Hundreds of NFL hopefuls will begin the process of trying to become NFL players at the annual Scouting Combine in Indianapolis Saturday morning. Some of them won’t realize their dreams of an NFL career, but there isn’t much any of them wouldn’t do to keep that dream alive.
As strongly as those players wish to make enough of an impression on an organization to get drafted and make the team, you won’t find a single prospect willing to say he would play four years and, on the verge of potentially getting his first big veteran contract, walk away from the game.
Former Vikings safety Husain Abdullah isn’t one of those people. Pushed internally by his religious faith and conviction, Abdullah walked away from the NFL a year ago to go on a Muslim mission of faith that included two trips to the Muslim holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia and becoming a goodwill ambassador for the Muslim faith throughout the United States.
The thought of walking away from a lucrative career that has a finite window of athletic opportunity was a risk most wouldn’t take – regardless of religious conviction. Given that Abdullah was married with two small children, that decision seemed even more improbable. But, as with many aspects of his life, Abdullah isn’t your ordinary NFL player.
“It was a process,” Abdullah said. “I went to Mecca for two weeks in March last year. When I came back, we started fielding offers from different teams – including the Vikings. But at the last second I just couldn’t make the commitment. A couple of times we had a deal worked out – all the numbers done – and I backed out at the last minute. I couldn’t sign. At the time, I didn’t know why, but I knew there was a reason. There was more for me to do.”
As his former Viking teammates prepared for training camp in late July, Abdullah and his brothers Hamza Abdullah (who played for the Arizona Cardinals) and Esa Johnwell spent the holy month of Ramadan traveling around the country, visiting 43 different communities in 30 days.
As financially rewarding as the NFL had become for Abdullah and his family, the road trip with his brothers was even more rewarding in the spiritual sense.
“It changed me in a lot of ways,” Abdullah said. “No. 1, it got me a lot closer with my brothers. We hadn’t been able to spend much time together since we left home for college and spent 30 days together traveling in a minivan. We reconnected in a significant way.”
As Abdullah and his brothers visited mosques and Muslim community centers around the United States, they opened the eyes of the people they met that NFL players aren’t all that much different than everyone else. It’s just that their job is something other people like to watch.
“I think we showed people that we were not about glitz and glamour, we were just regular people like them,” Abdullah said. “At every stop we made, there would be someone that would pull me aside for a one-on-one conversation. We didn’t discuss football. We talked about life and the choices all of us need to make as individuals. There was a lot of interaction and it was that way everywhere we stopped. It was incredibly rewarding for all of us.”
One of the primary reasons Abdullah walked away from the NFL was to make his pilgrimage to Mecca during Hajj – a week each year in which Muslims throughout the world descend on Mecca as a display of faith. Abdullah stayed almost a month and the experience is one that he still struggles to fully put into words.
“It’s almost unexplainable,” he said. “I was beyond happy when I was there. At times, it was very emotional. I was able to get in touch with a spiritual awakening. It taught me that having money or having stature in the eyes of others isn’t as important as how you feel about yourself and your belief in God.”
When Abdullah returned from Saudi Arabia in November, he started working out, excited about the potential of returning to the NFL. His phone didn’t ring for three months. If anyone was interested in him, they were keeping it to themselves. He was starting to wonder if that call was ever going to come.
“It was a reality check,” Abdullah said. “I wasn’t overly nervous about it. One of the things I learned during my pilgrimage is that nothing is ever promised. When I came to the Vikings, I was an undrafted free agent. By just about anyone’s standards, I wasn’t supposed to make the team as a rookie in 2008. That experience stuck with me and I figured all I needed was one team willing to take a chance.”
That call finally came in late January. Kansas City Chiefs general manager John Dorsey called Abdullah’s agent, C.J. LaBoy, expressing an interest in working out Abdullah. No guarantees were made. No promises given.
“It came together in a hurry,” Abdullah said. “A few days before the Super Bowl, my agent got a call from the Chiefs saying they were interested in me to come in for a workout. It was kind of a ‘take it-or-leave it’ deal. I was just so happy that I got a call and was able to show what I could do.”
Abdullah credited his faith with being the reason he believes he got his contract, which he signed on Monday. When he worked out at the combine, nerves got the better of him. He didn’t have butterflies in his stomach. He had angry bats … and the results showed on the field. This time around, there was a calm about him that made his workout effortless and not the “make-or-break” deal it was made to sound like – and, in all probability, was.
“I think it was what I learned over the last year that made the difference,” Abdullah said. “I have an inner peace that I didn’t have before. I was always worried about losing my job. Whether it was as an undrafted rookie that a lot of people didn’t give much of a shot to or missing time due to injuries and wondering if the Vikings would go in a different direction, it was always there. I remember the combine so vividly because I was working out in front all the big-time people in charge of the draft for all 32 teams. I was jittery nervous. It was pretty bad. When I worked out for the Chiefs, I was doing it in front of everybody – the ownership, the general manager, the coaching staff, just about everyone involved in making decisions for the team. I knew the importance that moment had, but I wasn’t nervous. I knew I had God’s blessing whether I came back to the NFL or not. I felt good about myself and it translated into a pretty good workout.”
As would be expected, both LaBoy and Abdullah were asked about his religious practice of fasting (no food or drink during daylight hours) during Ramadan, which typically coincides with NFL training camp and much of the preseason. Fortunately for Abdullah, Ramadan this year is scheduled to end at sunset on Aug. 7, which will only be a week or so into training camp and not the majority of preseason as it has been during most of Abdullah’s career.
“I think every team that has showed an interest in me over the last year or more has asked either me or C.J. about Ramadan,” Abdullah said. “A lot of people still don’t know a lot about Ramadan, so we’ve had to explain it plenty of times. Thanks to the staff with the Vikings, I have a full nutrition plan that they devised for me to stay as physically strong as I can during that period. As a rookie, I didn’t tell anyone about it and went through it by myself without having a plan in place. When the Vikings staff found out about it, they came up with a plan that respected my beliefs but helped keep me in much better football shape. Given how early Ramadan comes this year, it won’t be an issue.”
When Abdullah chose his religious beliefs over membership in the elite NFL fraternity, he did so at his own peril. He knew the risks of turning his back on the game. But, a year later, he’s back in the league and a better man for the experience.
“If I had it all to do over again, I wouldn’t change a thing,” Abdullah said. “It was the most rewarding, eye-opening year of my life. I love football with all my heart and I’m committed to having my best days as a player ahead of me. If it doesn’t work out that way, so be it. Maybe it isn’t to be. I will give all that I have and hope that it’s enough. But, if I don’t play football again, I won’t have any regrets. What I gained over the last year will last me a lifetime.”
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.