By Kevin Kelly
Catholic Key Associate Editor
KANSAS CITY — He packs 275 pounds of sculpted muscle on a 6-foot, 3-inch frame.
But Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Tamba Hali knows hunger.
“I grew up not eating,” Hali said Oct. 29, as he prepared to fill the plates for some 375 people who came to St. James Place for the best and, for most of them, the only meal they would eat that day.
“During the war, there was no food. You had to go from village to village looking for food and shelter every day,” he said.
The war was the civil war that broke out in 1986 in Hali’s native Liberia, when he was three years old. His parents fled literally for their lives and the lives of their four children.
Hali’s university-educated father Henry was able to escape on a refugee visa to the United States, but it wouldn’t be until Tamba was 10 years old and his father was established in a career as a high school chemistry teacher that he was able to find and bring his children, including Tamba, to a new life in a new country.
In addition to feeling hunger, Tamba Hali saw the horrors of war as a child. But one good lesson was learned, and it would be the lesson that brought him to the midtown community kitchen on Oct. 29.
“People helped us,” he said. “And now, I want to help people.”
Hali asked his fiancé, Andrea Walter, to look for a charity that fed those who would not otherwise eat. She contacted the Bishop Sullivan Center that operates both the community kitchen and the food pantry at St. James Place, near St. James Parish at 39th Street and Troost Avenue.
When they toured the facility and saw the needs that were being met there, Hali wrote a check for $5,000 — far more than enough to feed the nearly 400 people who would come on Oct. 29. But it came with a catch.
“I told them that it had to be very good food, and good, nutritious food,” Hali said.
St. James Place director Mike Mathews pulled out the stops.
He ordered chicken spiedini, pasta, salad, greens, fruit and dessert.
“They are a very good agency that does a lot of good, so we are happy to help,” Walter said.
Buying the food wasn’t enough for Tamba and Andrea. At 4 p.m., a half hour before the kitchen doors opened, they came to serve the meal themselves, bringing along with them Andrea’s sister Deanna and cousins Abby and Jackie Walter.
“Andrea asked us to be here, and we’re here to support her,” Jackie Walter said.
“We’re family,” Abby quickly added.
And they also brought one more guy — Hali’s teammate and linebacker Derrick Johnson.
“We always got each other’s back,” Johnson said, who was given the job of busing tables and meeting and greeting the people who came that evening to eat.
“Tamba comes to my charity events and I come to his,” Johnson said.
Like his teammate, Johnson felt the need to give back to a Kansas City community that has given him so much. His charity is his own foundation, Defend the Dream, which provides literacy and education assistance to disadvantaged youth.
“Education is the key,” said Johnson, who said he is as proud of his degree from the University of Texas as he is of any of his athletic accomplishments.
“My mom instilled that in me, and a lot of great values,” he said, “and I take pride in helping out.”