I had to get out of that basement.
My two kids and I were playing basketball on their Little Tikes hoop — you know, the plastic one with the blue post and the bright orange rim that just about every kid had growing up. We had only been going at it for about two or three minutes, and they were running circles around me. We were having a great time.
But I had to get out of there.
I was getting dizzy.
Twenty-five years old, a four-year NFL veteran, a professional athlete, and I couldn’t keep up with a couple of preschoolers. The room just started spinning.
I had to go upstairs and lie in bed.
I had to close my eyes.
I had to make it stop.
This was in 2011 when I was with the Vikings. I was in a contract year heading into unrestricted free agency, and I had just suffered my fourth concussion in two seasons and my second in the span of about two weeks.
With the first three concussions, I was able to get back on the field pretty quickly.
This time, it was taking much longer.
In 2011, CTE didn’t mean what it means today. It was just some new medical term doctors were throwing around, saying it had some tie to repeated head trauma. The general public — and maybe even NFL teams — didn’t really understand what CTE was or what it meant.
So in my rehab from my fourth concussion, there was little to no information about what was happening inside my brain. The Vikings simply didn’t know how to treat my injury.
The team doctors basically told me to not do anything. Just wait it out.
After years of two-a-days, early morning and late night workouts and coaches preaching a “there’s always someone working harder than you” mentality, suddenly the trainers told me my job was to do nothing.
“Stay out of the light,” they said. “Avoid loud noises. Don’t watch TV or play video games. Don’t read.”
“Well, what am I supposed to do then?” I said. “Sit in a dark room all day?”
“Wait until your head gets clear,” they said.
So that’s what I did. I waited. Every now and then I would drive to the Vikings facility and sit around and look at the pictures in the newspaper — because I wasn’t supposed to read. Then when the rest of the team broke off for meetings, I’d go back home and just sit. Or maybe I would take my children to school, then go back home … and just sit.
Turns out, that was the worst thing I could have done.
Like I said, 2011 was when I remember first hearing about CTE. And the media was really jumping on it. There were headlines about this mysterious degenerative brain disease in former football players. Guys going crazy. Guys committing suicide.
I was seeing all these headlines and reading all the speculation, and with nothing else to do, I just started thinking. And when all you have is time to think, the worst-case scenarios always pop into your head.
That’s when the depression set in.
I thought about all these terrible things I was hearing and thought, Is that what’s going to happen to me?
I felt like I had a choice to make. I could sit back and do nothing — “wait until my head gets clear” — and see if I got better, or I could try and take matters into my own hands. I could at least spend all the time I suddenly had on my hands trying to learn as much as possible about what was happening inside my brain.
I went to Pittsburgh to meet with one of the country’s leading concussion researchers, Dr. Michael Collins. And he told me that what I was doing — just sitting at home and waiting to get better — was the worst thing I could possibly do. Although obviously much more complex, he told me that the brain is like any other muscle in my body, and I needed to exercise it. You can rehab your brain, and sitting around not doing anything won’t get you anywhere. In fact, if you sit around thinking about the worst-case scenarios and thinking about how much pain and discomfort you’re in, you’re subconsciously training your brain to continue its decline. It’s like a self-fulfilling prophecy.
I am a devout Muslim. As such, I am required to be a benefit to society. Just being good to my neighbor is an act of worshipping God. Being a good husband to my wife and a good father to my children — these acts are my responsibility as a Muslim.
In addition to practicing Dr. Collins’s exercises and actively trying to rehab my brain, I turned to my religion, Islam, to motivate me to think more positively about my situation and about my life. I was in dire need of guidance. In Islam, God says, “Take one step towards Me, I will take ten steps towards you. Walk towards Me, I will run towards you.” Walking wasn’t enough for me and my situation. I had to visit the House of God. Accompanied by my wife, brothers and sister-in-law, I flew to Makkah, Saudi Arabia — the Holy Islamic city.
It was March, 2012 when we made that trip, and it was overwhelming. It was very … refreshing. It filled my mind with so many positive things. My responsibilities as a Muslim were now at the forefront of my thoughts, and I felt a strong sense of urgency to return to Makkah, to make Hajj — a pilgrimage to the city that all capable Muslims are supposed to make once in their lifetime. The date of Hajj is determined each year by the Islamic calendar, and throughout my football career it had always been during the season. That year, it was in October.
My “rehab” in Makkah was exactly what I needed. I returned to the States rejuvenated. My body felt good, my head was right and I was ready to return to the field.
But I was a free agent, so I had to find a team — which is easier said than done when you’re coming off your fourth concussion in two years and you spent the last half of the previous season on injured reserve.
A lot of teams looked at me and said, Oh, we like him as a player. But the concussions …
Still, my agent was able to schedule a couple of visits with teams who were interested in signing me.
I remember one particular day when my agent had a couple of meetings lined up with prospective teams. I had a dentist appointment that morning. As I was walking out of the dentist’s office, ready to interview with teams, I checked my phone. I had a breaking news notification.
Junior Seau had committed suicide.
That hit me right in the heart.
I’m a Southern California kid, and growing up, Junior Seau was the man. He was the defensive star you wanted to play with on Madden. There were billboards with his face on them. He was larger than life.
I read the notification on my phone over and over. It took time to set in — to commit it to my mind as reality.
I called my agent. I told him to cancel all team meetings. I needed to rethink everything. I needed to put life into perspective.
I need to perform my Hajj.
As I said, all Muslims are required to complete their Hajj pilgrimage once in their lifetime — provided they are mentally, physically and financially capable of doing so.
I was physically and financially capable. I was also mentally capable — for the time being. But knowing my own concussion history and seeing what happened to someone who appeared to be as superhuman as Junior Seau, I didn’t know how long I would have my health. And I didn’t want to waste another year without performing my religious duty.
So my brother Hamza, who was also playing in the NFL at the time, and I took the 2012 season off to make our pilgrimage to Makkah along with our parents, our brother Abbas and my wife Zhavon.
There are five pillars of Islam. The first is Shahadah, a profession of faith. The second is Salah, prayer. The third is Zakat, charity. The fourth is Sawm, fasting during the holy month of Ramadan, which always fell during NFL training camp, and I always completed both the fast and my training and preparation at camp.
The fifth pillar is the Hajj.
Upon completing our Hajj in 2012, my brother and I returned to the States with a new outlook on life. Football was still very important to us, but it wasn’t everything. It wasn’t life itself.
And it became fun again.
We came back towards the end of October, but no teams would call us in for a workout because we had missed OTAs, training camp and a chunk of the season, and they didn’t think we could help them that year.
That was the end of Hamza’s career. He never played in the NFL again.
Determined to get back to the NFL, I spent the 2012 season working on my tackling style.
I had suffered four concussions. I needed to change the way I played the game to protect myself as much as I could. For me, it wasn’t about the big hits anymore. I got back to the basics: My job was to tackle the ballcarrier. Get him on the ground. I had to knock the ball down, intercept the ball and try to strip it.
I took the big hit out of my game. I started tackling with my head off to the side instead of trying to run through the ballcarrier. I could perform everything that was asked of me, without the big collisions.
In February 2013 I signed with the Kansas City Chiefs, a first-class organization. And all the work I had done — mentally, physically and spiritually — paid off. I had a resurgence as part of a team that was building toward being championship caliber.
I played a full 2½ years without a concussion or any kind of head injury. I didn’t get dinged, I didn’t “get my bell rung” … nothing. It was mostly because of the adjustments I had made to my game.
But it was also good fortune.
We were playing the Buffalo Bills in Week 12 of the 2015 season. Late in the fourth quarter, in a one-possession game, I was out on the edge guarding my guy. He ran a wheel route. I turned back to the quarterback Tyrod Taylor to see how the play was developing, and I saw him scramble. I shifted into pursuit mode.
As he was barreling toward the first-down marker, I was coming downhill along the sideline to meet him. Just as he reached the marker, I closed in to put a hit on him — and not the big hit I used to go for, but the new, smarter way of tackling I had mastered.
I tackled him with my head off to the side, but one of my teammates was doing the same thing I was doing — selling out, hustling to make a play — and in the process of hitting the quarterback, he also hit me.
Tyrod Taylor didn’t get the first down.
We got the win.
I got a concussion.
I had done everything right. I protected myself. I got my head out of the way. But at the end of the day, there’s only so much you can do to protect yourself in this game.
I learned that the hard way.
When I got my first concussion with the Vikings in 2010, I played the following week. When I got my second concussion later that season, I sat out one week and played the next. When I got my third concussion in 2011, the next week was a bye week. I was on the field the following week.
The first three concussions I suffered, I never missed more than one game.
That’s not a knock on the Vikings. That was just standard operating procedure in 2011. That’s how teams thought about concussions — they were like any other injury. If you feel like you’re good to go next week, you’re good to go. Maybe you take a week off to get right. But if you feel ready, you’re ready.
When I was with the Chiefs and I suffered my fifth concussion, it was completely different. They went above and beyond to try to diagnose the concussion, and to try and rehabilitate me. There was a protocol — different steps you had to complete and benchmarks you had to reach before you could step back on the field. It wasn’t just, When you’re good, you’re good.
I went back to Pittsburgh to see Dr. Collins, and I was amazed at how much more knowledgeable everybody was about concussions. He explained to me that there were six different types of concussions that they were researching, and that they had been able to diagnose which kind I had.
I had what was classified as an optical concussion. Basically, the kind of concussion I suffered impacted my eyes more than anything. I became very sensitive to light. I had to start wearing glasses to read or watch television or play video games with my son. And I had never worn glasses a day in my life.
So I did a lot vestibular and ocular therapy to retrain my vision — to rehab my concussion.
I’ll admit: After suffering my fifth concussion, I thought about Junior Seau. I thought about guys like Dave Duerson. I thought about all the former NFL players suffering from CTE and other residual effects of playing the game of football.
And I got scared.
But Dr. Collins explained to me even more in-depth what he had started to explain back in 2011: If you let the fear and the depression overcome you, all you’re doing is hurting yourself. You’re only making it worse.
So like I did when I decided to take my first trip to Makkah — and later on, my Hajj — I decided to take a more optimistic approach.
In March, I retired from the game of football at the age of 30.
I have a lot of football left in me, no doubt. I could have come back. I could have rehabbed from my concussion and played in 2016 to try and help the Chiefs take the next step toward winning a Super Bowl.
But I did not retire out of fear. I retired because I had come to terms with my own medical history. If I had not suffered five concussions in my NFL career, maybe I would still be playing. But the fact is, I did suffer those concussions, and that tips the scale of risk to a point where the potential consequences outweigh the benefits for me.
One of the biggest reasons for that is that my wife gave birth to our fourth child earlier this year — a baby girl. And I remember just looking at her, thinking, I want to be around for you.
I want to be aware of everything going on in her life, and I want to take care of her.
I don’t want her to have to take care of me.
I have hope for the future of football. I don’t want it to ever go away. Even with more players each year retiring early and a growing number of parents unwilling to let their kids play football, the fact remains that there are kids in poverty-stricken communities all across America looking for a way out, and football has been — and will continue to be — an avenue for them to pursue. And those kids? They’re growing up in neighborhoods in which they don’t know if they’re going to live to see 16. So they’re not concerned with how playing the game of football might impact their brains at age 50, or 40, or even 30, when they’re likely to already be out of the league, should they make it that far.
But 30 years old is the age when doctors are finishing their residencies. It’s when lawyers are passing the bar. It’s supposed to be an age at which you’re having children, buying homes and building a life.
It’s not supposed to be an age when your brain starts to decline.
The NFL should be bringing promising young men into its game and putting them back into society better than they were when they got there, not mentally and physically broken.
And I’m optimistic that we’re on the right path to doing just that.
I look at how the Vikings handled my concussion in 2011 and how the Chiefs handled me in 2015. I think about the wealth of knowledge Dr. Collins and others have acquired — the increase in our understanding of concussions — in a span of just four years, which in medicine, is a very small amount of time.
Imagine what we’ll know in 2018.
Or in 2022.
That’s why I have hope for this game.
I don’t know what retirement has in store for me just yet. I look forward to being a good neighbor, husband and father, just like the example set by the Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him). I look forward to being a benefit to society.
And I look forward to giving back to the game that has given so much to me.
Honestly, I was thinking about not saying anything about my retirement. I was just going to quietly hang it up and move on with my life. But deep down, I knew that I had to say something, that I had to tell the whole story. That’s the only way I could truly move on.
My brother Hamza is writing a book The Transition: The Undefeated Undisputed Truth. It’s about the struggle guys face transitioning from the NFL into retirement. They’ve been pro athletes all their adult lives, and suddenly, they’re not. And that’s a harsh reality for any athlete to face.
In a few short months, players will start reporting for OTAs and training camp. Preseason games will kick off and then stadiums will fill up for regular-season games. And when they do, I won’t be on the field. I don’t think it will really hit me that I’m done with the game until then.
But when it does hit me, I know I’ll look into my new daughter’s eyes — and at my other three children and my wife — and know that I made the right decision.