The Abdullah brothers, Husain and Hamza, both fulfilled the dreams of their youth and made it to the NFL. But after accomplishing that, they both felt like they needed something more, that their workouts had become empty. They are both deeply devout Muslims and decided to walk away from football for a year in 2012 for the Hajj, the sacred pilgrimage to Mecca.
“This is the first year that we both were free agents, so the opportunity was ours,” Hamza said. “We weren’t signed to a contract where we were turning our back or quitting the team, or anything like that. We were just exercising an option that we had.”
“The Hajj pilgrimage is proscribed on every Muslim who has the health and the wealth to do it, and all praises to God that we were able to be in that category, that we do have the health and the wealth to go and complete the pilgrimage.”
But the timing was difficult. The average NFL career lasts less than three years, and they’ve already exceeded that. Husain spent four years with the Minnesota Vikings and Hamza has been in the league for seven years, and spent time in Tampa Bay, Cleveland, Denver and most recently, Arizona. Hamza is 29 and Husain is 27.
“A lot of people do say, ‘why can’t you wait until after you guys are done?’” Hamza said. “For me personally, both of us feel like we can play a long time in this league. God willing, we can stay healthy and continue to contribute and continue to be a factor on these different teams.”
“Hajj, because it’s on the lunar calendar, actually falls in football season for the next ten years.”
With that, they made up their minds, and decided to take 2012 away from football to join the millions of Muslims who travel to Mecca every year as part of the Hajj. And it is millions who descend on Mecca each and every year. Despite being familiar with crowds of rabid football fans, nothing prepared them for this.
“They tell you three million people,” Hamza said. “And that’s a lot of people, but it was so many people that you honestly felt like you just couldn’t keep track.”
“There’s nothing that can prepare you for a gathering that large,” Husain added. But he was amazed at the difference feel that those attending this religious pilgrimage had. “One of the things that’s most impressive about that is that while you have these millions of people, coming together from all different walks of life, there’s no violence. There’s no violence whatsoever.”
“Typically, at a football game or a concert or people go out to a party, you’ll see violence among a group of 50 people coming from different places within the same city. Here you have six or seven million people coming from every different corner of the world and everybody is able to get along, and that’s impressive.”
What they took away from the trip was the feeling of community with the people that they met, more so than the locations or the travel itself. “The most memorable thing for me was the brotherhood,” Hamza said. “Going over 8,000 miles away and experiencing a different brotherhood. This is the first time meeting, but because they are there for the same purpose you’re there, they are willing to do anything and everything to make you feel like you’re at home.”
Husain echoed that sentiment, “You have people coming from all the different corners of the globe and everyone is there for the same thing – to ask God for guidance, ask God for forgiveness, ask God for his mercy. Regardless of what status you have in life, when you show up and you’re wearing the same clothes as everybody else, you realize that you are just one in six million or seven million.”
And while there are certainly areas in the region where traveling as an American can become a liability, the brothers’ experience in Saudi Arabia was nothing but positive.
“I know that there’s different kind of things in the media,” Husain said, “but going over there, when you tell people that you’re an American, they get excited to see you.”
“They want to ask you everything about how you’re a Muslim and how you came over here for Hajj, even if they don’t even speak the same language. Simply because you’re American, they get so excited. We’re well received over there. We really are.”
While the trip was a religious pilgrimage, it doesn’t mean that they didn’t learn lessons that could translate to their daily lives, and to football. For Hamza, his biggest take away was to work on his patience. With the millions of people that descend on Mecca, logistics are more than just difficult, they are practically impossible. If you think stadium traffic is tough after a football game, it doesn’t hold a candle to the crowds for Hajj.
“Here we were in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, and that’s all you do is work on your patience,” Hamza said. “You’re sitting on a bus for 12 and 14 hours, you have no choice but to be patient. You may want to eat at 8:00 in the morning, but the food doesn’t get there until 10:00 at night. You have to work on your patience, so it’s a constant reminder.”
“I’ve always felt that I was a pretty patient person, especially when it came to football, but now this made me really appreciate the game of football. If it’s not your time to be a starter, or not your time to play, you know you can take that with patience.”
While Husain echoed those sentiments, his biggest take away was a little different. It was more about reaching out to people, and about being thankful for what he was given. “I would say just extending the hand to your neighbor,” Husain said. “We’re going along and you see somebody in need. There’s an elderly woman and she needs to be pushed in a wheelchair just to make it because she can’t walk any further, so you lend a hand and you help her out. Or you see somebody who has less food than you do and you share some of your food with them.”
“In America, we see poor people,” Husain went on. “But [in Mecca] you see people who really don’t have anything and they’re content with life. They don’t need all the material things that we chase after over here. It made me really content with everything that I have and it made me thankful for everything that I have.”
This was the trip of a lifetime, and the brothers learned many life lessons, but now their focus is on getting back to football, and getting back into the NFL. They are working out every day, spending 3 hours in traffic each day to get to their training facility to work out. They are watching film and studying, and their agent is working the phones. It is very late in the season, so barring an injury and unexpected need, they are probably looking at trying to crack a starting lineup next summer. And when next season starts, they will be 28 and 30 years old – young men by most measures, but not in football years.
Do they have any regrets? Hamza answers like a true football player, “I’m a defensive back. We have short term memories.”
“You do what you do, and then you try and get better from that. This decision to go for our Hajj pilgrimage was the best decision of my life because it made me appreciate everything that I have, and everything that I didn’t have.”
He talks about his appreciation for the players that he was able to work with in Arizona, the team he played for last season. Even though he wasn’t a starter in Arizona after starting in Denver, a change in role that is frustrating to many players, he has learned to see the positive and to appreciate the experience. He talks about his teammates, playing alongside Patrick Peterson, and being able to practice against Larry Fitzgerald. “Those are the things and the relationships that I’m going to take regardless,” Hamza said.
“We can’t control a team calling us or a team not calling us, but what we can control being ready to play football,” Hamza added. “Because we want to play football. It’s what I’ve been doing since I was 12 years old. As long as God will bless me to do that.”
“Even if I never play a down in the NFL again, I’m very appreciative of what I’ve gotten from the NFL.”
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