LOS ANGELES — Naijiel Hale has found his refuge.
He was forced there, the son of a father who died too soon, a father who happened to be a music star.
YoungNateDogg, as he has dubbed himself on Twitter, can’t run from his lineage. The UA football commit may backpedal a bit, but that’s only natural for one of the top cornerback recruits in the country.
The position fits Hale well. Equal parts hitting and cunning, reaction and anticipation. One second, his coach at Bellflower (Calif.) St. John Bosco High School, Jason Negro, says Hale’s best attribute is his physicality, the next, his savvy.
Mainly, it’s because of the pressure.
“I think he likes being the loner guy,” Negro said. “Being out on an island on a corner. That’s the kind of kid he is. When his dad was gone, he had to grow up, and it was his own little sanctuary out there. He thrives in that environment.”
Hale knows pressure, the pressure of being from a broken home, and worse, the pressure of losing his father at 16.
Nate Dogg, born Nathaniel Hale, made his living with his voice. He famously sang with Warren G on the 1994 rap hit, “Regulate,” and worked alongside household rap names like Snoop Dogg, Eminem, Tupac Shakur and Dr. Dre.
Nate Dogg died in 2011 from complications brought on by multiple strokes. He was 41.
“It was the toughest thing I’ve been through,” Naijiel Hale said of his father’s passing. “It’s made me a stronger person. When it was happening, even though he couldn’t talk, I knew what he would tell me, and that’s what kept me going.”
Hale has internalized the anger and the pain, and he knows only one place to let go of it.
“I play defense. I like to hit people,” he said. “It’s a way to release anger for me. It was just there; I was just a mean person on the field. I have my times, but all around I’d say I’m a pretty nice guy. Not on the field.”
• • •
Off the field, this is an interesting time in the life of a prominent high school athlete.
Hale has come off a fantastic senior season for the unbeaten St. John Bosco Braves — a suburban Los Angeles team that finished third nationally in the final Maxpreps.com rankings — and he just played in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl.
He’s less than a month from signing day, when he aims to confirm his verbal commitment to the UA. He plans to move to Tucson and enroll in school this summer.
“I don’t know how ready I am, but I’m pretty excited,” Hale said. “I know I have to still get ready. I have to grow up a little bit more, take things more seriously. It’s all on me. When I’ve needed to be serious, I’ve calmed down things; I understand how to do it.”
Every so often, the kid comes bursting out.
Up in the St. John Bosco football office, a Braves teammate walks by with a paper plate full of pepperoni pizza. Hale hollers at him to come over.
“You said you weren’t hungry!”
“I’m not,” Hale says, grabbing a slice, breaking into that wide smile.
He’s at that curious corner between youth and adulthood, boy and man, even though he was thrust into maturity younger than most.
Arizona is the next step. The Wildcats were the first program to show major interest in Hale, the player. He has continued to be targeted by major programs, including Nebraska, Arizona State and Boise State, and he’s now the 30th-ranked cornerback in the country by Scout.com.
“I took visits down to ASU and a visit to Utah, and it wasn’t the same feeling,” Hale said. “It’s the town, along with the coaches. A few players I know, but most aren’t from L.A., but I’m coming in with some from L.A.”
His familiarity with UA coach Rich Rodriguez helped in his recruitment. Hale’s cousin, James Mouton, played for Rodriguez at Michigan and told the future Wildcat, “These people won’t do you wrong.”
Hale has been prepared for the next step in his life at St. John Bosco, where he transferred from nearby Lakewood (Calif.) High, at a perilous time in his life.
• • •
Nathaniel Hale died on March 15, 2011. As the music community and fans mourned Nate Dogg, 16-year-old Naijiel mourned his father.
Theirs was a complex relationship, as Naijiel lived with his mother and visited his father on weekends and during summers. But they bonded over sports, mostly football and basketball. Family friend Snoop Dogg — who along with cousin Nate Dogg and Warren G formed the rap trio 213 in 1990 — introduced Naijiel to football.
Nate Dogg did not try to hide his lifestyle from his son, and he wasn’t afraid to express his expectations for the young boy.
“They say when you’re drunk the truth comes out, and he was drunk most of the time, nights when he’d be working,” the young Hale said. “He’d tell me and my brother (that) when he died, it’d all be left to us. It’d be on us to hold it down.”
Hale embraces his lineage and uses it as motivation. He’s been blessed — cursed? — with self-expectation, and he hasn’t backed down from wanting to outshine his pedigree.
“It’s just who I am,” Hale said. “When people tell me now they support me because who my dad was, I accept it. It’s good. It’s always going to be with me. It’s the only thing I can do. Your parents want you to be better than them, and I feel like that’s the only choice for me. Everything he did, I have to somehow top that.”
It won’t come with music, that’s for sure. Asked if he has dabbled in the rap game, he laughs it off.
“I mean, I freestyle in school with friends, but nah,” he said, breaking back into that wide grin.
Football is going to be his ticket, his way to establish his own identity. Less than a year after his father died, Hale transferred to St. John Bosco.
He found his path, a way to make his name.
“Sophomore year, I took it more seriously,” Hale said. “Like, this could be a different way out for me. I made all-league at Lakewood, led the state in interceptions, and after my junior year, most people knew me as me. I’ve always just been myself, the athlete.
“Now people say I’m actually good at it, not just Nate Dogg’s son playing football.”