Defensive lineman Dean Muhtadi runs to his position drills at a recent OTA.
John Lott stood at the summit of Camelback Mountain one Wednesday this offseason, huffing and puffing, waiting for the players left on the trail to join him at the top.
Defensive lineman Dean Muhtadi was nearing the end, having lugged his 310-pound frame up the rocks. Nicknamed The Iron Sheik by Lott because of his resemblance to the former wrestler, Muhtadi was feeling the climb himself when the Cardinals' strength and conditioning coach bellowed down to him.
"Hey Sheik," Lott yelled in his gravely Texas accent. "How y'all doing?" Muhtadi looked up and smiled. "Wonderful, coach! I love this place!" Lott just shook his head.
"It's just the way he is wired," Lott said later. "It's contagious and infectious. It's a breath of fresh air in this league."
Dean Muhtadi. The happiest man on the face of the earth.
Or at least in the NFL.
The grin rarely leaves his face, his enthusiasm doesn't dwindle. He's a long shot, and he knows it, but when had that ever deterred him? He calls himself the "eighth-string-guy-when-there-are-only-four-strings," a player who saw four head coaches and just four wins in four years of high school. He started in Division III in college before making the jump to the University of Maryland – and walking on to the team once he arrived.
He was undrafted into the NFL, and has yet to make a regular-season roster. And he can't stop smiling.
"Just to be back in (the NFL) is unbelievable for me," Muhtadi said. "That's why every day, even if everyone else is home, I am here."
OK, he admits his apartment is "awful" and his living conditions "suck," so he'd rather only sleep there and spend the rest of his time at the complex. But even this is said with joy, as if the chance to hang out at the team's Tempe facility is Christmas-morning-meets-Groundhog-Day.
After getting cut by the Packers following the 2009 preseason, Muhtadi just waited. And waited. When there was a message in January from the Cardinals, he looked up the area code just to be sure it wasn't a friend pranking him.
When the team's director of pro personnel, T.J. McCreight, finally got a hold of him live to tell Muhtadi the Cards wanted to fly him out and sign him, Muhtadi was with his girlfriend's family eating dinner at a Thai restaurant in Virginia.
"I went nuts," he said. "Everyone was looking at me. There was no sense of professionalism."
The smile turned permanent.
"I'll tell you what, it makes it worth it for me, because I'm trying to find something that will get me going every day," veteran defensive lineman Bryan Robinson said, allowing a smile himself. "You come in and he's just upbeat. Then you sit and talk to him and you understand a little bit of his background … he understands this is a privilege to be here."
It isn't as if Muhtadi is without talent. Lott saw Muhtadi's natural strength and, when Pro Bowl defensive lineman Darnell Dockett called to discuss whether he was going to show up for voluntary workouts, Lott told Dockett he needed to train with Sheik.
The two battle in the weight room, one pushing the other to see how much they can clean or squat.
"Sheik is one of the hardest working guys I have seen," Dockett said. "It's a good thing he's here. I think every team needs a guy like that, a guy so weight-room strong who will push everyone else."
Muhtadi guesses half his teammates don't have any idea of his real name, knowing him only as Sheik. But he knew them, studying the team website to match faces with names so when he arrived, he could spread his own particular brand of happiness.
Lott hopes his agility and strength can get Muhtadi a role on special teams. Robinson said Muhtadi's work ethic can only help his chances to play, if not in Arizona than somewhere else (and Muhtadi is practice-squad eligible). Robinson noted the coaches have trusted Muhtadi enough to give him some reps at end this summer.
However wide the smile, it doesn't mask reality. Muhtadi's time in Green Bay wasn't helped when the Packers drafted a nose tackle in the first round (B.J. Raji) and the irony that his new team did the same with Dan Williams wasn't lost upon him.
"In that regard, my luck is terrible," Muhtadi said. "The odds have always been stacked against me. But I am going to leave it all on the line. I love it here. I think it's a great fit."
But even that subject can't dim Muhtadi's disposition. He isn't high on the depth chart, but if the offseason is a time to be noticed, Sheik has at least done that.
"It's incredible," coach Ken Whisenhunt said. "Everyone sees the same thing. He is always happy, even when he is worn down from working out. That has stood out."
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