The Wild Recruiting Ride of Haloti Ngata
The Utah star committed to a trio of schools.
The Utah star committed to a trio of schools.

Posted Mar 16, 2002

It’s not unusual for a high school football recruit to have second thoughts and change his mind after committing to a college; dozens do it every year. When it’s the No. 2 recruit in the nation, it’s going to draw a lot more interest and when the prospect does it twice, well, it means there’s a lot more to the story than the typical recruiting process.

When it’s the No. 2 recruit in the nation, it’s going to draw a lot more interest and when the prospect does it twice, well, it means there’s a lot more to the story than the typical recruiting process.

So it was for Haloti Ngata, the 6-foot-4, 310 pound defensive tackle from Salt Lake City Highland. As a junior, the Tongan standout earned Student Sports Junior All-American, but really wasn’t a highly touted prospect until the spring of 2001, when he dominated the Nike Football Training Camp held at Texas A&M.

Showcasing his awesome physical skills, Ngata ran a 4.87 in the 40, jumped 26 in the vertical and did 27 reps of 185 pounds. That paled, however, to his performance in one-on-one line drills when he embarrassed some of the top offensive lineman in the Southwest. Significantly, it was done in front of college coaches from all over the nation.

It wasn’t long before the then junior received scholarships from major powers nationwide including Nebraska, Ohio State, Michigan, Texas A&M, and most of the Pac 10 schools.

A member of the Latter Day Saint (Mormon) faith, BYU was also thought to have a chance, primarily because the Cougars had signed Ngata’s friend and Highland teammate, Victor Felipe, the year before.

Interestingly, though, BYU was not mentioned in the early lists of favorites Ngata mentioned after his stock soared in the spring. Those he did mention included Nebraska, A&M, Washington, Michigan and Oregon.

Ngata not only excelled on the gridiron, he was also a standout on one of the nation’s top rugby teams. That squad was in the Texas area at the time of the Nike Camp, thus the reason the athlete went to that event. He had also considered going to Michigan and later Oregon Nike Camps, but was unable to.

The Oregon camp was attended by a good friend and teammate, Fui Vakapuna, a stellar running back who signed with BYU. Ironically, those two colleges would be the final suitors in the Ngata sweepstakes.

When it came to visiting colleges, Ngata visited Washington and also checked Texas A&M, but both made the same mistake, according to the recruit’s mother, Olga.

“He really liked the schools,” she said, “but at both places he was around drinking which turned him off.”

Nebraska seemed like a logical choice for many reasons. Ngata’s cousin, Mania Brown, was a freshman defensive lineman who saw playing time and really liked the program and coaches (ultimately, however, he would transfer to BYU to be closer to his ill father) and the Highland football coaches had Husker ties after having worked the college’s summer camp.

Plus, the Big 12 school’s development of lineman is legendary and didn’t escape the teenager.

Ngata tripped to Nebraska in early September and jumped into the lead.

“He came home and said the trip was awesome,” Haloti's father, Solomon, told Student Sports at the time. “He liked everything about it and they're looking like the team to beat right now.”

By early December, the decision was made final, at least by the athlete. His mother, Olga, felt differently. Following on the heels of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and partly because of some family members who had legal problems, the recruit’s mother understandably wanted her son to stay close by.

That meant BYU. A home visit by BYU coaches, perversely, pushed the mother into endorsing Nebraska, at least temporarily.

A BYU coach on a home visit reportedly offended the family by taking a cell phone call shortly upon entering the home and continuing it for 20 minutes in the family’s kitchen. Upset by the perceived lack of decorum, Olgan Ngata gave her son permission to commit to Nebraska, a decision both mother and son would soon reconsider.

"He said it was the best place out of all the places he tripped to," Olga Ngata, Haloti's mother told Student Sports the night the player committed. "I was hoping he would stay closer to home but this was his decision. He called Coach (Ron) Brown earlier today and told him he was coming."

A cousin who would soon be instrumental in the player’s recruiting process, Vai Sikahema, the former BYU and Philadelphia Eagle standout, remembers talking to Ngata shortly after his decision.

“He told me he tossed and turned the night after he committed,” he recalled. “Haloti immediately had second thoughts.”

Sikahema spoke to the family about his positive experiences at BYU which had an effect on the family. Within weeks Ngata told Nebraska coaches he was “decommitting” but would still consider the Huskers. It was evident, however, that BYU had strongly entered the picture along with a darkhorse, Oregon.

The Ducks had quietly entered the picture and according to one football official, Derrick Gilmore, “Out coach recruiting Utah, Mike Gillhamer, has a lot of ties in Utah and Mike told the Ngata family he’d recruit Haloti until they told him not to. They never did.”

Sikahema was very public with his desire for his relative to go to the Provo school, posting several articles on a BYU-based website, “Cougar Blue” and it’s related paysite, “Cougar BlueII,” saying as much. Naturally, this drew strong criticism from Husker fans, but Sikahema was unapologetic.

“I feel strongly BYU is the place to be for an LDS athlete,” he said. “Just as Catholics think Notre Dame is the best place to go or Methodists think SMU is, I firmly believe BYU has a lot to offer those of our faith.”

“It was because of Vai that Haloti considered BYU so strongly,” Olga said. “He never initially wanted to stay home in Utah, but Vai pointed out all the good things about BYU and we decided to take the tour (of the campus) because of him.”

By the New Year, the Ngata family appeared to have BYU and Oregon at the top of the list. During the Jan. 5 National Football All-Star Game in Texas, Haloti was interviewed on the sideline and when a reporter, apparently unaware that the recruit had decommitted from Nebraska, referred to the Huskers, Ngata seemed bewildered and unsure of what to say.

In mid January, Ngata took his official visit to BYU with friend Vakapuna. The Friday night of the trip, the Cougars threw a lavish luau and the two Polynesians got up and performed a traditional dance, giving all appearances they were having a great time.

On that Sunday, Ngata and his family went into the office of Cougar Head Coach Gary Crowton and committed. Or at least Olga did. According to eyewitnesses there, Olga said Haloti wanted to attend BYU.

Crowton reportedly asked, “Is this what you want to do?” and the senior nodded yes. Word soon spread of the verbal, but in the ensuing media frenzy no on was ever to get it from Haloti’s mouth that he was happy with the decision.

The reason may have been conflicting advice the player was hearing from within his own family. The uncle he was named after, Haloti Moala, was a lineman at the University of Utah in the ‘80’s and many close to the situation say he was trying to influence his relative to go anywhere but BYU.

His sister, Olga, denies this.

“There is a lot of talk about my brother pressuring Haloti (Ngata) to go somewhere other than BYU and that is so false,” she insisted. “He is very close to my son and is so supportive of him. I named my son after my brother. Haloti (Moala) told him, ‘Whatever you do and decide, I’ll support you.’” My brother is a counselor in the Bishopric (leadership) and anyone that knows him knows he wouldn’t do something bad.”

The recruit, who was honored as the Gatorade State Player of the Year, had also visited Oregon the weekend of the Oregon State game and according to many, the Ducks were prepared for the visit of this highly-touted LDS athlete after a previous standout, Jake Kuresa from Utah, was turned off by the drinking and partying he saw on his official visit to Eugene.

During that weekend visit along with his father, Ngata was introduced to local church leaders who stressed the point that at BYU he would just be another Mormon athlete, but at Oregon he could be a role model. It was a message that hit a chord.

“Bishop Wayne Hunsiker made the point that Haloti can go on a mission and be just another missionary from BYU or if he goes here (Oregon) people will question, ‘Why a mission?’ and he’d be a good example for the young people.”

Also impressive to the Ngata family was the fact Oregon has four LDS players on the team, one of whom, Ryan Loftin, served as the host for Haloti, and head coach Mike Belloti’s wife is LDS, although both go to a nondenominational church.

After the BYU commitment, things died down for a week or so, but Cougar coaches were uneasy, hearing rumors that both Haloti’s wanted the players parents to take an unofficial visit to Eugene.

Also, unsettling was a Salt Lake City newspaper report that an Oregon coach visited Ngata, with the encouragement of the uncle, Haloti Moala, at the school the day after the prospect returned from BYU and the Duck coach had a Cheshire Cat grin on his face.

Did he know then the ultimate outcome?

Olga works for Southwest Airlines and could get herself and immediate family members to Portland for free, before having to drive to the university some 45 minutes away. They were planning on doing this in late January, but the death of Haloti’s grandfather postponed the trip.

A week and a half before signing day, the family attended the funeral in Los Angeles and met up with Haloti’s cousin, Tevita Moala, who had signed with BYU out of Hawthorne, Calif. and ended up transferring to a JC after his mission before finishing at Oregon State in 2000.

Many felt that Tevita’s leaving BYU left a bad taste in the mouths of his relatives in Utah, but he stressed this wasn’t the case.

“It was my fault,” he admitted, “I didn’t do the academic stuff at BYU I needed to. I’m good friends with the coaches and was on their sideline at the San Diego State game (he lives in San Diego).”

He did talk to Haloti at the funeral and noticed the athlete didn’t seem happy with his decision.

“I felt then that he wasn’t going to BYU, that it’d be Oregon,” he recalled.

During the last full week before Signing Day (Feb. 6), BYU coaches called the Ngata family and were reassured that Haloti would sign. However, the athlete visited the University of Utah and on the weekend before signing, the parents did visit Eugene.

It ended up being the Trip to Hell for BYU fans and officials and the decision-changing event that got Oregon “the biggest recruit in our history” according to Duck coach Mike Belloti.

Strangely, the parents tried to keep the decision quiet and initially denied they were in Eugene. Word soon leaked out and by Monday, only 48 hours before signing a letter of intent, Ngata was telling friends at school, “It’s down to BYU and Oregon, with Oregon a slight leader.”

On that Monday, Feb. 4, Olga received a unique phone message at Highland High, where she also works in security. One of the leading church official, Thomas S. Monson, an assistant to Church president Gordon B. Hinckley, asked for an audience with the teenage athlete.

“I got a note saying to call him,” she remembered, “and when I did the secretary said, ‘He’s expecting you.’ My first thought was, ‘What did we do wrong?’

Upon arriving at the Salt Lake City church office, Monson greeted Ngata with a big hug. Haloti, for his part, felt embarrassed to be in just a black t-shirt and in jeans.

“I felt like I was meeting God,” Olga laughed. “He said, ‘Where is Haloti? I’m so glad you’re here.’”

During that important meeting, Monson gave Ngata a “blessing,” a laying on of the hands along with a vocalized prayer. In that prayer, he uttered words that made Olga feel immediately after that Oregon was where her son should be.

“He said that if Haloti would stay pure, he would meet a woman who’s as faithful as he is to take to the House of the Lord (temple to be married) and that wherever he goes, he’ll be a missionary for his beliefs and an instrument of God.”

That night, according to Olga, Haloti and the family prayed about the college decision. The answer: Oregon.

“’Mom, I felt so good about Oregon,’ he told me,” the mother stressed. “I can’t believe this feeling.’ We wondered, ‘Why is the Lord telling us not to go to BYU?’ Haloti just felt Oregon was the place he’s supposed to be.”

The controversy was going to grow more, however, especially in the predominantly Mormon state which is overwhelming pro-BYU.

With the decision made Monday night, Haloti decided to not say anything and continued to tell BYU he was still coming, even saying three times on that Tuesday that he’d be a Cougar.

His parents went along with the decision to not tell the coaches of the change, one that Olga says she now regrets.

“After making the final decision, Haloti didn’t want to talk to people, he didn’t want to get talked out of it,” the mother explained. “We were all tired of people telling him their opinions so we decided to stay quiet, feeling it’d be better for him and us.”

“At the time, we didn’t know what to do,” she continued. “Recruiting was so overwhelming and we thought it was better to keep telling Coach Crowton and Coach (Lance) Reynolds that he’d be coming. Now, in hindsight, I owe them an apology.”

Ironically, while Oregon won the prize, Olga insists her family remains BYU fans.

“Even though Haloti choose to go to Oregon, I love BYU,” she explained. “We support him, I still wish he’d stay close to home, but I have faith that he’ll do a good job. He wants to make us happy.”

“Why things worked out they way they did I don’t know,” she concluded. “God’s will is more important than ours.”

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