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Muslim brothers sacrifice big NFL paychecks for spiritual journey to Mecca

By Brian Brown

Rock Center

Put simply, this is just another striving, improbable, poetic American Dream story: How a family, venerating work and education, traveled from the notorious South Central LA of“Boyz In The Hood” to settle in Spielberg Americana in the shadow of the soaring San Bernardino Mountains—a family with not one but two brothers recruited to play Division I football at Washington State University, followed even more notably by NFL careers. 

But this story has taken many more remarkable turns.  Tonight on Rock Center with Brian Williams (10p ET), in  a remarkable journey from Southern California to Saudi Arabia,  correspondent Mary Carillo tells the story of Husain and Hamza Abdullah,  who, at their athletic peak … associated with America’s most glamorous, most  popular sport … walked away, for the glory of God. 

“We’ve been playing football since we were 8 years old,” Husain Abdullah told Carillo, “from Pop Warner to high school, and to college, and into the NFL.  And although we're knocking down all these barriers, doing things that people said you can't do, all of a sudden, it was like there's more to life than this. There's more.  And we had to go for it.” 

Their motivation arrived over a lifetime, and all at once.  This past spring, Husain and Hamza felt an urgent need to more fully address the pillars of their Islamic faith, including the most difficult test of all, the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca, an annual concentration of humanity unequaled on the planet. 

In so doing, 27-year-old Husain (who had become a starter with the Minnesota Vikings), and 29-year-old Hamza (an established seven-year veteran last with the Arizona Cardinals) would sacrifice annual paychecks in the range of a million dollars.  Instead, cognizant of their platforms as NFL players, they decided not only to seek greater spiritual fulfillment, but also to nurture a greater tolerance of their Islamic faith by spreading a greater understanding of its truths. 

“In Islam,”   Hamza Abdullah said, “the first word revealed was ikra, which means read or recite.  So it's incumbent on all Muslims to gain knowledge.  And, you know, if someone comes and asks me a question, ‘Hamsa, what's the five pillars of faith in Islam,’ I should be able to tell you:  Shahada, the declaration of faith:  Salat, the five prayers a day; Zakat, giving alms to the poor; Ramadan, fasting during the month of Ramadan; and then finally the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca.” 

Like many American Muslims, the Abdullah brothers have been falsely associated with versions of Islamic extremism they don’t recognize. 

On Sept. 11, 2001, Hamza was a sophomore at Washington State, where he was an electrifying presence on the team’s defense.  He received a call at 6 a.m. from a teammate telling him to turn on the TV and watch the breaking news about the attack on the World Trade Center towers.  Not long after that day, both brothers would find themselves equated with the 9-11 hijackers—men with a distorted view of Islam and a deep hatred of America … men with whom the brothers had nothing in common.   

WATCH VIDEO: Two Muslim brothers, one all-American success story

“I think 9/11 was an educational opportunity,” Hamza says. “It sounds crazy to say that. But it opened eyes for a lot of people, including myself. And people would ask me about Islam. They’d ask: ‘Can you guys kill people?’ And I would ask them: ‘In what book does it say that you can go and do acts of terrorism?’ The Quran doesn’t say that. Islam is a religion of peace.” 

This past year, accustomed to thorough preparation and high performance, the brothers have been machine-like in their faithfulness. Along with their older brother Abbas, they spent the holy month of Ramadan on a multistate, cross-country tour: reaching 30 mosques in 30 days, but also stopping at food kitchens and holding teaching sessions with youth groups. 

The climax of this year surrendered to the glory of God was the pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudia Arabia, known as the Hajj. There, the brothers joined a multitude of millions. 

“The first thing we noticed in Mecca was how much the other Muslims we met love Americans," said Hamsa. "They absolutely adore us.  When you say, ‘America,’ they love you.  And you really felt proud, like a sense of: ‘That’s my nation.  That's my country.’ And, you know, a lot of the times that kind of gets lost in translation: that Islam is our religion, yes.  But our country is the United States of America.” 

WATCH VIDEO: NFL players take leave, make journey to Mecca

Will Hamza and Husain Abdullah, with the quiet force of their personalities and the depth of their integrity, be welcomed back into the NFL?

“We’d love to have Husain back,” said Vikings head coach Leslie Frazier. “A lot of things have to fall in place. But the door is not closed.”

“Time and time again, Hamza’s going to be the guy that’s going to encourage you,” said Cardinals veteran All-Pro safety Adrian Wilson. “He’s always said that football isn’t about him. It’s about playing for your brother. It’s about playing for the guy that’s beside you.” 

Hamza offered these thoughts after his return from Mecca: 

“You know, we're playing football, America's number one game.  We went on a road trip.  What's more American than a road trip?”

But this was hardly any ordinary road trip, as the Rock Center team would learn in this story about a remarkable leap of faith.