August 21, 2010
There are no guaranteed roster spots for Arizona Cardinals safety Hamza Abdullah(notes), nor for his brother Husain, who plays safety for the Minnesota Vikings. Hamza has played with four different NFL teams since the Tampa Bay Buccaneers selected him in the seventh round of the 2005 draft out of Washington State, and Husain was an undrafted free agent who signed with the Vikings out of the same school in 2008. Each year, hundreds of players like Hamza and Husain fight all the way through training camps, but the Abdullah brothers arm themselves for those battles in a different way - through most of camps, their Muslim faith prevents them from taking any food or water from sunrise to sunset.
The reason is the holy month of Ramadan, which runs from August 11 to September 10 this year, and which Hamza explained to me in a recent interview. "Ramadan is the holiest month in the Islamic calendar," he said. "The month of Ramadan is the month where the Koran was revealed to the prophet Mohammed, peace be upon him. So, during that month, Muslims all over the world unite in a fast. It's an absolute fast from sunup to sundown, and during this fast, we abstain from food, water, anger, fighting, and we're also supposed to maximize our good deeds."
Husain added that he would often fast from other things, such as music and video games; conjugal relations with one's spouse are also commonly abstained from during this time. "People make extra prayers, which are called Tahajjud prayers, which are added at around 1:00 or 2:00 a.m. Also, during Ramadan, we read the whole Koran, which is broken up into 30 parts."
Their faith has been a lifetime pursuit for both brothers, who come from a family of 12. "My mother and father were very big influences on me," Hamza said. "They guided me, but it was on me to be my own man and research and read and find my own way."
"I think it just makes me a better person," Husain added, when I asked what his faith does for him. "People I meet, I would like everyone to say the same thing about me, which I think they do. I just try to respect everyone, to be respectful of my wife and children, to be modest - not being out there doing all kinds of crazy stuff."
But how does a 12-14 hour fast affect them when they're running two-a-days and driving their bodies to the max? Hamza explained that a specific regimen is crucial to success from a physical perspective. "On a typical day, I'll wake up at about 4:30 in the morning and eat a normal-sized breakfast. Waffles, vegetarian sausages and some eggs. Oatmeal or a protein bar in there, and then I start my fast. One important thing is hydration; I probably drink 200 ounces of water in the morning, and after I break my fast, I'm continually drinking throughout the night just to make sure that I'm hydrated and replenishing those fluids that I lost during the day."
Both brothers pointed to times in which they have played better during their fasts. "I always go back to when I was a senior in college in 2004,: Hanza said. "We played UCLA in Pasadena at 12:30 PM, and it was about 80 or 85 degrees. To me, [that game] was the reason I was drafted; it was my statement game. I had a few big hits, a few passes knocked down, and I was running all over the place. I don't know where I got that energy and that sustenance; I just asked God to nourish me. I wasn't drinking or eating, so I wasn't getting the nourishment a normal person would get on gameday."
"Everybody knows that food and drink are fuel for our bodies, not having it can tire you out some," Husain added. "It takes a strong mental sense to do it. I was quoted before as saying that football is something that we choose to do, but fasting is something that we have to do."
Both players consider themselves fortunate to be with teams that understand their traditions. Husain's Vikings have been hyper-aware of proper hydration during practice since the 2001 death of offensive tackle Korey Stringer as the result of complications brought about by heatstroke.
"I couldn't be with a better team than the Vikings, because their awareness is through the roof on that subject now," he said. "They're going out of their way to help me out - making sure that a nutritionist is working with me, and the weight training staff has the proper Gatorade shakes and protein shakes. They're really going out of their way to help me out, and I couldn't be more thankful to be on this team with such caring people."
Hamza had his own view of how teams have reacted. "I've been on four different teams: Tampa Bay, with Jon Gruden and Mike Tomlin. I was in Denver with Coach [Mike] Shanahan and Coach Bob Slowik. I was in Cleveland with Coach [Eric] Mangini, and thankfully, I'm now in Arizona with Coach [Ken] Whisenhunt and Coach [Donnie] Henderson. And they've all been receptive. They may see it as an eye-opening thing - how is he going to accomplish his goals without eating or drinking? Maybe he won't be on the same playing field because he's not getting the same nourishment as the other guys. To me, that just shows our strength and commitment and dedication; that we're going to put God first.
"We're not the only ones fasting - there are millions of people all over the world fasting. But through these sacrifices will come great reward."
They each made sure to mention that if their fasting negatively affected them during practice or on the field, breaking the fast would be okay. "We do want to make sure that nobody goes out there in 100-degree weather, and starts running around, and passes out because of what we're doing," Husain said. "If it's really rough, and you're feeling sick, it would be okay to break the fast. Upon the completion of Ramadan, you would fast those three days, to make up the days you missed. Or, you could feed the poor, or give a certain amount to charity."
"In the Koran, fasting is prescribed so that we may learn self-restraint," Hamza added. "That's in Chapter 2, Verse 183. But you are able to break your fast if you are ill, or on a journey, or if it causes hardship. I don't have to fast during this rigorous training that we're going through, but I want to test my limits as a man spiritually and physically. I want to see if I can go through the same struggles that people go through every day. There are people fasting right now who aren't doing it by choice. This isn't something new - we're just trying to raise awareness and do our part."
But do they worry about affecting their chances to make their teams? "One of my teammates, [Cardinals cornerback] Michael Adams(notes), recently told me, ‘Hamza, you seem like you're really at peace.' And I like to think that's the benefit of fasting. You're never too high or too low.
"You just know that God has a plan, and you're walking that path."
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