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‘It’s a lie, it’s a facade’: The Abdullah brothers on life during and after the NFL

“Our honest little fun, it’s not so honest.”

Husain Abdullah (left) and Hamza Abdullah (right) CREDIT: Abbas Abdullah
Husain Abdullah (left) and Hamza Abdullah (right) CREDIT: Abbas Abdullah

Hamza Abdullah doesn’t want any professional athlete to ever go through what he went through — to feel the way he felt three years ago when he reached his now-infamous breaking point.

Back then, the former safety, who had played seven years in the NFL, was feeling nothing but anger and despair. His career in pro football was likely over far sooner than he expected it to be. He was in the best shape of his life, but after he took the 2012 season off in order to make the pilgrimage to Mecca with parents and his brother Husain, no team was willing to give him so much as a tryout.

He didn’t know what to do next, and worst of all, he couldn’t find any guidance. Not from the NFL, not from the NFL Player’s Association (NFLPA), and not from his increasingly distant friends and family. In his new book, Hamza Abdullah: Come Follow Me: A memoir. The NFL. A transition. A challenge. A change, Hamza describes how a series of events — including a visit to an independent doctor where he discovered exactly how much damage the NFL had done to his body, and his wife’s hesitancy to buy anything due to her concern about their financial future — awoke an anger in him that he didn’t know was there.

“I did it not knowing if there was going to be a tomorrow. That was my last stand.”

So, on October 31, 2013, he decided to use the largest platform at his disposal—Twitter—to send a message to the world.

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“I did it not knowing if there was going to be a tomorrow. That was my last stand,” Hamza told ThinkProgress. “That’s what I felt. I felt that if this is my last day on this earth, someone needs to hear this that this is what’s going on in the mind of an NFL player.”

His 50-tweet, expletive-riddled tirade,` which he says was planned in advance, covered a wide range of topics — from the NFL’s refusal to admit how dangerous concussions are; to the league’s treatment of players before, during, and after their careers; to his own suicidal thoughts.

“Fuck you NFL because you are the plantation and WE are the slaves!!!”

“Fuck you NFL for wanting players to kill themselves so you can show the “SLAVES” what life off the plantation is …” “

“There’s a reason 80% of former players either go broke or get divorced within 5 years of leaving the game. … It’s not poor choices by the player, it’s the fucking NFL loading the gun, and us pulling the trigger. “

“Every time I go to sleep, I pray that Allah takes care of my family, just in case I don’t wake up. … And quietly, I’m disappointed sometimes when I do wake up.”

“Fuck you Roger Goodell. You would sell your fucking soul for a dollar.”

His tweets swiftly went viral, triggering a trending topic on Twitter and launching a thousand hot takes on talk shows all over the sporting world. Though initially surprised by how far his reach was, he now understands.

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“We finally get to see the human aspect of NFL players. Usually they’re gladiators, superhero figures we see on Sundays,” Hamza said. “It’s not until you see them hurt, hurting like us, where you say, ‘oh I forgot that guy was human.’ I think it resonated with people because they saw a lot of their own anger and depression in what I was saying.”

Hamza Abdullah played for the Cleveland Browns in 2008. The Browns were the third team (out of four) he played for in his career. CREDIT: AP
Hamza Abdullah played for the Cleveland Browns in 2008. The Browns were the third team (out of four) he played for in his career. CREDIT: AP

One of the people with whom Hamza’s tweets resonated was his younger brother Husain, a who at the time was a safety for the Kansas City Chiefs. While the media and fans expressed shock and outrage at Hamza’s tirade, Husain said that none of his fellow players did.

“The reality is, that’s the conversations that happen in locker rooms every day,” Husain said. “I wanted Hamza’s voice to be heard.”

Husain said that players in the NFL are conditioned by the league and fans to keep these difficult conversations contained behind closed doors.

“All they want to see us do is run around and make tackles and score touchdowns and make interceptions, smile and dance in the end zone, then go hide somewhere,” he said. “Shut up, go play, entertain me, then go away.”

The Abdullah brothers aren’t going anywhere.

In the week before Hamza and Husain spoke by phone to ThinkProgress, two former NFL players died — Joe McKnight at the age of 29, and Rashaan Salaam at 42. The news of both deaths shook them.

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“You see a lot of players dying young, and not only are they dying young, they’re dying violent deaths,” Husain said. “Suicides, shootings, this is a huge issue.”

McKnight, a 29-year-old who played for both the New York Jets and the Chiefs, was murdered in broad daylight in New Orleans over what started as a road rage incident. Ronald Gaser, the man who shot and killed him, was initially released from police custody before being arrested on manslaughter charges a few days later. Husain, who was teammates with McKnight in Kansas City, took to Twitter to ask McKnight’s former employers in the NFL and his alma matter, the University of Southern California, to seek justice for the fallen player.

Four days later, Salaam, a former Heisman winner, committed suicide in Colorado. His brother later told reporters that Salaam suffered from depression, anxiety, apathy, and memory loss, all symptoms of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the degenerative brain disease caused by repeated blows to the head that has recently been discovered in many deceased NFL players.

Salaam was a proud Muslim, and when Hamza and Husain were growing up, his success proved to them that their faith and football dreams weren’t mutually exclusive.

“Rashaan was a superhero to us,” Hamza said. “This hit me hard because of my personal experience with suicidal thoughts.”

Hamza and Husain know better than most that tomorrow is never guaranteed in the NFL, on or off the field. In fact, at times, football and death seem intrinsically linked.

That’s why they decided to skip the 2012 season to perform the Fifth Pillar of Islam — making a pilgrimage to Mecca — despite the fact that both had marquee years in 2011. Hamza saw two of his Denver Broncos teammates die in a six-week span after the 2005 season. Within his first three years in the league, Husain suffered four concussions over the course of 15 months, including one that ended his 2011 season prematurely.

So yes, taking a year off for this journey was a big risk, but it was one they had to take given the dangers of their job.

The years since have only justified that choice. Hamza has struggled mightily since the trip, dealing with depression while fighting the NFL for access to his benefits and meeting roadblock after roadblock while trying to jumpstart a second career. Husain, who played for three years with the Chiefs after the trip, decided to end his career this spring, after suffering his fifth concussion in 2015. He worried the next one could kill him.

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Both men still love football despite all of their struggles on and off the field, but they want to see changes made — serious changes in how the league operates and treats its players — so that the sport stops being synonymous with suffering.

First of all, players need guaranteed contracts. This way, teams will have more motivation to properly treat players’ injuries and rehabilitate them, not just cut them at the first sign of trouble. As a result, players will feel more secure disclosing their injuries.

“Once you have guaranteed contracts, now I have no choice but to have your best interest in mind, you’re the best player and person you can be, because you’re going to be here,” Hamza said.

Hamza, left, and Husain, right. CREDIT: Abbas Abdullah
Hamza, left, and Husain, right. CREDIT: Abbas Abdullah

Hamza also thinks the league needs to start providing its players with lifetime health insurance, and start addressing concussions as a health concern, not a public relations concern. Both brothers scoffed at the sideline tests that are given to athletes immediately after hard hits to determine whether or not they have a concussion. These tests are extremely easy to rig; Husain said players often know the questions the trainers are going to ask because they’re repeated every game. He recalled a trainer asking one of his teammates if he knew what day it was after suffering a bad hit to the head. The disoriented player looked around the stadium, noted that since he was playing football it was probably Sunday, and the trainer cleared him to return for the game.

Hamza said this band-aid approach is symptomatic of larger problems with the NFL.

“When we see them hurt, it shows us what was our honest little fun, it’s not so honest.”

“That’s not addressing the issue, that’s not treating an injury, that’s just making it so the public thinks we’re doing all we can. Football is family? It’s a lie, it’s a facade,” Hamza said. “As human beings, we’re bloodthirsty, but scared to admit it. We want power. It’s only when we see Luke Kuechly on the ground crying in pain that we say, ‘oh, we wanted blood but not death.’ When we see them hurt, it shows us what was our honest little fun, it’s not so honest.”

For Hamza, it comes down to the fact that every step of the way, the league treats its players like products, not people.

This is illuminated in one of the most haunting parts of Hamza’s memoir, when he describes his experience at the NFL combine, piling into a white van with dozens of other prospects.

The van looked as though it would be used for a bank robbery and set on fire later in the day. There were no smiles, handshakes, or salutations exchanged between anyone in the van. The mood was somber, as though we were going to an execution. An execution of our football careers. We arrived at the hotel next to the stadium and unloaded like a chain gang. We were all branded like cattle and shown to our cells.

It was more of a meat market where we were measured, weighed, and evaluated purely on our physical appearance. We were pieces of meat sold to the highest bidder. It was a modern day slave trade.

The current system has to be disrupted in order to find a way forward. That starts with players speaking up, like Hamza is doing in his book, and like Colin Kaepernick is doing with his national anthem protest. The Abdullah brothers are great admirers of Kaepernick’s stance against police brutality and racial oppression, and his willingness to take a stand and speak out — a willingness that has clearly rattled many NFL coaches and owners.

“This system has been built on the backs of players since its inception,” Hamza said. “It didn’t become a billion-dollar empire by allowing players to dictate and to think past football.”

But above all else, the Abdullah brothers believe that in order for the NFL to become a safer, more supportive place for athletes before, during, and after their careers, the league has to discover its humanity.

“Before you get to proper care and guaranteed contracts and running an ethical business, the very first thing is to be honest and say, we haven’t been doing the right thing, doing right by these people, we have issues and we have information and we’ve been sweeping it under the rug,” Husain said.

“I think the very first thing is telling the truth.”

Hamza’s book opens with a quote from Muhammad Ali: “Change is an inevitable part of life…Life is easier when we accept these changes and recognize how every moment of our journey is an important part of the growth of our soul.”

Neither of the Abdullah brothers had the exact NFL career they envisioned, and for both of them, the end came sooner than they hoped it would. But they are leaning on their faith to accept the changes, and guide them on the next steps of their journeys.

It’s not always easy. Hamza still experiences waves of depression and darkness, and Husain still has balance and vision issues stemming from his concussion last year. Both still experience unpredictable mood swings, another symptom of CTE, which can only be diagnosed posthumously.

“This system has been built on the backs of players since its inception. It didn’t become a billion-dollar empire by allowing players to dictate and to think past football.”

But they see this as an opportunity to help others — and to be leaders in the Muslim, African American, and athlete communities. In today’s day and age, with a president-elect who has campaigned on a promise to ban Muslims from the country and who publicly questioned the mere existence of Muslim-American sports heroes, they know their voices are more important than ever.

“Donald Trump being elected, it removed the veil from a lot of people’s eyes,” Hamza said. “A lot of people were comfortable being right where they are. In the NFL we can’t get too comfortable, your job is always on the line. And as a Muslim we can’t get too comfortable because there’s more you can do, there’s more good that can be done.

“Now with all the hateful speech, all the rhetoric that is going around, now we have the opportunity to say, this is what Islam is.”

Earlier this year, the brothers got affirmation they were truly making an impact when they were invited to be pallbearers at Muhammad Ali’s funeral. Though they had never met the legend, he was their idol in all facets, and it was a transcendent experience for Hamza. (Husain was on a previously scheduled pilgrimage and was unable to attend.)

“I felt his spirit there, and it was overwhelming, I almost buckled my knees when I touched the casket, that’s how powerful the casket was,” Hamza said.

Hamza holding the casket at Muhammad Ali’s funeral. CREDIT: Husain Abdullah’s Instagram
Hamza holding the casket at Muhammad Ali’s funeral. CREDIT: Husain Abdullah’s Instagram

Hamza gained more far more notoriety than he intended three years ago, when he lashed out at the NFL and shared his suicidal thoughts with the world. It has been quite the journey since, and Come With Me is the culmination of that journey. It is a raw, unflinching look at how brutal the NFL can be, and the toll that takes on players. He takes you behind the facade, to the agony he felt waiting for a phone call on draft day; the devastation he felt when getting an early-morning phone with the news that a friend and teammate had been murdered; the hopelessness he felt when after being cut, he got a letter from the NFL saying his insurance was about to run out, all while his wife was pregnant; and the frustration of fighting endlessly with the NFL for routine benefits after his career ended.

There was no guidebook available for Hamza, so he decided to write one. In the past few months, he’s helped guide Husain through the post-NFL transition, and now he hopes to reach other former players and help them too.

He only wishes he could reach more players, and that he could have reached many of them sooner — particularly Rashaan Salaam.

“How many players feel like Rashaan does? And now it’s just a blip on the screen. You’re not 42 years old and just die on the park bench. That should raise a bunch of eyebrows,” Hamza said.

“I want for my brother what I want for myself and all NFL players, I want anyone going through a major transition or depression or suicidal thoughts, I want them to know that they are loved, I want them to know that I, Hamza Abdullah, am trying my best to not just raise awareness but eradicate it. I don’t want to see this anymore.

“I want us to really believe that we love each other as human beings, that we can come together despite our differences, come together and say, hey, this isn’t how we’re going to go out.”