MANKATO, Minn. – Husain Abdullah is approaching his most challenging month of the football season.
That's when the Minnesota Vikings backup safety observes Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting and prayer. As a practicing Muslim, Abdullah will not eat or drink at all during daylight hours for the 30-day period that begins Wednesday.
Even while sprinting in the heat and humidity during drills, sometimes in full pads, Abdullah is adamant about his faith. He will not allow himself so much as a cup of water until the sun sets and before it rises.
"I'm putting nothing before God, nothing before my religion," Abdullah said. "This is something I choose to do, not something I have to do. So I'm always going to fast."
This time, the Vikings will be better able to help him handle the lack of nourishment.
"Last year it occurred in early September, and we saw a dip in his performance," coach Brad Childress said. "We said, 'What's wrong with Husain Abdullah? It doesn't seem like he has enough spunk.'"
Abdullah worked recently with the team's nutritionist on a meal and hydration plan to make sure he gets enough calories to maintain his energy, stamina and health in the coming weeks. He'll eat a big breakfast and a big dinner, when it's dark of course, and get up in the middle of the night to take a protein shake.
"I think we have our arms around it now and know when he is going to wake up and when he is going to eat and what we can pack on him before the sun comes up," Childress said. "Last year he was shouldering it all by himself. He is playing well. He is a good special teams player. He's interchangeable and can be in the emergency nickel situation because he is a smart guy. He's got great football instincts. He is a guy you pull for."
Abdullah insisted a back and hip injury last year was more a factor in his struggles than the fasting.
"I couldn't bend. I couldn't run, and I really wasn't the same player," said Abdullah, who played in all 16 games as an undrafted rookie out of Washington State in 2008 and led the Vikings with 24 special teams tackles.
This year, he's had a strong training camp, giving the Vikings confidence in their depth at safety behind incumbent starters Madieu Williams and Tyrell Johnson. Jamarca Sanford is also getting a serious audition.
Fasting is a rare practice in pro sports, since proper nourishment is critical to optimum performance, but it's not unprecedented.
Abdullah's older brother, Hamza, plays in the NFL — an Arizona Cardinals safety — and plans to abstain from daytime food and drink during the holiday.
Former NBA star Hakeem Olajuwon also observed. When the Houston Rockets had an afternoon tip-off or a grueling practice during Ramadan, he was often panting in thirst.
"I find myself full of energy, explosive," Olajuwon would say, according to a biography posted on NBA.com. "And when I break the fast at sunset, the taste of water is so precious."
Last month, however, an Islamic organization and German soccer officials determined that a Muslim player may break his fast for matches during Ramadan. They decided a player may do so if he is obliged to perform under a contract that is his only source of income and if fasting harms his performance.
Abdullah has been encouraging teammates, trainers and coaches to join him in the discipline. Childress passed, but head athletic trainer Eric Sugarman agreed to fast for a day or two.
"Some people are going. Some people are kind of reluctant to sign up for it," Abdullah said. "They're like, 'Ah, maybe I'll just drink something."
Abdullah grew up in Pomona, Calif., with seven brothers and four sisters and has observed Ramadan since he was 7. It's a time he looks forward to, not dreads.
"I used to kind of keep it to myself," he said. "But now I'm actually excited that Islam is getting some positive attention."