Husain Abdullah on the pilgrimage and the penalty

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It seems like old history now — to those who even remember it happened — but the Kansas City Chiefs were supposed to have rudely shut the New England Patriots’ championship window and unceremoniously ended the Tom Brady-Bill Belichick dynasty about four and a half months ago.

Way back on September 29, 2014, the Chiefs routed the Patriots 41-14 on “Monday Night Football.” Husain Abdullah played a significant role that evening. The 29-year-old defensive back led Kansas City with eight tackles, and in the fourth quarter he put the cherry on top of the blowout with a 39-yard interception return for a touchdown.

Upon crossing the goal line, Abdullah slid on his knees in what appeared to be a celebration. When he came to a stop, however, Abdullah put his head and hands on the ground in the Islamic sajdah prostration. An official flagged Abdullah for unsportsmanlike conduct, sparking a quick and heated backlash among fans and media members on social media. It seemed like a clear case of religious discrimination: A Muslim NFL player was penalized for prayer, while Christian and Catholic players prayed and signaled to God and the heavens all the time with no penalty. The following morning, the NFL officially stated that Abdullah should not have been penalized since NFL rules allow religious gestures.

But that wasn’t the biggest story to come from that game. The loss to KC had dropped the Patriots to 2-2, and there was a real debate over whether or not New England’s run as one of the league’s elite teams was over. Brady the quarterback looked like he was too old, and Belichick the head coach looked like he had no answers.

Fast-forward to Feb. 1, 2015, and Brady and Belichick were celebrating their fourth title together after beating the defending champion Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLIX.

As for the Chiefs, their season probably peaked with that Monday night victory. Kansas City finished 9-7 but missed the AFC playoffs. Abdullah finished third on the team in total tackles (71) and pass breakups (10). The INT against New England was his only pick of the season.

In a recent interview with blogger Anthony Michael Thompson, Abdullah reflected on his sixth season in the NFL. Some highlights:

AM: What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

HA: I’ll go back to my childhood, and my dad would always tell me it doesn’t matter how talented you are, how athletic you are, “If you’re not coachable, you won’t succeed.” It related to everything we did in life. Even going to Wazzu, I was a lowly two-star guy, and they’re bringing in this JUCO All-American or this #1 Safety; I’m still beating these guys out because they feel because of their natural, God-given gifts, they’ve arrived and they don’t have to do anything else. Working hard, being able to be coachable, and being respectful … that’s taken me a long way in life.

AM: Hardest transition as a player: high school to college, college to the NFL, or coming back to the NFL after taking a season off?

HA: Man … I’ve never thought about that. I would say coming to the NFL (from college). Not for football reasons, but for business reasons. People from the outside looking in don’t see it, but for people playing the game, the business is on your mind constantly. There’s a bunch of good players, but not everybody can make it on the team. There’s a 53-man roster. You may be good enough, but they might have to keep an extra tight-end. All of that stress, on top of, you know, normal life.

AM: Pretty much going from big man on campus, to being constantly reminded that your spot can be taken…

HA: … at any given time. I remember it was like Week 13 or 14 when I was playing for Minnesota, I was the leading special teams tackler by 10-12 tackles. I remember going to one practice, and my body was hurting and I was just trying to get through the day. All the vets were just trying to get to Sunday. I remember one of the coaches said to me, “Hey, you know this is week-to-week, right?” So even when you try to get away from the business aspect, that’s exactly what it is…a business. There are people out there playing that miss a tackle and think “That’s it, they’re gonna cut me.” Or guys that will score a touchdown and bring that to the table and ask for $1 million instead of $700,000. That was probably was the biggest adjustment. Everybody knows that the guys are bigger, stronger, faster, more intelligent … all of that stuff. But that business side … man, that’s a beast.

AM: You’d be hard-pressed to find an industry that’s more cutthroat.

HA: Just think about it. Think about the people who are some of the all-time greats at their positions. There are guaranteed Hall of Famers … and [teams] are releasing them. If they’re doing that to those guys, just think about a guy who is an undrafted kid out of Washington State who plays special teams. You’re really expendable.

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In 2012, Husain and his older brother Hamza Abdullah, then a defensive back for the Arizona Cardinals, voluntarily walked away from the NFL to make the hajj pilgrimage to Mecca. After completing the fifth pillar of faith in Islam, the brothers went on a tour of mosques and masjids across America, speaking to kids and community members. Making the pilgrimage was a risky move regarding their football careers: Husain was signed by the Chiefs for the 2013 season upon his return, but Hamza has not played in the NFL since.

AM: When you took the season off in 2012, what did that time away teach you most about yourself?

HA: There are a lot of different answers. We could talk about that for days. It taught me that football isn’t life. The ability to not be forced out, but to say, “You know what? I’m not going to play football.” And people said, “What if you never get back in?” I was content with that. From an early age, through high school, through college and into the NFL, football dominates your life. You’re training, you’re in practice, you’re in meetings, when you get home you’re watching film, you’re hanging out with teammates. You’re doing football constantly. A lot of guys, when they transition away from the game, it’s very difficult because they’ve done football for so much of their life. And it’s controlled and consumed so much of their life that when they get out, sometimes they feel like they don’t have anything else. So taking that year off and meeting people, traveling, going to different places; it really broadened my horizons and changed my perspective on a lot of things. It reminded me that football is a small part of my life.

AM: Regarding fasting during Ramadan … aside from prayer, are there any mental exercises you do to get you through those 90 degree days where you can’t take even a sip of water?

HA: Just a reminder that I’m doing it for the sake of God. For me, there’s nothing else that can get me through a practice without eating or drinking, other than I’m doing this for the sake of God. Trust me, when I’m out there, sometimes even during warmups I’m thinking “It’s gonna be tough today. How am I going to make it through?” Then it’s just a reminder, “You’re doing it for the sake of God.” So when you have that little reminder, it kind of helps propel you to new heights; things that you weren’t really sure you could do, now you’re able to accomplish that.

AM: I gotta ask you about the TD celebration. Did it surprise you regarding the media attention it received?

HA: Going into the game, I told myself, “If I score, I’m going to make a Sajda. I’m going to prostrate to God in the end zone.” I had a feeling I would get penalized just because it’s something that people hadn’t seen before. I don’t even know what the rules are because it’s not like I score a bunch of touchdowns. But just because it was something different, I knew there would be a possibility of a flag. I’m just thankful that it wasn’t in the first or second quarter that [the penalty] could change the course of the game. But, I got the flag and I didn’t really expect to get a lot of attention. If you’re familiar with soccer, there are guys all over Europe and the Middle East and they do it all the time. Some of the biggest names in soccer, they’ll score a goal and make Sajda. I didn’t think it would be that big, but I think the reason why it caught a lot of heat is because I was penalized for praying. If the flag would have never been thrown, it would have been like, “Oh cool. There’s a Muslim in the NFL, for people who didn’t know.”

AM: Let’s say you took that year off in 2012 and never came back to football. What would you have gotten into?

HA: I definitely have plans of going back to school and getting my masters. I’m looking at a couple programs for that. During that year off, I got to meet tons of new people from all over the world…and I want to formally learn Islam. Because what I know is from what my parents taught me, what I’ve read in books, seen in a couple videos … so I’m kind of like, you know, your average Muslim. But I would like to do not necessarily seminary school, but I do want to get some traditional learning. I’d like to get deeper into religion. In terms of providing for my family, I love sports. I’d like to do something that’s closely related to sports …

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