Faith comes before football for KC Chiefs safety Husain Abdullah
07/25/2014 6:55 PM
07/25/2014 8:13 PM
The organized chaos of an NFL practice surrounds Husain Abdullah, and he is tired. His legs feel heavy. This is such an important time for Abdullah. He’s never had an opportunity like this before, and he can’t be sure if an opportunity like this will ever come again.
But, man. He is exhausted. He sees a teammate open a bottle of Gatorade. That would help, if he could drink it. But even water is off-limits for Abdullah, who is competing for the Chiefs’ starting safety spot opposite Eric Berry.
A nap is as good as it gets for recovery during his 13-hour workdays, much of them spent in the July heat with no water. Abdullah is a professional athlete with potentially millions of dollars at stake showing the sports world a whole different meaning of the word sacrifice.
“I do it for God,” he says. “I don’t do it to say I’m a tough guy. Trust me, when it’s not the month of Ramadan, I am not fasting and playing football. You do it for the sake of God, and for me, God comes before anything.”
As a practicing Muslim, Abdullah does not eat or drink from sunrise to sunset during Ramadan, which this year runs from June 28 through Monday. If he needs it, he’ll occasionally rinse his mouth or splash water on his lips.
Trainers give him cool towels to put on his head and neck during breaks. They open the cafeteria at Missouri Western State University, site of the Chiefs’ training camp, at 4 every morning and help Abdullah plan what to eat and drink when the sun is down to be as safe as possible when the sun is out. He eats a big meal just after sunset, and another just before sunrise. In between, he wakes up for a protein shake. Any little bit of nourishment helps.
Abdullah is working with NFL Films on a piece about his religion and football. He hasn’t always liked the extra attention, but now he welcomes the opportunity to talk with teammates or others who are curious about his faith. For many of them, Abdullah is the first Muslim they’ve met.
If he can break down stereotypes, Abdullah is happy to do it.
He didn’t know in the beginning that he was breaking stereotypes not only for Muslims but for football players in general.
The football world can be cruel on many levels. It is insular and often dismissive of those who don’t devote their entire selves to the cause.
This is still a culture that promotes workdays that are longer than necessary, especially among coaches. Talking about time away from family while grinding and sometimes sleeping in the office is like a badge of honor for many. Ryan Fitzpatrick, the quarterback now with the Texans, has talked about his Harvard education being seen by some teams as a negative — he has options outside of football.
All of which makes it remarkable that Abdullah is so plainspoken about where football fits for him.
“It can consume your life, right?” he said. “But for me, it’s not like, ‘This is it.’ For a lot of people, when football is snatched away, it’s like, ‘What do I do with my life?’ So, I mean, for me just to be able to know there’s more to life than just football, that’s very important.”
Abdullah, who turns 29 Sunday, made that clear two years ago when he walked away from the sport at what should’ve been his athletic peak. Abdullah was with the Minnesota Vikings at the time, playing mostly on special teams, and knew that giving up football for a year might turn into giving it up forever.
But he and his brother, Hamza, then a safety for the Arizona Cardinals, took their parents to the holy city of Mecca anyway. The hajj is the Fifth Pillar of Islam, a pilgrimage that all Muslims are to make once if they have the health and wealth.
This was a life-changing decision, and those are rarely simple. Abdullah says he left football and made the hajj for a lot of reasons. He and his brother wanted to be sure their parents experienced it, too, and each felt an undeniable pull.
They could have waited until after their playing careers, but there are no guarantees. For Abdullah, in particular, he says he “yearned for” and “needed” to go. It’s one thing to read about a place. It’s quite another thing to see it firsthand. He says that being Muslim means submitting your will to God, and this “wasn’t always my walk.”
He needed to get that part of himself right.
“Now, I feel like I can call myself a Muslim,” he said.
Abdullah is popular within the Chiefs organization. General manager John Dorsey signed him to a one-year contract last year after a one-on-one meeting, and said, “I like his soul.”
If there were ever concerns about Abdullah’s commitment to football, they’ve been buried under his 18 months of being a model teammate. Abdullah works hard, studies long and is making connections in the game that could someday help him achieve his goal of joining a front office after retirement.
As we’ve seen with the drama between Chris Kluwe and the Vikings, a disagreement centered around alleged homophobic attitudes, NFL locker rooms can be brutal and vile.
Abdullah has no complaints.
“Everybody’s gotta have thick skin,” he said. “We joke about everything. But nobody gets out of line.”
Abdullah isn’t a great athlete, at least not by NFL standards, but makes up for it with anticipation and preparation. Berry, for instance, often praises Abdullah’s understanding of the defense and ability to be in the right place at the right time. Those are the biggest reasons the Chiefs gave Abdullah a two-year, $2.27 million contract as the favorite to replace Kendrick Lewis as their starting free safety.
All of this means that Abdullah has a substantial platform. He’s trying to use it as best he can while balancing the need to remain himself. He took his son Jalaal to a Ramadan sports festival in Qatar earlier this month, leading a football clinic and speaking on the balance between his faith and football. Last fall, he spoke to kids at the Islamic Society of Greater Kansas City. He hopes the piece he’s shooting with NFL Films can help change the way people view those around them.
An interesting point on that, though. Most people tend to think the stereotypes Abdullah is knocking down are about Muslims. And that’s certainly part of it. Abdullah grew up with 11 brothers and sisters, but outside of his immediate family, he didn’t know many other Muslims. Part of him had to be reassured about the meaning of his religion.
Without intending it, Abdullah is also knocking down some stereotypes about football players. A lot of players talk about their interests outside of the sport. Linebacker Tamba Hali has a music label, for instance, and quarterback Alex Smith is a nationally recognized philanthropist, particularly known for helping foster kids.
It’s just that those other interests are usually presented in the context of football paying the bills. You’ll often hear guys say that football has to come first in order for these other opportunities to be there.
With Abdullah, it’s the complete opposite.
He is who he is because of his religion, and he’s shown in the clearest terms possible where those priorities rank. In that way, Abdullah is a stark counter to the obsessive culture in which he works. This is him, fully and authentically, and he doesn’t think he’d be a probable starter in the NFL doing it any other way.
The water can wait.
“I absolutely love football,” he said. “Absolutely love it. Eventually, this game is going to end. Whether I can’t perform, or my body can’t take it anymore, whatever, this game is going to end for me. But I’m still going to have life after that.
“Islam is a way of life. We believe in the hereafter. We believe in paradise. We believe in hell. Worshipping God is going to last all of eternity, and football is not. So when you look at it like that, football has to come after this.”