This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2011, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
Herriman • As long as the NFL lockout drags on, Haloti Ngata knows he has a job at Herriman High School if he wants it.
The all-pro defensive tackle could always trade in his Baltimore Ravens jersey for a Mustangs T-shirt, says Larry Wilson, Ngata's high school football coach. A youthful guy himself, Ngata gets along effortlessly with the high schoolers he volunteers with, and they all watch him attentively, as if he just stepped out of the clouds.
Well, at least into opposing backfields. At 6-foot-3 and 325 pounds, Ngata can bull through or dance past offensive lines better than just about any defensive tackle in the NFL. And the Pro Bowler's next contract is liable to make him more money in a year than Wilson has made his entire life as a high school and college football coach.
"Working here would be a little bit of a pay cut," Ngata jokes.
But the job offer is still out there even if it's just for fun. Wilson, who has the buzz cut of a drill sergeant, has always been one to reach out to his players.
Football teams often are self-described as families. In the lean years, during the unthinkable trials before Ngata found his football success, Wilson became just that family.
The coach and player first met when Ngata was an aspiring high school football player and Wilson was head coach at Highland. Even then, Ngata was larger than all of his peers, but he was also among the fastest.
"He was the biggest kid, but still chasing down receivers and running backs," says Haloti Moala, Ngata's uncle. "His size was bigger than his maturity, though."
That was one of the first problems Wilson dealt with: Ngata was a special athlete but a mediocre student. As a sophomore, he was floundering academically.
So Wilson set up a meeting with Ngata and his parents, Solomon and Olga, and laid out the terms plainly.
"I told them he had the ability to play on Sunday," Wilson recalls. "But he wasn't going to play for me if he didn't get the grades."
For the Ngata family, it was a revelation the first time they realized Haloti's potential. There were no more meetings about sinking grades after that.
Meanwhile, Ngata continued to grow on the football field. His disruptive presence on defense caught the attention of college coaches.
Olga and Solomon had not been to college, so they left much of the recruiting process in the hands of Wilson, who had been an assistant at the University of Utah. With Wilson's help, the Ngatas settled on Oregon. The future was bright for Haloti as he headed off to Eugene.
Solomon Ngata was a former Tongan boxing champion who moved to the United States to marry his sweetheart. He worked a number of odd jobs attempting to support his family, the last of which was as a truck driver.
It was not an easy process: Solomon failed the commercial license test once and was worried he might never pass. But one day, as Haloti was at a Highland practice, Solomon surprised the entire team and drove up in a great white tractor-trailer, honking his horn the whole way.
"When he jumped out of that truck with his hands up," Wilson recalled, "I think that was the proudest Haloti ever was of his dad."
But the job turned out to be a curse. In Haloti's freshman year of college, Solomon's truck overturned on a Utah highway, killing him.
It was a tragic blow for Haloti, whose first inclination was to drop out of school to help his mother and siblings. Although Olga, Moala, Wilson and others managed to persuade him to stay in school, Haloti fell into a deeper funk when he suffered a season-ending knee injury the next year.
Wilson tried to pick up Ngata, calling him and sending him a little bit of money here and there.
"We kept an ongoing dialogue," Wilson says. "Olga emphasized to me that, although I could never replace Solomon, I had to be there and guide Haloti, to be a strong male influence. Haloti grew up real quick."
Ngata's relationship with Wilson grew even more important as he recovered and became one of the premier players in the Pac-10. After being named the conference Defensive Player of the Year as a junior, Ngata chose to enter the NFL Draft, in part because he wanted to help support his mother, who was in failing health.
Then tragedy visited the Ngatas again. During a routine dialysis treatment in Arizona, Olga had a fatal complication. Moala remembers calling Ngata, who was training in Houston, with the news and hearing only sobbing on the other end.
After the funeral, both Wilson and Moala went to live with Ngata for a few weeks, making him breakfast and even volunteering to help train the other prospects at the camp.
On draft day, when Ngata was picked by the Baltimore Ravens, he started to cry, surrounded by family.
"It was definitely a bittersweet day," he says. "I wanted my parents to be there, but they couldn't be there physically. Larry Wilson definitely had to be there."
Smoothing the transition
There was an immediate problem after Ngata was drafted: Due to NCAA rules at the time, he was unable to participate in any team activities until Oregon's semester ended. The Ravens were stranded with a first-round draft pick they couldn't bring in to train and teach the playbook, and Ngata was on the outside looking in.
Wilson came up with an unlikely solution: He would run Ngata's training.
He had coached with then-Ravens offensive coordinator Jim Fassel at Utah, and Fassel vouched for Wilson, of whom nobody else in Baltimore had heard. Could Ngata's old high school coach run NFL-caliber workouts and teach the defensive tackle a pro playbook?
"If I had been them, I would've thought Jim was crazy," Wilson says.
But Fassell sold it. Wilson flew out to Baltimore, soaking in information at team meetings and getting Ngata's playbook. After three days, he flew back and business began. He kept in touch with the Ravens with videos of what the team was doing in practice, and then worked with Ngata to replicate it.
Defensive line coach Clarence Brooks visited Salt Lake City a few weeks into the workouts to check Ngata's progress. As he went over the playbook with his prize draft pick, he got a surprise.
"Haloti got pretty impatient and tried to push the pace," Wilson fondly remembers. "We went through a few drills, and coach Brooks was more than convinced everything was going well. He called the Ravens and told them he was taking an early flight home."
If that wasn't enough proof, Ngata showed he could more than keep up when he finally was able to join the team, earning a starting spot as a rookie.
Ngata is a few years into his career and is almost annually recognized as one of the best defensive linemen in professional football, but he maintains his roots in Utah.
Part of that is trying to give back to the coach who helped carry him. If that means working with a couple of kids every summer, then he does it.
"He's not about what I'm doing with my career he's helped me because he has love for me," Ngata says. "I'll always feel like I'll have to repay him, so I'll help him with his coaching."
Wilson has found his own new challenges, such as trying to get the Mustangs back to the playoffs after success in the school's first year. He still calls Ngata at least once a week to go over game film or just chat.
He's undoubtedly excited that Ngata has managed to do so much in his career, but he's more proud of how he's matured despite his setbacks.
"The one thing you noticed about the Ngata family was the love that was so important to his parents," Wilson says. "Watching him become the man he's become the father he's become has been incredibly rewarding. It honestly doesn't have a whole lot to do with football."