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Pat's Run Provides Ramadan Challenge for Ex-Cardinal Hamza Abdullah

Tillman has been person to look up to for former safety

Hamza Abdullah in 2011 with former special teams coordinator Kevin Spencer.
Hamza Abdullah in 2011 with former special teams coordinator Kevin Spencer.

Making an NFL roster is difficult enough, yet Hamza Abdullah once made the Cardinals roster despite fasting through training camp while observing Ramadan.

Thirteen years later, Abdullah, a Cardinals safety from 2009-11, was looking for another physical challenge during his Ramadan fasting – so he will be taking part in the annual Pat's Run on Saturday on the campus of Arizona State.

"Since I left the game of football, fasting and Ramadan have been difficult for me because when I was playing football and fasting I was so focused," Abdullah said. "Football was a great distraction from me from my own personal mental health. I realized that I needed something to challenge me, physically. The fasting was challenging me spiritually, and I need something to challenge me mentally and physically during Ramadan."

That comes in the form of the event named for another former Cardinals safety, the late Pat Tillman.

Pat's Run is in its 19th year, some 30,000 participants that run or walk 4.2 miles in honor of Tillman's jersey number when he played at ASU. The Cardinals have often had a presence. This season a number of coaches plan to take part, including head coach Jonathan Gannon.

Retired Cardinals defensive lineman J.J. Watt is slated to be the race's starter.

And among the participants will be Abdullah.

In 2010, Ramadan coincided with the Cardinals’ training camp in Flagstaff. Abdullah not only was battling the 7,000-foot elevation for his roster spot but also adhering to his fasting rules, which meant no food or drink during daylight hours. He loaded up on both before the sun rose and again after it set, trying to make it through the long day of workouts. (The next year, he was invited to the White House during Ramadan/the preseason.)

The years have eroded too many specifics for Abdullah about what it was like to fast during camp, but he said he got through it "from what I remember, because of my teammates."

"I think this was my first place where I felt like my teammates supporting me, the whole team supporting me," he added. "That was a great feeling."

Abdullah has known about Tillman for a long time. Tillman was a star at Arizona State in the then-Pac-10, Abdullah was a star at Washington State in the Pac-10. Both ended up playing safety for the Cardinals.

Abdullah, who calls himself a "history nerd," knew about Tillman's decision to join the military and about his eventual deployment to Afghanistan. He read "When Men Win Glory," the book about Tillman's decisions in that time.

When he sought that physical challenge during this Ramadan – this year, it falls between March 22 and April 20 – Pat's Run made sense. It is Abdullah's first time taking part.

"I've never even run that far," he said with a laugh. "Football players don't run like that."

However long it takes to cover the 4.2 miles isn't the point. With his connection to Tillman, it's about taking part during his most holy of days that is meaningful.

"Whenever something is brand new, I usually sit back and watch, that's my temperament," Abdullah said. "I want to evaluate things. I have no expectations.

"My goal for Pat's Run is God willing to open up a conversation about who Pat went to fight, because he didn't go to fight Muslims."

In this way, Abdullah hopes to get what he seeks, a balance of physical, mental, and spiritual health.

"This is a guy who was selfless and believed in what he believed in, and he was willing to sacrifice everything for it," Abdullah said. "For me as a young man, a young football player, I aspired to do that and I asked myself that question. Would I sacrifice everything for what I believed in? That's what got me deeper into my religion, got me deeper into being a better Muslim and saying, 'OK, what is this religion that seems to be misunderstood?'

"I was born into it because my parents were Muslim, but I had to ask myself what is this way of life where for one person it's saving the world and for another person they feel like it's destroying the world. I feel like Pat Tillman is at the centerpiece of that."