FLAGSTAFF – Hamza Abdullah thought it was a trick. A prank.
Coach Ken Whisenhunt and vice president of media relations Mark Dalton had called him over to hand him the copy of an e-mail – a PDF inviting the safety to the White House. The occasion was the annual Iftar Dinner celebrating Ramadan, the month Abdullah and other Muslims fast from sunup to sundown to honor their faith.
Abdullah had been expecting it to be something else, obviously, like a message from his brother Hussein, a safety for the Vikings. Instead, Whisenhunt just handed him the piece of paper.
"I can tell they are looking at me and my facial expression," Abdullah said, and he looked at the invitation, the Presidential seal at the top.
"I probably looked like I just saw a ghost or something," Abdullah added.
He was assured it was real. "This," Whisenhunt told Abdullah, "is the President."
"I was sitting there like, 'Wow,' " Abdullah said. "It's truly a very humbling experience. Just at a loss for words. It's an honor, a once in a lifetime opportunity. You never know who is watching, or who you can touch from afar."
Abdullah's story – along with his brother's – exploded across the NFL world last year when both talked about fasting for Ramadan during training camp. Now, Abdullah will be making an improbable journey, going from the White House to the Black Hole on consecutive nights.
Abdullah will fly from Phoenix to Washington D.C. Wednesday, attend the dinner with his brother Hussein that night, and then fly from D.C. to Oakland directly Thursday morning in time for the game against the Raiders that night.
"I definitely have a commitment to the Cardinals and my teammates, and I want to uphold that," Abdullah said.
Whisenhunt didn't think twice about allowing Abdullah to go. "I was thrilled when I saw his invitation to the White House," Whisenhunt said. "I had to take a second glance at it. To get that opportunity is a once-in-a-lifetime deal, and I'm actually curious to hear about the trip. I feel like I am living vicariously through him."
"Let's be real, this is the leader of our country. The chance to do something like this, it's a tremendous honor."
There is a bit of irony for Abdullah's trip this season. While he steadfastly adhered to fasting during Ramadan last year, he hasn't been able to this year (it lasts from Aug. 1 through Aug. 31 this year). He tried it last week but didn't feel well afterward.
Abdullah thinks it might have to do with the irregular offseason and the lockout, throwing him "out of whack."
"Fasting is not supposed to be detrimental or make for extreme difficulty, so I will take my time, pray about it, and if I can fast I will, but I will take it easy," he said.
That doesn't change the importance of the trip. The fact it fit perfectly into the Cardinals' timeline – Abdullah won't miss any practices despite the cross-country trip – didn't hurt.
"I am very appreciative of President Obama and the White House scheduling this around our game," Whisenhunt said with a smile. "That was very nice."
Abdullah can't stop shaking his head thinking about what's to come.
"Wow. Wow," Abdullah said. "I'm just really in utter amazement."