A look at the intersection of sports, faith and religion
Brothers and NFL defensive backs Hamza and Husain Abdullah decided they needed a break from football.
It was 2012, and the two men, both devout Muslims, were about to enter free agency. Husain, the younger brother, suggested they perform hajj, the five-day pilgrimage to Mecca and the Islamic holy sites in Saudi Arabia. That year, hajj occurred in October — right in the thick of football season. NFL players typically get only four days off per month during the regular season, and those days can’t be grouped together.
The brothers decided they would take the season off. Earlier that year, retired San Diego Chargers player Junior Seau fatally shot himself in the chest. The legendary linebacker was not a Muslim or a teammate to either Abdullah brother, but he was their role model.
“He was the NFL,” said Hamza. “He was our hero. He gave his life for the game of football.”
They were heartbroken, and they worried it could happen to them.
For both men, the journey to Mecca represented a chance to focus on what mattered most to them: being good husbands, fathers, Muslims and community members. But the time off also put their football careers at risk.
Hamza never played in the league again and suffered from depression and suicidal thoughts. Husain caught on with the Kansas City Chiefs for three more seasons but suffered multiple concussions and faced a controversial penalty for sliding into prayer after a touchdown.
For the brothers, it was their faith that helped them withstand being Muslim in the NFL through Ramadan and their transition out of the league. Now it guides the way they support their families, colleagues and surrounding community.
One brother is out of the league
When the Abdullah brothers returned home from Mecca, they set their sights on training and getting signed for the 2013 season.
“My faith shouldn’t be a burden. It’s an asset,” Hamza said.
“I started working out more and watching film,” added Hamza, who had played in a reserve role for the Denver Broncos, Cleveland Browns and Arizona Cardinals. “Husain worked on a tackling style that helped to protect his head.”
Husain, who had played four seasons in Minnesota, was picked up by the Chiefs in February 2013. Hamza was happy for his brother and felt optimistic that he would get a call too. But the NFL draft passed, summer training camp passed and, eventually, Hamza and his agent stopped calling each other. When the 2013 season officially started in September, he knew his NFL career was over.
“It was painful,” said Hamza, now 35. “I had to mentally shift from being an active player to a retired player.”
Depression started to set in.
“At that time, it was tough because I didn’t know why I was feeling so low and so down. I felt like I was just underneath everything. When I first sought therapy, the therapist implored me to hold on to my faith.”
Hamza had been released three times during his seven-season NFL career, including twice during the holy month of Ramadan, when observant Muslims fast from dawn to dusk.
During Ramadan, he developed a routine to keep up his calories and stay hydrated. He made sure to weigh at least 220 pounds at the beginning of the month because he knew he would lose weight. Once Ramadan started, he would rise before dawn to eat breakfast, then start a day that involved practice, weight training, napping, reading the Quran, attending meetings and then breaking his fast after dusk. In addition to filling up on food, he drank at least half a gallon of water and 64 ounces of Gatorade and Pedialyte over the course of an evening.
Hamza signed with the Cardinals in 2009 and said that team felt more accepting of his faith and his practice of Ramadan. He said the trainers were more willing to work with him. “They thought that [embracing my faith] made me a better player and representative of the team.”
In solidarity, his teammate Michael Adams would fast from foods that weren’t good for him. “It meant a lot to me,” Hamza said of Adams’ support.
Hamza didn’t complete his fast in 2011, his last year in the league. Ramadan occurred in the hottest part of the summer, and he lost 12 pounds in one day. “I prayed about it and asked that God give me the strength to walk in his path.”
Leaving the NFL would test his faith, family and friendships.
The frustration of navigating the NFL’s benefits system in addition to financial woes and depression came to a head on Halloween 2013. Hamza took his grievances to Twitter, posting some 50 tweets lambasting the league for issues ranging from misdiagnosing injuries to treating players like slaves. He also revealed he had been contemplating suicide.
“Every time I go to sleep, I pray that Allah takes care of my family, just in case I don’t wake up,” he tweeted. “And quietly, I’m disappointed sometimes when I do wake up. I’m married to a beautiful wife, have 3 beautiful children, and my financially GOOD, yet I don’t want to wake up.”
He didn’t act on these thoughts at the time. He tried to focus on building a new life, moving his family from Arizona to Southern California to Dallas and finally to Seattle, where they currently reside. He did motivational speaking engagements and published a memoir, Come Follow Me: A Memoir. The NFL. A Transition. A Challenge. A Change.
But Hamza still struggled with depression, and in 2017 he checked into an inpatient therapy facility in Southern California that had treated football players in the past. That first stay lasted 30 days. He returned for two months over summer 2018.
“I no longer wanted to live if I was harming or hurting the people I love the most,” Hamza said. “When I felt like I couldn’t contribute anymore, I felt like it was over.”
While in the facility, he took pills and slit his wrists. Fortunately, the clinical director found him before he lost consciousness. Hamza turned to his faith for help.
“I asked God to forgive me for wanting to end my life,” he said. “God is forgiving and merciful.”
Hamza has since returned to Seattle and sees a therapist regularly. A second book about the transition of NFL players into retirement is in the works.
The other brother returns to the field
Husain was 27, two years younger than his brother, when they decided to go to Mecca. He was focused on the social and physical sacrifices required to thrive as Muslims and professional football players. (Both men had played in college for Washington State.)
“It’s not whether you can or can’t, it’s just are you willing to take that lonely road,” said Husain, now 33. “It’s more of a lonely journey, because you don’t indulge because of your set of values.”
He loved the game and got along with his teammates and coaches on the Minnesota Vikings, for whom he played from 2008 through 2011. But he suffered four concussions in a year and a half. And he was around people who drank, smoked and gambled, activities that observant Muslims are expected to avoid.
“For me, I started noticing that this is going to end, no matter how much money I make, no matter how much notoriety I get. Anything I do on the football field, I need to make sure I focus my attention on what matters most and put that first,” Husain said.
In 2014, a year after signing with the Chiefs, Husain was doing well. He’d successfully avoided head injuries, and NFL Films and The New York Times had run features about his experience fasting for Ramadan while training. A month later, he made headlines again after intercepting New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and returning the pick to the end zone. Husain then slid into a prayer, kissing the ground on his knees.
Husain was penalized 15 yards for unsportsmanlike conduct. Game officials said the slide into the end zone was an illegal celebration. But critics noted that Christian players like Tim Tebow and Brandon Marshall have prayed after scoring without penalty. Chiefs head coach Andy Reid commented, “When you go to Mecca, you should be able to slide wherever you want.” The NFL later said the play should not have been penalized and that Husain would not be fined.
In 2015, Husain got a fifth concussion. His eyesight was affected, and he had to wear glasses to read and watch TV. He tried to stay positive, but he also thought about chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). He thought about the fates of Seau and other NFL players who’d suffered from impact-related trauma. Although he said he received excellent rehabilitative care from the Chiefs, he decided that continuing to play football was not worth the risks. In March 2016, at the age of 30, Husain retired.
His transition out of the NFL has been smooth. He earned a master’s degree in dispute resolution and conflict management. He started the Ashab Network, which provides a space for Muslim athletes and artists like college basketball player Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir and Olympic fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad to support each other. He runs a company that helps Amazon deliver packages and is developing a business that provides career coaching for athletes transitioning out of sports. He currently lives in Dallas with his wife and two children.
Ask the Abdullah brothers whether they would play in the NFL again if they could do it all over and their answers are quick and as different as they are. Husain is a solid yes. Hamza is a strong no. Hamza added that he would tell Muslim players to wait until they retire to perform hajj.