Three Saturdays ago, on the 20th anniversary of 9/11, I woke up thinking about all the ways my life has changed since that day. And for whatever reason, my mind kept taking me back to this one particular plane ride near the end of 2010.
I was with the Vikings at the time, and I forget what city we were in, but we had just finished playing a night game. It was late, and we had gotten beat, so as we boarded the plane everyone was hurting, pissed-off, and reliving all of the plays we would’ve loved to have had back.
I remember finding my seat, getting comfortable, ready to head home and move forward, and then … we just sat there.
The plane didn’t move an inch for what seemed like hours. In reality, it was probably only around 45 minutes. But after a loss? With everyone just wanting to get home and go to bed? You know that 45 minutes seemed like it would never end. It was just like….
Tick, tick, tick, tick, tick….
Everyone was looking at their watches and shifting in their seats while looking at each other — pisstivity growing, banged-up bodies throbbing, as we continued ruminating over mistakes that had cost us the game. Until, at one point, one of the guys who worked on travel arrangements for the Vikings walked up the aisle, followed closely by two big airport security guards, and they stopped at my row.
Suddenly, everyone was looking at me.
“I’m really sorry about this, Husain,” the Vikings guy said to me, and then paused. I could tell he was uncomfortable — just kind of fidgety, looking off to the side.
I had no clue what he meant, or what was going on.
“I’m so sorry, man … but I’m gonna need to see your I.D.”
Even after he said it to me, it still took a second or two for it to register. Then, all at once, it hit me.
They’re holding up this plane because of YOU. Because of YOUR NAME. You’re on some list because of your name!
They’re holding up this plane because of YOU. Because of YOUR NAME.- Husain Abdullah
At that moment, I gotta be honest, part of me wanted to go off. I was about to lose my cool….
“I’m a Minnesota Viking! I’m a part of this team! Everyone here knows me!”
And in my head it was like: I’m a loving husband, a great dad, a family man. I’m a decent human being. And you got these two big dudes with their security jackets looking like they’re about to pull me out of my seat right now?
I wanted to look those dudes in the eye and say: “Hell, nah, y’all can go kick rocks. You do realize you’re asking me for my identification, on our team plane, after I just played in a football game with all these guys?”
I’m always conscious of the angry-Black-man stereotype, however. So … I got out my wallet, calmly opened it up, and then handed the man my I.D.
Ten minutes later, it was wheels up.
Before I knew it, we were back home in Minnesota.
No one ever spoke of it again.
My whole, entire life changed with 9/11.
Lots of us can say that, I realize. All of us, really. I know that. I don’t mean to discount that in any way. But when your name is Husain Ibn Muhammad Abdullah, and you’re a Muslim of strong and deep faith? When that’s who you are at the core … your life really, really, really changes after something like 9/11 takes place.
Prior to 2001, growing up in Southern California, the fact that I was a Muslim never really led to anything super negative or worrisome. I remember when I was really little, during the war in Iraq, someone on the playground called me Saddam one time. But to be honest with you, I squashed that immediately. I set that boundary. Couldn’t have been more clear — like, “Hey! What’d you say? Haha, yeah. Real funny. If I hear it again, you’re gonna have to catch my fade.”
It never happened again.
I had small, insignificant experiences of Islamophobia as a kid.
After 9/11, though, everything was different.
I was a junior in high school at the time, and on that particular Tuesday I was listening to Big Boy in the Morning on Power 106 while I was getting dressed. I still remember it. Right before his phone-taps skit started, he announced that a plane had hit a skyscraper in New York. When I heard that, I thought maybe the pilot of a small plane had passed out or something, but by the time I got to school I realized how serious everything was. No one was doing any work, we were all just glued to the TVs they rolled into all our classrooms. Then the bell would ring, and we’d all just walk to a different classroom and watch a different TV.
Before long, reporters started talking about it being an attack, a terrorist attack. The news began blending the words Muslim and Islam with terrorism and violence. And then, not too long after that — just like a few minutes or so — stuff started to get ugly at my school.
At one point, a few kids ran up and surrounded some young, hijab-wearing, Muslim women at center quad. They were screaming and shouting all sorts of slurs at the girls, threatening them, looking to place their hurt and aggression on someone defenseless. My cousin, Muhammad, stepped in to intervene like, “Nah — y’all gonna have to catch my fade. You know you’re wrong. If you want to harm these women, you’re gonna have to fight me first!”
Literally, a 16-year-old had to stand up in front of a growing mob of kids, like some shield or something. A protector of people he barely knew. It actually came to that. And had he not been there, who knows what would have happened?
There were some Sikh students at our school who, after a few days, they basically just disappeared. They withdrew from the school because of how they were treated by other students. They were just unmercifully harassed. Nonstop.
It was just really, really sad.
When it came to me more directly, though, as an individual, and how I was treated in the immediate aftermath, something maybe not so predictable went on.
There’s obviously no confusion about who I am, what I’m all about. My name kind of says it all. I am Muslim through and through. And I could just feel something in the air, how kids started looking at me differently. There was a different vibe in the weeks after 9/11. Like a suspicion. But then, on the other hand … they knew me.
So they’re looking at me like: Wait, this dude is … he’s cool. He’s a nice person. I’ve known him since kindergarten. Or, We ran track together. Or, He once helped me out when I fell down at recess, or whatever. Like, I actually know him. I know what he’s about.
There was this mashup of, Well, this guy is supposed to be the enemy … but I know he’s actually not the enemy.
All of a sudden, in so many ways big and small, I was being expected to speak on behalf of two billion people, about a religion with almost 1,500 years of history.- Husain Abdullah
In other settings, outside of school, those relationships couldn’t help me in the same way. And there were new challenges I had to deal with. For starters, after 9/11, everything about my Muslim-ness became amplified and more prominent to the outside world.
That next year, a local newspaper did an article focused on me and my cousin being Muslim and playing football, and how we combined the two. It was cool overall, and we got to talk about our faith and why it mattered so much to us. But, at the same time, it also made it clear to me that there was going to be a lot expected of me when it came to talking about Islam — that I needed to get fully caught up quick. Not only in terms of understanding Islam as a faith, but also learning the intricacies of world politics.
It was like, all of a sudden, in so many ways big and small, I was being expected to speak on behalf of two billion people, about a religion with almost 1,500 years of history.
It was … heavy.
Before that, I’d been super quiet, an introvert. But after 9/11, I felt like I couldn’t just not talk. I couldn’t just stand by and let mistruths go unchecked. And there were lots of times when I felt like I was out of my element, and speaking on things I didn’t know enough about.
So, basically, I learned more. I took on the challenge of learning more about my religion and tried my best to help those around me understand what it meant to be a Muslim. In some ways, now that I’m sitting here thinking about it, that’s kind of the story of my adult life — striving to be a good Muslim, to learn as much as I can about Islam, being an ambassador for my faith, while also dispelling myths along the way.
Of course, those efforts aren’t made any easier when media portrayals, movies, video games, and sensationalized “news” on TV all tend to feed into stereotypes or paint an entire religion as evil. And just in case you thought that maybe being a professional athlete would insulate me from that stuff, I can tell you that definitely hasn’t been the case.
Striving to be a good Muslim, to learn as much as I can about Islam, being an ambassador for my faith, while also dispelling myths along the way.- Husain Abdullah
Let’s see … one that always springs to mind is the reporter who came at me in front of a crowded gathering of media and berated me for fasting when Ramadan happened during training camp — because, he said, it was putting the Vikings at risk of liability if I died.
Like, for real.
“How could you put the Vikings in this position?”
He was gaslighting me while others wanted to learn more about the beauty of Ramadan.
Speaking of Ramadan, another time, an exec from a team I was playing for once pleaded with my agent for me to find better friends to kick it with. My agent was puzzled, knowing I pretty much went to work, went home, and only went out to team functions, he asked the exec why?
The man then told him that my friend Ramadan was having me out so late at night, he was afraid I wouldn’t have the energy to perform.
I just had to laugh when the story finally reached me.
Or, during my first or second year with the Chiefs, when a newspaper ran an article about me fasting, and, you know, the article itself was fine. But the layout?
Get this: Directly to the right of my photo, there was a huge headline about, you guessed it ... terrorists. With the natural fold of the paper, you’d see my picture right next to some bold type about a terrorist. So people who just glanced at it….
I mean, come on.
Over the years, there were a lot of situations like those — certainly more than I have space to recount here. But I guess one silver lining is that, to me, that stuff was much more difficult and disappointing than anything I ever experienced with most of my teammates and coaches during my football career.
In fact, it was like the field or the locker room, those were almost like safe havens for me. The only thing that mattered in those settings was whether or not you could play ball. In some ways, being able to hunker down in those places made things easier and better for me overall as a practicing Muslim.
Even just with prayer, being in a football setting actually made being a devout Muslim less difficult sometimes. We pray five times a day — before the sun rises, right after noon, in the afternoon, at sunset, and then one last time at night — and when I wasn’t at the facility, sometimes it’d be really rough finding a place to pray. I’d be at a mall, and it would be time to pray, and it’d be like ... I’d have to pretend like, “Hey, I need a new T-shirt, but I’m not sure if this fits me, can I try it on?” And then I’d go into the fitting room and pray. Or I’d be stuck outside somewhere and have to pray in freezing cold temperatures.
But at the facility — at least after I got my legs under me and felt more confident and had gone on the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca in 2012 — I was able to just ask my coaches if I could use their offices to pray whenever the time came. And those guys, they always were more than happy to let me do that. Coach Dino in K.C., and ET, Emmitt Thomas, those guys were super kind to help me out in whatever way they could, and they made sure I was able to give my faith the priority it deserves. ET actually called me into the office to make sure that when I prayed, I did so in his office.
What was even cooler, though, was that being in football provided the opportunity for some real learning to take place, and for some of the coolest, most impactful conversations I’ve ever been a part of.
It would usually start out really simple or basic, or be based on some confusion. Like: “Hey, Husain, are you from the Nation of Islam?” Or, “Are you Sunni or Shia?” Or, “Who’s doing all the attacking right now over in the Middle East?”
Lots of times the questions were misguided, but they always showed a level of curiosity, a willingness to learn. I loved that. And you know what? Sometimes I’d actually be like, “Shoot, I’m trying to figure out all the details of what’s going on just like you are.”
There was always an underlying respect present, in both directions.
Now, of course, guys used to joke and clown around a lot — tease me about how there was bacon on top of some donuts in the locker room, or ask me if they could convert to Islam just to have multiple wives or whatnot. But I always went right back at them, just like we would with anything else. And I always thought those players were the most curious. They actually wanted to know more.
I mean, that same bacon dude once came up to me like, “Hey, Husain,” almost kinda hushed. “Who is Allah?”
It was awesome!
Then it was: “How is He different from the God that I worship?”
“What about Jesus? What do you guys think about Jesus?”
“And who’s this Muhammad person I hear about sometimes?”
“Hey, and why do you guys have to pray five times a day? Like, why five?”
And on and on like that.
From there, we had tons of insightful conversations.
At one point, me and a few of my teammates formed our own little … I guess you’d call it a discussion circle, or a prayer group or something. But it was a true fellowship — again, all based on mutual respect. We’d sit around, and they’d be in their Bibles, I’d be in the Quran. And it was like, “Oh, I read this verse last night,” or, “This other verse I just read on our off day was really cool.”
Doesn’t get much better than that.
Ultimately, more than anything, I’m just really thankful that I had so many supportive coaches and teammates over the years. Those individuals, and the kindness they showed me on a regular basis, really have helped me to navigate the post-9/11 world. Those experiences of feeling respected and supported and loved, have helped me deal with the challenges and unfair treatment that America has placed upon Muslims in other contexts.
They helped me to appreciate the value and importance of kindness even more than I already did, and that made me a better person overall. No doubt about it.
Now, of course, I’d be lying if I tried to tell you that the Islamophobic stuff I’ve experienced over the years didn’t get to me sometimes — that it was easy to just shrug off those incidents, that they didn’t affect me in the least. That’s just not real life.
After that reporter came at me about fasting during training camp for Ramadan, I can remember walking back to the locker room, looking down, and noticing that my hands were shaking. Like just uncontrollably shaking. Because I was so upset.
And on that airplane, when I had to present my I.D.? Oh man….
Don’t even get me started.
In those moments, though, I always try to remind myself to take the high road. That is always the best approach. I do my best to behave in the character and the mannerisms of the prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, and I just strive to win people over with kindness, love, and with prophetic character.
The prophetic mission was simple, after stressing the worship of The Creator alone, he said, “I was sent to perfect good character.”
Basically by loving for others what you love for yourself.
I truly believe in my heart of hearts that’s the best way to live.