CFL linebacker Abraham Kromah was born to lead

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The low point of Abraham Kromah’s professional life turned out to be perhaps the best thing that could have happened to him personally.

In the spring of 2011, following his senior season at Duke University — in which he was second in the ACC in tackles as an outside linebacker — Kromah had good reason to believe he’d be selected in the NFL Draft. But after seven rounds had passed and more than 250 players were chosen, Kromah was among the undrafted. Failing to land a spot in an NFL training camp as a free agent, the Staten Island, N.Y., native found himself jobless and uncertain of his future, while the football world moved on without him.

During his time away from the game, however, Kromah strengthened his connection to Allah.

“It was a really trying time because I was out of work. That’s just how the business is; there are only so many spots for football players and it wasn’t my turn yet,” says Kromah, 25, who was raised Muslim. “It was a tough time, but that was the first time I was able to complete Ramadan in its entirety. I got a lot of reading in. I explored my faith. It allowed me to regroup spiritually, and from then on, I’ve been moving forward on a more positive note.”

Staying committed to his pro football aspirations, Kromah signed with the Saskatchewan Roughriders of the Canadian Football League in 2012. He quickly earned a starting job, but a broken leg cut his rookie season short. Kromah then spent all of 2013 on the injured reserve list as the Roughriders ran through the CFL playoffs and won the Grey Cup championship.

Kromah went into the offseason as a free agent, and with Saskatchewan’s linebacking corps crowded, he was looking for an opportunity to play more. In February, the 6-foot, 227-pounder signed with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats — the team that lost to Saskatchewan in the Grey Cup. Finally healthy and waiting for training camp to open, Kromah talked to Ummah Sports about his road to the pros and his journey in Islam:

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UMMAH SPORTS: How did your time with Saskatchewan help you as a football player?

ABRAHAM KROMAH: I feel like it played a vital role in my development as an athlete and as a professional. It definitely allowed me to see things from a lot of different perspectives. I look at it as a learning experience, and a blessing.

What was it like winning the Grey Cup?

It was great. I mean, I was injured and couldn’t play, but I was there with the team and I definitely wouldn’t trade that experience. I was fortunate to be with the team and in that organization. It was priceless.

What was the free-agency process like? Why did you pick Hamilton?

The process wasn’t too extensive, but it’s sort of stressful picking another team and trying to make sure you’re making the right decision for your career. All in all, it came down to Hamilton being a great fit, a great situation and a great opportunity. I’m filling a need at linebacker since they lost a couple of linebackers. It’s a chance to compete and contribute toward building a championship defense.

The game has become so specialized that now it’s like you have almost two different species of outside linebacker: The 3-4 pass-rusher and the 4-3 pass-coverage/run-stopper. What kind of linebacker are you?

I’m sort of what you’d call the Will (weakside) linebacker in a 4-3 defense. Actually in Canada, it’s a 4-3-5 defense with another defensive back, because there are 12 players on the field. So I blitz, I cover running backs, I drop in pass coverage, I stop the run, I get interceptions … you name it. But it’s like any other form of football; just get to the man with the ball and stop him from scoring.

So you’d be like a Lance Briggs from the Chicago Bears?

Yeah, almost like that. Maybe like Derrick Brooks (Tampa Bay Buccaneers) or Wesley Woodyard (Tennessee Titans). Those guys aren’t too big, but they really don’t have to take on too many blockers. Just run around and make tackles.

How’s your health?

Right now everything is fully 100 percent. I’ve been 100 percent for months now. I’m just looking forward to the season, to being a playmaking presence and bringing as much leadership as possible; bringing that championship-winning mentality.

Is it warmer in Hamilton than in Saskatchewan?

Oh yeah (laughs). It’s way warmer. The weather here is similar to where I’m from, Staten Island. That’s a big plus.

What did you after you weren’t picked in the NFL Draft?

To be brutally honest, it was disappointing when I wasn’t drafted. I felt like I had really got to a point where I could play professionally, where I could play in the NFL. I felt like I was ready for that level of competition. I spent the year (after the draft) training in New York, waking up everyday with the attitude that I was going to be better than the day before. I actually worked out for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, and while they didn’t pick me up then, not long after that I got a call from Saskatchewan. So that’s how the story went for me.

What are some major differences between the CFL and the NFL?

The field is wider and bigger. The goalpost is in the front of the end zone. There’s 24 people on the field instead of 22. There’s three downs instead of four, so it’s a pass-happy league. The defense has to line up one yard off the ball. The receivers and running backs can get a running start before the snap. There are a lot of differences. A lot of guys have trouble transitioning from American football to the CFL; not because of talent necessarily, but because of adjusting to the game and knowledge of the rules.

What was the biggest adjustment to the CFL for you?

Just being in a different country; not being able to see family as often. Where I was located was very far from home, so it was a real time commitment if you wanted to visit home or have anyone come visit you.

The CFL schedule is also longer than the NFL schedule, right?

Yeah, we play 18 games instead of 16 in the regular season.

With the season starting earlier, in June, this year that means when Ramadan comes around it’s actually during the season and not in training camp.

You know, it’s interesting: There was an article they wrote about me during Ramadan last year when I fasted during the season. I had tried not to draw much attention to myself, but people ended up finding out anyway. They asked me to do the article and talk about how hard it was, but honestly, I didn’t think it was that hard.

You’ve got to understand that as a professional athlete, they’re paying you to perform at a very high level. Part of your job is to figure out what’s going to make you perform at that level without any drop-off. My job is to figure out the proper meals, the proper sleep … whatever makes me perform at my best. So as long as I’m able to maintain that level during Ramadan, I can do the fast. My religion comes first. Everything else can fall in line. I don’t feel like I have to compromise that.

You weren’t always able to do the fast during football, though.

In college I did it maybe once or twice during (preseason) camp, then I’d make up whatever I missed outside of that time period. It wasn’t until I saw an NFL Network special on the Abdullah brothers that I even thought fasting during the season was possible. (Note: Husain Abdullah plays safety for the Kansas City Chiefs; Hamza Abdullah last played in the NFL in 2011.) Alhamdulilah, they’ve inspired a lot of people. It’s almost like the four-minute mile: One person does something that nobody thought was humanly possible, but then after that, you see more and more people doing it because they believe it’s possible. The Abdullah brothers are definitely going to receive blessings for that. They’re going to inspire a world of people. Before that, I had used it as a valid excuse that football was way too strenuous to keep the fast.

Football was this thing that Allah put in my heart to provide for my family. I was always talented; I knew that from a young age. That was my priority. Once I saw (the Abdullahs), it was like, “Wow!” It opened my eyes to a whole new level of faith. I definitely attribute that to them. I don’t want to take anything away from how much they inspired me and so many other people.

Your parents named you Abraham. A lot of people know that name from the Bible, but don’t know that Abraham is a significant figure in Islam.

Abraham was one of the prophets of Islam. As far as my knowledge, my mother chose the name Abraham because he was a leader, and she always told me to be a leader and not a follower.

How is the Muslim community in Staten Island?

It’s actually a growing community, and it’s growing across all demographics. I grew up in an area named Park Hill. It was a real rough area, but I’m grateful to have a strong support system, people who encouraged me toward doing the right thing. I definitely credit the whole community for helping me become the person I am today. So many elders, educators, they’re the ones who deserve credit.

When did you start playing football?

I first played when I was six years old, but I didn’t really like it so my mother pulled me out. Then when I was probably 13, I wanted to play again, and I had a little bit of success.

When did you realize you could have a future in football?

Once I got to high school I was somewhere between above-average and good — I wasn’t great or anything. I moved up to varsity my sophomore year, then my junior year I figured out I could be really good. Even if I wasn’t being considered a standout, I always had the attitude that I could be. Sports is one of those things where you have to always be a standout in your mind.

Did you ever feel conflicted, practicing a peaceful religion like Islam while playing a violent sport like football?

I’ve definitely raised that question with myself. The thing is, I wouldn’t say football is like a gladiator sport, but that’s sort of the idea. It’s like a boxer or any Olympian. I’m a sportsman. I’m a competitor. Playing in a game and being in the arena is almost like you’re an entertainer, like an actor in the theater. It’s a craft. And people pay money to see it.

There are a lot of positive things that come out of this sport. Some people get hope from seeing their team win. As athletes we’re given a platform to speak to kids, even more of a platform than some people who may be more qualified, like teachers and other positive role models. They often don’t get the kind of platform that we get to impact people and speak to people. Me being able to come from my circumstances and from where I was raised and being able to achieve through overcoming obstacles, injuries, adversity, personal issues, maybe I can give some people hope. Maybe I can show them, “Hey, you can do it. Don’t quit.”

Like anything else, there is good and bad with it, but football has brought a lot of positives into my life. It’s definitely been a great thing for me and my family.

When you were old enough to do your own thing and decide if you wanted to remain a Muslim after being raised Muslim, what kept you in the faith?

Once I got to college, I felt like I needed structure. Islam was one thing I could depend on that would carry me through. I started praying regularly on my own, without anybody screaming at me to go pray (laughs). I had to be a big boy. Islam was the best structure I had known. It provided me with the best way of life.

Were you able to find a Muslim community at Duke?

That’s one thing for me; everywhere I go it’s not hard to find a Muslim community. I get that question a lot. But almost every city I’ve traveled to, even in my pro career, it’s never been a problem. We’ll go to another city to play, and if we’re there on a Friday afternoon, I’ll just Google a mosque. And then you walk in and feel like you’ve been there before. Nobody is looking at you weird. That’s a beautiful thing about Islam. I didn’t have any trouble finding a community at Duke, or in Canada. There wasn’t a Muslim Student Association when I got to Duke, but there was one before I left.

What advice would you give to young Muslim athletes who want to become a pro like yourself?

One thing I would advise is to really stick to the deen. And to read. One thing I’ve realized in learning about sports and spirituality is how much they tie into each other. Specifically Islam. It’s actually pretty cool; a lot of things in Islam tie into a healthy and athletic lifestyle. If you’re an athlete and you want to live a clean lifestyle with a healthy body, healthy mind and healthy spirit, Islam more than covers it. Every detail you want to know you can find in the hadiths and the Quran. They tell you what you should and should not eat, what the body rejects and what it needs for nourishment.

So to the kids who really take sports seriously and want to excel and take it to the next level: Stay in the deen. Stay in your prayers, five times a day. I can definitely say that whenever I wake up for fajr (morning) prayer and get that early start to my day, my day never goes wrong. If you build your schedule around prayer, you don’t go wrong. And you’ll see how much success you’ll have.

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