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Faith comes before football for Chiefs' Abdullah

7/28/2014

By Sam Mellinger

By Sam Mellinger

McClatchy-Tribune

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 turned 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 said 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.