When the NFL Draft begins on May 8, after the BCS bowl standouts and future franchise quarterbacks have gone off the board, the next-biggest storyline will focus on the polarizing and award-winning defensive end whose arrival in the NFL will mark another step toward the most American of American sports leagues actually looking like the melting-pot of a country is represents.
And while everyone is wondering where Michael Sam will go in the draft, a lesser-known trailblazer named Adham Talaat will be waiting to find out where his pro football career will begin.
Talaat is a 6-6, 275-pound defensive end from Division III Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., who fought through constant double- and triple-teams to record 46 tackles and five sacks in his senior season. He is also deaf. And he is Muslim.
On Wednesday, April 9, Talaat will work out in front of NFL scouts at Gallaudet’s Pro Day, which might as well be called Adham Talaat Pro Day. (Gallaudet is the nation’s first higher-education school for the deaf and hard of hearing.) Since Talaat — a finalist for the Gagliardi Trophy (D-III player of the year) and a first team all-conference pick — was not invited to the league’s pre-draft combine in February, this is his first, last and best shot at making a good impression in front of a gathered crowd of NFL decision-makers.
In the days before his big audition, Talaat spoke with Ummah Sports via Facebook chat about where he’s come from and where he’s headed in his path to becoming a truly one-of-a-kind NFL player.
UMMAH SPORTS: What is your typical day like, preparing for the draft?
ADHAM TALAAT: Wake up at 7:10 a.m., wash, get dressed, pray, eat, leave for the training facility. Nine o’clock, begin first session, which is either linear speed or multidirectional, to prepare for the testing drills at Pro Day. Usually finish the first session around 10:30 or 11 a.m. Then it’s rest time and a lunch break at the facility until our lifting session at 1 p.m. Lifting usually lasts until 2:30-ish. Two days per week we do football-specific positional drills for about half an hour. Then we’re done for the day. Most days I get home around four or five p.m., shower, pray, eat and relax. I usually relax and watch TV, eat dinner, do my prayers as the times come in, then I go to bed around 10:30 or 11 p.m. That’s my day Monday through Friday. Saturday morning is conditioning for an hour, then we’re off for the weekend.
Where are you working out?
I’m training at TEST Parisi Football Academy in Martinsville, New Jersey.
What do you think you can bring to an NFL team?
An athlete with the desire and work ethic to be one of the greats. My entire life, the odds have been stacked against me, and every time I’ve beaten those odds. I have all the same measurable as the first-rounders, I have the work ethic and desire of the greats, and an underdog mentality.
When it comes to elements of football that fans and players who have their hearing take for granted — snap counts, whistles, audibles, coaching, etc. — what do you have to approach differently?
Nothing really. Think about it: NFL games are so loud that players can’t hear each other from across the field. They use signals or posters on the sidelines, right? Those are all forms of nonverbal communication, which is my specialty after coming from Gallaudet.
Have you had any communication with NFL teams in which they’ve expressed concerns about your ability to play at that level because you’re hard of hearing?
Twenty-four scouts have come to see me, and every single one of them crossed that concern off their list after meeting and interacting with me.
Did those scouts ask about your religion?
The only time I recall Islam coming up was when they asked what I like to do for fun. I told them that I don’t drink or smoke or party; my idea of going out is to a movie or out to eat. I mentioned that I am Muslim and it was never an issue. They never acted as if it was.
If you had to guess right now, where do you think you’ll go in the draft?
I really don’t know. That should become more clear after my Pro Day, insha’ALLAH. I’ve heard anywhere from 5th round to undrafted free agent. But that is always subjective.
What do you do well on the field?
I’m a relentless, fiery player. Quick, long, tall, explosive, quick hands and I have a high football IQ.
When did you start playing football?
Freshman year of high school.
What sports had you played before that?
Youth league soccer and basketball.
When did you first realize you might have a future in football?
Going into my junior year of high school, that’s when I really became passionate and dedicated to it.
You originally signed to play at UMass, but ended up going to a community college that didn’t have a football team before landing at Gallaudet. During that period when you weren’t playing and didn’t have any D-I prospects, did you ever consider quitting the sport?
People in my community bashed me and labeled me as a quitter. Parents of my former teammates said that I was finished and that I was a waste and disappointment. Nobody talked to me or heard my side of the story. The entire time, I didn’t give up hope. I kept believing, kept my head down, and kept working hard and stayed focused on my goal of making it to the NFL. I would go to the football games at my high school on Friday nights and sit in the stands incognito along the 50-yard line while thinking, “It’s not over yet. I’m going to make it.” During the fall and winter after I finished work I would drive to my high school and the janitors who remembered me would let me into the weight room to work out by myself, where I’d let out all frustration and emotion I had for those who doubted me. This continued until Gallaudet contacted me out of the blue and set-up a visit.
Sometimes when guys have D-I talent but for one reason or another end up at a smaller school like a D-III, they go into it thinking, “I’m better than this” and not really respecting their new school. What was your attitude going into Gallaudet, and how do you feel about the school now?
That was my attitude my freshman year at Gallaudet, LOL. That’s exactly what it was, but then Gallaudet showed me that this is about so much more than just me. It’s about being part of something bigger than myself. I totally bought into the program from that point on. It was a learning experience.
When did the NFL start to become a reality?
After my junior year at Gallaudet. Scouts started calling, then some came to Gallaudet for a Junior Day for me.
If you make an NFL roster, do you think you’ll be expected to be an ambassador for deaf and hard-of-hearing people, as well as for Muslims? Is that a role you could handle?
Yes, absolutely! It is part of my dream to be such an ambassador and role model.
Were you raised Muslim or did you convert?
Raised Muslim. Both of my parents are Muslim.
I’m a recent convert myself, so I wouldn’t know this first-hand, but I’d imagine that when you’re raised Muslim, there still comes a time when you get a little older, maybe you start to question some things, and you have to decide if this is really the religion you’re going to stick with. Did you have an experience like that?
I’ve never questioned Islam. I believed in it 100%. But I do admit there was a pint in time where I started to embrace the religion and seek knowledge for myself and actively practice it as best as I could. That was immediately after I graduated high school and while I was at UMass.
Before that, I prayed maybe just in the mornings or if my parents asked me to join. But that Ramadan after graduating high school, I dove in head-first. While I was at UMass I started reading the Quran on my own for the first time and started praying five times a day, every day.
Since you mentioned Ramadan, you knew this question was coming: How do you handle fasting during Ramadan when it falls during the season or during a time when you’re supposed to be training?
Hahaha! In high school I still fasted through school and football practice. I didn’t fast game days. I made those days up after the season.
In college, I fasted my freshman year, but it really took its toll on me physically. I totally broke down during training camp and was less than 100% throughout the season. So my last three years at Gallaudet, I didn’t fast because of the risk it put on my health, and I made it up after the season.
This year Ramadan will fall during mini-camp or training camp for NFL teams. How do you plan to approach it then?
I’m still not certain how I’ll approach it yet. I know there are some who have been able to fast in the NFL, like the Abdullah brothers. (Editor’s note: Husain Abdullah is a safety for the Kansas City Chiefs; Hamza Abdullah, also a safety, last played for the Arizona Cardinals in 2011.) But they’re DBs. I’m a defensive lineman. I have to maintain a higher playing weight and strength level and play a much more physically punishing position.
I also read that you’ve usually played without your hearing aids. Is that something you’ll keep doing in the NFL?
That also depends. I’ll have to wait and see how the communication and play-calling is, because it varies from team to team. I think at first I will wear the hearing aids, then later once I’m comfortable in the system I can play without them.
What about Islam appeals to you?
The relationship we have with ALLAH and as an ummah. The way everything all makes sense, as far as the prophets (peace be upon them) and their messages and the way ALLAH has explained everything in the Quran, it all makes sense to me. And the sense of feeling ALLAH with me even as I’m away at school or away for training, I’m the only Muslim in either situation, but I still feel comfort in feeling HIM with me. Having faith that HE has the best plan for me, as well as marveling at how wonderful HIS plan has been so far throughout my life.
What have you learned from Islam — or what traits have you developed because of Islam — that carries over to football?
Discipline, self-control and dedication. Realizing that this is so much bigger than me. And also seeking knowledge. I’m like a sponge; I love to learn more about the game
What about traits you’ve developed through football that help you become a better Muslim?
Being part of a team (ummah), working together. Working hard day in and day out even when you don’t feel like it. Taking care of your responsibilities the best you can and working hard even when no one is watching.
There are negative stereotypes about Islam out there. What do you say to people who might approach you with those stereotypes, either because they’re genuinely curious or because they’re trying to criticize you and your religion?
I mostly advise people not to let the actions of a few wackos determine their view of an entire faith. Then if there are ever Quran quotes involved, I explain that the context of the verse must be taken into consideration, and that those wackos twist the interpretation of these Quran verses to fit their own agendas.
Have you ever felt conflicted by practicing this peaceful, loving religion of Islam, but then playing a rough, violent game like football?
When I was younger, in high school, it took me a while to rationalize it to myself. But once I did, it was no problem at all. I am playing this sport as part of chasing my dreams, with the ultimate purpose of pleasing HIM, which enables me to not hold back and give it my all.