Nittany Lions were brutal; players were told to sprint the length of the field, including one end zone, 16 times before they got a four-minute break. Then it was time to run another 16 sprints.
After Hali's first season with the Chiefs, workouts were laid back. Instead of 32 total trips down the length of the field, he says, players were maybe running eight 80-yard dashes and then calling it a day. Most players loved this environment. This was the big-time. This was living. Hali was ready to jump out of his skin.
"I was like: 'Are you kidding?'" he says. "It was a piece of cake.... I ain't gonna throw out names, but guys didn't want to work."
Hali says the Chiefs, during his first three seasons, were lazy and poorly conditioned. Coaches rarely pushed players, and there were times the team just wasn't ready for games. Opponents, Hali says, knew the Chiefs were out of shape, and he thinks that had as much as anything to do with the team losing 26 games in 2007 and 2008.
So each spring, Hali returned to State College to work out with Penn State. This was the itch he couldn't reach in Kansas City, the intensity that, for reasons that didn't make sense to Hali, wasn't there at the game's highest level.
When Todd Haley was hired as the Chiefs' coach in February 2009, Hali approached his new boss and told him about his offseason plans. Workouts aren't difficult enough here, he told Haley. If the coach wondered where Hali was, he'd be on some field or in a weight room at Penn State.
Haley asked one favor, and he'd make offseason workouts as intense as Hali could handle.
"I told him to give us a chance," Haley says now, before a devious smile creeps onto his face. "Then we worked his ass off."
X X X
Haley's way came with a caveat: Players had to do what he said. Exactly what he said. That meant conforming to a method that didn't always make sense, and believing in something that might not immediately show results. And to choose their words carefully when speaking publicly.
When some players complained about the intense new workouts, Hali finally felt satisfied. Players either conformed or were given up on. Some didn't last more than a few weeks.
The caveat for Hali was that, after three NFL seasons, he wasn't going to be a defensive end anymore. The Chiefs would be running the 3-4 defense, and within it, Hali fit only at outside linebacker. No, Hali admits, he wasn't comfortable. Even now, nearly two years after the transition, he says he still thinks of himself as a lineman masquerading as a linebacker.
But as always, Hali didn't question authority. He didn't complain to coaches or to his teammates. While he was at it, he figured that, at least publicly, he just wouldn't say anything.
"It doesn't matter who you are; they'll get rid of you," he says. "I knew being quiet was one of the ways I could help myself.
"I can say something that could trigger my coaches to say — whether I meant it another way, it could have them thinking that I'm not on the ship with them. I figure, work. They're here to see who can work."
The same as he did so many years ago, when word reached the village that the rebels were coming, he closed his mouth and did what he was told. For nearly two years, Hali has declined all interview requests. He told The Star earlier this season that, once he passed his previous career-high in sacks, the 8 1/2 he tallied in 2009, he would agree to an interview. He registered his ninth and 10th sacks last Sunday against Denver.
Looking back on those first months as a linebacker, he admits now that he wondered if he would be effective in coverage situations. He was a pass-rusher; his talent and passion was in putting hand down and chasing the guy with the ball.
Now, the Chiefs were asking him to be something different.
"They were taking me out of what I like to do — love to do. I love to rush the passer," he says. "I'm not going to say I had doubts. I wasn't sure what they were looking for."
Hali wondered if Haley's experiment would work, but he kept at it. He kept watching film and kept studying the great ones. The team also seemed willing to tailor the position to Hali's strengths. His coverage skills have improved, but he is still seen as a pass-rushing specialist.
He does the work of a linebacker, but he hasn't yet fully trained his mind to think of himself as one.
"I always keep in my head," he says, "at the end of the day, I'm a defensive end."
X X X
Hali comes off the edge, bounces off Denver's Ryan Clady, one of the league's best left tackles, and runs toward Kyle Orton. In a flash, Hali lifts his right arm and drops it near Orton's right shoulder, bringing down the Broncos quarterback and jarring the ball loose. It is last Sunday at Arrowhead Stadium.
"Strength and quickness," Chiefs coordinator Romeo Crennel says. "Makes him tough to handle."
Whether Hali believes it or not, this is what a pass-rushing outside linebacker looks like. His 10 sacks are tied for third in the NFL, and he's doing this with several severe injuries. Hali says he doesn't want the specifics to be printed, so that opponents can't target the affected body parts.
Hali is not only the Chiefs' best pass-rusher, he's also the team's only real force at getting to the quarterback. He is one of the anchors of a defense that is a major factor in the team's 8-4 record, and with questions this week about the Chiefs' offense after quarterback Matt Cassel's midweek appendectomy, defensive playmakers will be leaned on now more than they have been all season.
"People are pointing their fingers to me," he says. "'You're the rusher. You're the rusher.'"
Here's the only potential problem with Hali: His contract is set to expire after this season, and he admits there's a chance he'll hit the free-agent market. Hali says he wants to retire in Kansas City. He likes Haley and enjoys playing with many of the team's veterans. But for now, the Chiefs and Hali's agent, Brian Mackler, have suspended negotiations. The sides haven't spoken in weeks.
"If they want to get something done," Mackler says, "they have my number."
Hali, meanwhile, says he doesn't think much about it. He has enough on his mind, and besides, a man can't change what he is and where he came from.
"That's another thing we were taught: patience," he says. "It'll pay off."
X X X
Hali leans forward and checks the time on his iPhone. He has to be in a meeting in a few minutes, and it takes time to get out of these pads. It is again time to stop talking and work.
In some ways, Hali never stopped being that young wanderer whose eye was drawn years ago to the woman grinding the cassava leaves. It was hot that day in the village, and there were maybe a dozen reasons for her to stop.
When the air grew too hot or the leaves too stubborn, the woman paused to wick the sweat from her forehead. Then she got back to work. She didn't ask why it was so taxing, and there was no one interested in hearing her complain and no purpose in it anyway. She did her work quietly, because if she hadn't kept grinding, she could've poisoned her family.
The boy watched her for a long time, and the woman's silent determination made an impression.
"As a child," Hali says now, "you just notice some things."
Before he stands to head to the locker room, Hali makes one last point: A careless approach has consequences, and although they might not always be as severe as death, the great ones behave as if they can be. He says he wants to be seen as one of the great ones someday. It might take time, Hali says, and he's willing to abide that. It's the effort he won't compromise.
"It's a mental thing," he says, and his West African accent isn't the only reminder of where he's been. "I always believe you've got to work. Everything will never fall into your lap."