Faith ranks No. 1
The doctor tried once. Twice. Three times. Finally, Husain Abdullah told the physician to give up. The senior safety would have to play against Arizona without a pre-game intravenous solution. There was no vein to be found.
Unlike other Washington State University football players, Abdullah has started each game for the past few weeks with an IV to keep his strength up. There is nothing physically wrong with him. The procedure is a choice.
Abdullah wanted the intravenous solution last Saturday because he didn’t eat or drink during daylight hours before the 7 p.m. game. Or during daytime hours any other day since Islam’s holy month of Ramadan began Sept. 13.
His fasting experience isn’t unusual. He is one of about 1 billion Muslims around the world observing Ramadan.
But few of them play college football, a sport that includes daily practice, conditioning, weight work – all physically strenuous activities. Not to mention the final test each week, a Saturday game that might last four hours.
And that’s when Abdullah feels the strain the most.
“The hardest part for me is a day game, like we’re about to have (today),” said Abdullah of the Cougars’ Pac-10 Conference showdown with Arizona State, which starts at 1 p.m. “A night game is good because, at least, probably a few minutes into the game or even at halftime … you get to start drinking electrolytes or the gel packs. That gets you going.
“And it’s night, so it’s cooler and for some reason it seems like you have more energy at night than in the daytime with the sun out there just beaming down at you.”
The sun. It is Ramadan’s clock. Muslims eat and drink before it rises, then avoid food and liquids until it sets. The holy month is one of the five pillars of the Islamic faith. Besides fasting, Muslims also spend time in contemplation and prayer.
Abdullah’s Ramadan history traces back to when he was a child.
Growing up, the children – he has 10 brothers and sisters – in his family began observing the fast at age 5, though then only going until midday. At age 6 it was extended to the dinner hour. And at 7, they were expected to make it all day.
“When we were younger, we asked our parents, how are we going to fast during the games?” said Abdullah, whose brother Hamza also played football at WSU and now is in the National Football League. “We were used to drinking water, Gatorade, whatever. They were like, ‘Well, religion comes first. If you want to play this game – this is secondary.’
“We still see it the same way, because in the afterlife, the hereafter, that’s where this will come in. Although we fast and we want to play this game, even though it is difficult on us, we’re still putting our faith first.”
And that’s what carries Abdullah.
“It feels good to me as a person because I get to play the game I love and, as a competitor, it is just another challenge to get through.”
Not that it’s always been easy.
“My redshirt freshman year, playing the USC game, I was just out of it,” Abdullah recalled. “We got to the middle of the second quarter and I just couldn’t function. Back then I was just on special teams and barely played defense.
“It was just from eating habits, because some days if you wake up late and sun’s already up … you just missed out on eating and drinking in the morning. Freshman year, I probably did a couple of those and it caught up with me in the long run.
“And then we had to go out there and perform. It was a day game and trying to play at a high level, it just caught up with me and I did real poorly.”
Abdullah’s position coach, Leon Burtnett, has been in football 43 years. He’s been a college head coach and an assistant in college and the NFL.
In that time, Husain and Hamza are the only two Muslim players he’s coached who follow the tenets of Ramadan to the letter.
Despite the physical strain, Burtnett hasn’t seen a drop-off in Abdullah’s play, he said.
“He does a good job, maybe even a better job this year than he has in the past,” Burtnett said. “He knows what he’s supposed to do and I trust him to be able to play. Now if he wears out or something, I understand that too and I would never hold that against him. If he gets too tired or something, I’m sure he’ll tell me. That has not shown in his ability to play in the games.”
Besides a pre-game IV and a cutback in his special-team chores, Abdullah’s game days haven’t changed much in the past month – except that he gets up at 5:30 a.m. to eat breakfast. The team stays in a hotel the night before a game, even when they’re at home, and Abdullah’s roommate, safety Christian Bass, is used to the early morning wake-up call.
“He usually just tells me to hurry up and turn the alarm off so he can get back to sleep,” said Abdullah, adding the two have shared the pre-game room since freshman year.
When he’s at home, Abdullah shares breakfast and dinner with his wife, Zhavon, and son, Jalaal. The family also shares their faith, and that’s what takes precedence.
“It’s first,” Abdullah answered when asked where religion ranks in his life. “I used to (ask myself) when I was young, ‘What is the purpose of living?’ The more you get into Islam … you realize that religion comes first, Allah comes first. This is a test, this life, and then the true reward is going to be in the hereafter.”