KANSAS CITY, Mo. — No. 39 was everywhere and back Wednesday, more fun than a box of badgers. On the first-unit punt team, sprinting like a toddler in a toy store. In the secondary, eyes wide, hands at the ready, swatting away an errant pass.
So when you tell Zac Diles later that Husain Abdullah hasn’t played a down of NFL football in 17 months, the wheels inside the head start to turn. Then the jaw drops.
“No, he looks gooood,” Diles, the new Kansas City Chiefs linebacker, says of Abdullah, the news Chiefs safety. “You wouldn’t even know that, no. I had no idea. I had no idea. Because he’s running around out there, making plays. Almost had an interception out here. And he’s vocal. He knows (his stuff).”
For some guys, it’s all about the destination; for others, it’s the journey. At 25, Abdullah was a defensive back and special teams ace with the Minnesota Vikings, commanding $1.835 million on a one-year contract. He was living the American Dream, a man made rich playing a boys’ game, a jackhammer in the prime of his professional career.
At 26, Husain Abdullah walked away.
Last June, Abdullah, who was raised Muslim along with his seven brothers and four sisters, announced that he would sit out the 2012 season in order to partake in the Hajj — a pilgrimage to Mecca. His brother Hamza, then a safety with the Arizona Cardinals, joined him on his spiritual quest, which began with a goodwill tour around the United States in which they visited 30 mosques in 30 days.
“It’s different in the Middle East, but honestly, everything is structured around prayer,” Abdullah says. “So about 4 or 5 a.m. you wake up, you go pray. You come back, you chill out, you do whatever you want to do. At noon, you have another prayer. At mid-day, you have another prayer. At sunset, you have another prayer. And at nighttime, you have another prayer.
“Oh, yeah, it was definitely worth it. If I could do it over again, I would. And especially knowing, at the end of it, the Chiefs would pick me up.”
But that’s the thing: You don’t know. Nobody does. The NFL machine chugs relentlessly and ruthlessly on, with or without you.
“You know, I was kind of comfortable with my decision,” Abdullah shrugs, “if I didn’t get (another chance).”
At 26, Deron Cherry was playing in his third Pro Bowl. At 26, Derrick Thomas was playing in his fifth. At 26, Neil Smith reached double digits in sacks (14.5, back in 1992) for the first time.
At 26, the spring of your NFL days quickly turns to summer, and fall is just around the bend. According to a league study, among players who entered the NFL from 1993-2002, the average career length among the cats who had actually made an Opening Week roster as a rookie was just 6.0 years.
At 27, Abdullah knows the long odds, the short shelf life, the funny looks. He doesn’t care. As an undrafted rookie out of Washington State who clawed his way into an NFL starting lineup, he figures, odds are just numbers, a gambler’s folly.
“Regardless of how confident you are, the NFL is a business,” chuckles Abdullah, who made 24 starts for the Vikings in 2010 and 2011, collecting 119 tackles and four picks along the way. “So, you know, it was out of my hands. … I was trying to get on (a team) last year. It didn’t happen, and this year, then, this year I got the chance.”
The Chiefs in February signed the 6-foot defensive back to a one-year, $715,000 deal, another bauble in the Andy Reid/John Dorsey roster makeover. There are no unwritten guarantees — Abdullah has a street rep as a salty tackler, but reportedly suffered four concussions over his previous two seasons — although the former Viking safety obviously made an impression with Dorsey from the latter’s Green Bay days. Abdullah also knows his clearest path to a roster spot, for better or worse, is via the special teams units.
“Special teams, as coach (Brad) Childress (now a Chiefs coach/consultant) used to say, ‘It’s the men with the men,'” Abdullah says. “So you get out there and you can play right now.”
So he plays. All out, every snap. No fear.
No regrets, either.
“To get back out there and to have a second chance,” he says. “Not a lot of people get that. They don’t even get one. To have two … “
Climb the ladder, leave the race, then climb back up again.
“Yeah, I don’t (know),” Diles says, shaking his head.
“But at the same time, I’m not (Muslim). If I was Muslim, then who knows? But I’m not, so I can’t really (speak) on that. But, yeah, I didn’t even know he did (that). I’m pretty sure he’s glad he did it, though.”
Abdullah may have missed a season. But if Wednesday was any indication, the guy hasn’t missed a beat.
You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter @seankeeler or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.