NEW ORLEANS -- Planted in the middle of the Baltimore Ravens' defense, 350-pound Haloti Ngata is an awful lot for an NFL offensive lineman to handle.
So just imagine what opponents were facing when he was running with the ball as a Highland rugby player in his high school days in Salt Lake City.
"I don't think they liked it as much," Ngata said Thursday, "but I loved it."
He's not quite as intimidating now that he's merely trying to shove aside blockers and make tackles, but he's highly productive in this job description. In his seventh NFL season, Ngata is becoming a perennial All-Pro performer and an anchor of the Baltimore team that will meet San Francisco in Sunday's Super Bowl XLVII.
He's big, but he's not merely taking up space. Ravens linebacker Paul Kruger ranks him among the team's top three athletes, saying Ngata "can move like a running back."
By now, the Ravens are accustomed to watching him make plays outside of a defensive tackle's traditional range. "Other people are surprised by his overall athletic ability, based on his size whenever you see him. He can do some things that are cat-like," said Clarence Brooks, the Ravens' defensive line coach.
Having chosen Oregon over BYU in a drama-filled recruiting process in 2002, Ngata is establishing himself as one of the best NFL players ever to come from a Utah high school. Beyond that, teammates and others who have known him throughout the years say he's grounded.
He's been shaped by tragedy. The death of his father during Haloti's freshman year of college - Solomone Ngata was killed in a semi-truck rollover near Salt Lake City International Airport - was crushing to him. "I didn't do the proper things I needed to do to mourn correctly I didn't allow anybody to help," he said.
If anything, the season-ending knee injury he sustained the following year at Oregon motivated him to get going again. He responded by becoming a star for the Ducks. And then, just before the Ravens made Ngata the No. 12 overall pick in '06 NFL draft, his mother, Olga, became ill and died.
Larry Wilson, his high school football coach, witnessed the impact on Ngata, having lost his parents within four years. "He felt very alone in the world," Wilson said. "They were so proud of him . . . the greatest supporters any person could ever have. None of us could ever come close to replacing them, just try to be there and do our part."
Wilson considered spending Ngata's rookie season with him in Maryland, before deciding to let him establish his own life. "It's worked out tremendously," Wilson said.
As a defensive lineman, Ngata is far from the most recognizable Raven. But he's among the most respected players. "Everyone on that team, from Ray Lewis on down to whoever the last guy on the practice squad is, they all gravitate to this guy," Brooks said.
And Sunday, he'll be right in the middle of Baltimore's quest for a Super Bowl victory.