Minnesota's defender of the faith

NEW ORLEANS - JANUARY 24: Courtney Roby #15 of the New Orleans Saints is tackled while returning a kick by Husain Abdullah #39 of the Minnesota Vikings during the NFC Championship Game at the Louisiana Superdome on January 24, 2010 in New Orleans, Louisiana. The Saints won 31-28 in overtime (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Ramadan began yesterday, and with it came a stream of related stories. Holiday stories. You've heard me bemoan holiday stories before, and I'm certain I could cherry-pick plenty here. But like with the Jewish High Holidays last year, I'd rather highlight a story that bucked the trend of holiday boredom.

It's from the Associated Press, which is inevitably hit and miss on religion stories because those stories are so often covered by local correspondents and not the national religion writer (we miss you, Eric). But this one is very hit.

Like a blindside safety blitz:

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 is a really good story, with the level of tension and nuance I would hope for.

I've always wondered why more religion writers don't seek out this exact storyline when writing about Ramadan. It's there for the taking, and I've seen it a few times in the past five years. That was when I wrote a similar story about a high school Muslim football player going through the same physical strains and spiritual discipline of Abdullah.

His name was Hytham Elsherif. And as interesting as Hytham's story was, I find the story behind the story of equal interest. It demonstrates how religion reporters can hunker down long before the holidays come around to ensure that they won't get stuck with another mundane it's-Ramadan-the-time-that-Muslims-fast story. I've been there on years when I got caught on my heels, and, trust me, it was better for everyone when I had a storyline in mind -- even if I didn't know the subject through whom I would tell it.

Ramadan in 2005 began in early October, and I had traveled the previous month to Miami for the Religion Newswriters Association's annual meeting of the minds. There I sat in a workshop where an instructor -- Steve Buttry? -- encouraged us to come up with one story we wanted to write, regardless of whether we knew the story actually existed.

Remembering a year in the '90s when Ramadan came during the winter and one of Islam's NBA legends, Hakeem Olajuwon, was overwhelmed by a combination of fasting, the rigors of professional basketball and the altitude of a game at the Utah Jazz, I wanted to find a local Muslim experiencing a similar struggle. California's Inland Empire lacks much in terms of professional sports (sorry, Quakes and 66ers), but it has plenty of high schools and it was football season.

I had my mission: find a high school Muslim football player. But, first, our instructor wanted us to write out a rough fictional lede that we could use for our dream story.

At the risk of evoking comparisons to Stephen Glass, my fictional lede was similar to the details I captured of Hytham's experience and worked into the lede to his story:

The football coach hollers, "Water break!" and the players cluster around blue Powerade bottles. Hytham Elsherif stands alone and to the side.

"Somebody soak him down," an assistant coach says.

He unstraps his helmet so a teammate can squirt water on his head. He spits repeatedly to keep it from sneaking into his mouth.

Hytham is a unique member of Diamond Bar High School's varsity team -- he is its only Muslim. Because it is Ramadan, the holiest month of the Islamic calendar, Hytham is fasting from sunrise to sunset each day.

Etc., etc. I enjoyed reporting this story so much that I always remembered it being a better piece of writing than it actually was. That is definitely not a sentiment I ever shared for a last-minute Chrismahanukwzanaka story.

As for the AP's story of Abdullah, you hear a similar ring of measured support as in Hytham's story. In both, coaches and/or players explain how they respect their player's commitment to his religion, but that they see it affecting his performance and that they're looking for ways to mitigate.

To hammer home the fact that such stories are always there for the taking, the penultimate paragraph in the Abdullah article mentions that he grew up in Pomona, Calif., and has been fasting since he was 7. That means that he fasted as a high school athlete in the city a few miles from where Hytham grew up and went to high school.

I missed him by two years.

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