Muslim Players To Watch This NFL Season

No, Colin Kaepernick is not going to appear on this list of Muslim NFL players.

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No, Colin Kaepernick is not going to appear on this list of Muslim NFL players.

Contrary to what some angry American patriots have to say on social media, the San Francisco 49ers quarterback — who has become the most polarizing athlete in sports by refusing to stand up for the U.S. national anthem and by speaking out against racial injustices in his country — is not a practicing Muslim.

(You would think that Kaepernick’s body being covered with tattoos of Bible verses would be a good hint about his religious beliefs. But to some people, sitting down for the anthem and standing up against oppression in America must automatically be associated with Islam.)

Not only has Kaepernick outright told everyone he’s not Muslim, but he’s also already stated clearly that his protest has nothing to do with religion.

Meanwhile, the man who was widely considered the face of Islam in the NFL is no longer playing pro football.

Husain Abdullah decided to retire this past March at 30 years old, citing the five concussions he’d suffered in seven pro seasons.

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The Kansas City Chiefs defensive back made national headlines in 2014 when he was flagged for an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty after prostrating to Allah [swt] in the end zone. The league quickly apologized to Abdullah and clarified that he shouldn’t have been penalized. Abdullah himself tried to diffuse the situation by suggesting the official was reacting to Abdullah sliding in the end zone, which could’ve looked like excessive celebration.

In 2012, when Abdullah was playing for the Minnesota Vikings and his older bother Hamza was playing defensive back for the Arizona Cardinals, the two of them took the season off to make the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca and then tour the U.S. visiting mosques and Islamic centers. Husain made his way back to the NFL, signing with the Chiefs the following season. Hamza (who served as a pallbearer at Muhammad Ali‘s funeral) hasn’t played in the NFL since going to Mecca.

It seemed whenever the national media wanted to run a story on Muslims who play football, or Muslim American athletes who observe the Ramadan fast, or any other story in which Islam and sports crossed paths, Husain Abdullah was one of the first athletes they called.

Now that he has retired, who is the NFL’s most prominent Muslim player?

Two Muslims were ranked on the NFL Network’s list of the league’s top 100 players for 2016. There is also a young running back in Detroit, a new wide receiver in Atlanta, and a rookie defensive lineman in Oakland with the potential to become stars as well.

The new NFL season kicks off Thursday with a Super Bowl 50 rematch between the Carolina Panthers and the reigning champion Denver Broncos. Here are 10 Muslim players to watch on the road to Super Bowl 51 in Houston:

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Aqib Talib

Aqib Talib

AQIB TALIB
Defensive Back
Denver Broncos

Talib is a three-time Pro Bowl selection, one half of the NFL’s best cornerback tandem (with Chris Harris Jr.), and a key part of the league’s best overall defense. He recorded 45 tackles, 13 pass breakups, three interceptions and two touchdowns last season. He helped the Broncos win the Super Bowl. After the season, he was voted the 34th-best player in the league by his peers. And he is not even halfway through the six-year, $57 million contract he signed with Denver in 2014.

So why was it so believable when rumors surfaced recently that the Broncos were trying to trade Talib? (Rumors that were quickly shut down by Denver vice president and general manager John Elway.)

A lot of it had to do with an offseason incident in which Talib was shot in the leg — at a strip club, no less — that kept him sidelined through half of the preseason. It is still not known publicly whether Talib shot himself or if someone shot him. And if he was shot by someone else, it’s still unclear whether that happened on purpose or by accident. The incident is still being investigated, and it could end with Talib being suspended or going to jail.

That wasn’t the first time Talib has been caught up in an incident involving a gun, and it wasn’t the first time he’s been investigated by the NFL or by police. If he is suspended by the league, it won’t be the first time for that, either. And if he is traded by the Broncos, it won’t be the first time an NFL team decided Talib’s talent wasn’t worth the trouble.

Hopefully, insha’Allah, Talib gets his personal life in order and makes a positive impact on and off the field. As one of the few Muslims playing in the NFL and probably the most accomplished, he is well aware that he’s a role model for a community of young people.

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Ryan Harris

Ryan Harris

RYAN HARRIS
Offensive Line
Pittsburgh Steelers

Talib’s teammate last year also earned a Super Bowl ring, but in the offseason decided to leave Denver and sign with Pittsburgh.

Harris, who was the starting right tackle for the Kansas City Chiefs in 2014, was brought to the Broncos in 2015 to replace All-Pro left tackle Ryan Clady, who had suffered a season-ending knee injury in training camp. Harris started every game, including Super Bowl 50, protecting the respective blind sides of quarterbacks Peyton Manning and Brock Osweiler.

The nine-year NFL veteran is currently listed as a backup for the Steelers. But with Harris’ experience and versatility to play multiple positions across the line, and the fact that injuries are unavoidable in this sport, don’t be surprised if he’s in the starting lineup before long.

Harris converted to Islam as a teenager growing up in Minnesota.

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Mohamed Sanu

Mohamed Sanu

MOHAMED SANU
Wide Receiver
Atlanta Falcons

After posting career-highs of 56 catches, 790 yards and five touchdowns for the Cincinnati Bengals in 2014, Sanu appeared ready to establish himself in 2015 as one of the best No. 2 receivers in the league while lining up across the field from Cincy superstar A.J. Green.

But last season was a letdown. Sanu finished with just 33 catches for 394 yards and zero touchdowns. He still entered free agency as one of the most coveted receivers available on the market, and signed a five-year, $32.5 million deal with the Falcons — where he’ll be the No. 2 receiver lining up across from Atlanta superstar Julio Jones.

Big for his position at 6-foot-2 and 210 pounds, Sanu is a good route-runner whose strength and ability to break tackles allows him to pick up yards after the catch.

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Muhammad Wilkerson

Muhammad Wilkerson

MUHAMMAD WILKERSON
Defensive Line
New York Jets

A long and often testy contract dispute threatened to bring Wilkerson’s tenure with the Jets to an unceremonious end, until the two sides finally agreed in July on a five-year, $86 million deal that now makes Wilkerson one of the league’s highest-paid defensive players.

“I give my all every Sunday on the field and play with so much love and passion for the game,” Wilkerson wrote on Twitter after the deal was announced. “I’m thankful for everything that comes my way and proud to say I’m back on the green and white for a few more years.”

A two-time All-Pro pick since being drafted out of Temple University in 2011, Wilkerson made his Pro Bowl debut last season after recording 69 tackles, 12 sacks and two forced fumbles.

Wilkerson also improved from 74th last year to 39th this year on the NFL Network’s ranking of the top 100 players in the league, which is voted on by NFL players.

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Ameer Abdullah

Ameer Abdullah

AMEER ABDULLAH
Running Back
Detroit Lions

The former University of Nebraska star came into the pros as an undersized underdog, but by the end of his rookie season he had claimed the Lions’ starting running back job. He finished the year with 597 rushing yards and two touchdowns, 183 receiving yards and a touchdown, and averaged 29 yards per kickoff return. Against the Green Bay Packers in Week 10, Abdullah returned a kickoff 104 yards before getting caught at the 1-yard line.

Abdullah’s first year in the league was a success in many ways, but in Year 2 he is looking for more opportunities and increased production. Last season, he never got more than 16 carries in a game, and his best rushing output was 77 yards (on nine carries) against the New Orleans Saints in Week 15.

Lions head coach Jim Caldwell sounds like he also wants Abdullah to get the ball more often, but isn’t going to force it.

“I don’t envision him carrying the ball 30 times in a ballgame,” Caldwell told the Detroit Free Press. “I think he’s capable, certainly. But that’s not his strength. I think he’s one of those guys that you have to get it to him a number of different ways. But do I think he’s durable enough to do it? Absolutely. Do I think he’s strong enough to do it? Absolutely. But I just don’t think that’s his cup of tea.”

The Lions have big plans for Abdullah, but he has some talented running backs breathing down his neck, looking for their own opportunities to shine.

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Oday Aboushi

Oday Aboushi

ODAY ABOUSHI
Offensive Line
Houston Texans

The Texans picked up Aboushi early last season after he’d been cut by the Jets, and he went on to start five games for Houston while helping them win the AFC South division and reach the playoffs.

Aboushi is the first Palestinian American to play in the NFL. In 2011, while he was a student at the University of Virginia, he was one of a dozen Muslim athletes honored in a reception marking Eid Al-Fitr hosted by Hillary Clinton at the U.S. Department of the State.

Despite playing football’s most physical position as an offensive lineman, and doing it with a 6-foot-5, 300-pound frame that needs plenty of fuel to operate at a high level, Aboushi still observes the Ramadan fast even if it falls during training camp or during the season.

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Dominique Easley

Dominique Easley

DOMINIQUE EASLEY
Defensive Line
Los Angeles Rams

After two injury-plagued seasons with the New England Patriots, Easley was unexpectedly cut in April amid rumors and reports from anonymous sources that the former first-round draft pick was immature, unreliable and — according to one unnamed teammate — a “locker room cancer.”

Those accusations were challenged, however, by Patriots who actually went on record to defend Easley.

Despite the negative reports, Easley wasn’t out of work very long. He was picked up by the Rams, a franchise in the first year of transition after relocating from St. Louis to Los Angeles. Easley is currently listed as a backup on one of the deepest and most talented defensive lines in the league, headlined by All-Pro tackle Aaron Donald and All-Pro end Robert Quinn.

Easley converted to Islam last year. He has also been a very active and public crusader in the fight to find a cure for Fibromyalgia, a chronic pain disorder that has afflicted his younger sister.

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Isa Abdul-Quddus

Isa Abdul-Quddus

ISA ABDUL-QUDDUS
Defensive Back
Miami Dolphins

A part-time starter and special-teams standout for the Lions, Abdul-Quddus signed with the Dolphins as a free agent and is penciled in as the full-time starter at strong safety. Pro Football Focus named Abdul-Quddus the league’s top bargain in free agency this past offseason after he signed a three-year, $12.75 million deal with Miami.

He’ll line up alongside Pro Bowl free safety Reshad Jones, one of the best overall defensive backs in the league, to form a hard-hitting pair of playmakers for the Dolphins.

Abdul-Quddus has made headlines off the field with his vocal opposition to the Islamophobic speech of U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump, and for speaking out against anti-Muslim rhetoric fueled by international terrorism.

“It’s giving [Islam] a bad name, because that’s the only way Muslims get into the news anymore,” Abdul-Quddus told the Detroit Free Press last year. “Like, you don’t really see anything positive. It’s only negative. So now people think evil is correlated with being Muslim, and that’s messed up. The majority of the religion — 99.99 percent — aren’t that. But that 0.01 is what ruins it for all of us.”

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Jihad Ward

Jihad Ward

JIHAD WARD
Defensive Line
Oakland Raiders

Ward wore No. 17 at the University of Illinois in honor of his mother, Kareema, who gave birth to him when she was 17 years old and raised him and his four siblings by herself. Kareema named her son Jihad not for any religious reason, but simply because she liked the name. She did not convert to Islam until Jihad was about 11 years old.

Ward’s road to the NFL did not follow the traditional route. He didn’t start playing football until he was 14, and he didn’t regularly play on the defensive line until he got to college. The story about how Ward commuted almost 25 miles every day via foot, subway and ferry to his junior college in New York City has been told numerous times. And while he didn’t produce standout stats at Illinois, he put himself on the radars of NFL scouts with some impressive pre-draft workouts.

The Raiders drafted Ward in the second round, and the versatile rookie lineman is currently listed as a starter at defensive tackle.

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Mohammad Seisay

Mohammad Seisay

MOHAMMED SEISAY
Defensive Back
Seattle Seahawks

Seisay wasn’t even a starter in college at Nebraska, so the fact that he’s on an NFL roster at all is pretty remarkable. His is the kind of story that was made for HBO’s “Hard Knocks” or the NFL Network’s “Undrafted” series.

But that story hasn’t been so great since Seisay survived final cuts as a rookie.

He played a little bit for the Lions in 2014, but since being traded to the Seahawks, he has yet to touch the field in a regular-season NFL game.

Seisay spent last season on Seattle’s injured reserve list with a shoulder injury, and is beginning this season on the injured reserve list again. The Seahawks could keep him there all season, or release him with an injury settlement.

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