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Abdullah's quenching religious obligations

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© St. Petersburg Times, published December 14, 2000

TAMPA -- Water. He needs water.

It's an unseasonably hot December afternoon. Practice seems to be dragging on forever. Rabih Abdullah has been in this heat for more than two hours and he's dying of thirst.

His chest is heaving, taking in every ounce of air it can withstand. His mouth, as you might imagine, probably is drier than cotton, patchy in places and raw all over.

Water. He needs water.

He is so thirsty he would almost sell his soul for a cup, even a sip, of the ice cold water that's available to all players on the practice field at One Buc Place.

But that would defeat the purpose, wouldn't it? I mean, his soul is why Rabih is putting himself through this in the first place. It's the reason he absolutely won't take that sip no matter how thirsty or dehydrated he may become.

He'll drink later. Right now, he's taking one for the team. The Muslims, not the Buccaneers.

Religion has long been a part of sports, but rarely have they intersected like this.

This is not about prayer before games or playing on religious holidays. It's about playing arguably the most physically demanding sport we know and not eating or drinking all day.

For a month.

That is the teaching of the Islamic faith. When the new moon appeared Nov. 27, it signaled the beginning of Ramadan, a month-long observance of the time when Muslims like Rabih believe Allah gave the first verses of the Koran to the prophet Mohammed nearly 1,400 years ago.

During Ramadan, Muslims are supposed to turn more of their attention toward their faith instead of their everyday lives. The purpose is to get closer to their religion by doing such things as praying several times daily, performing good deeds and making resolutions.

And fasting.

During daylight hours, they are supposed to abstain from food, fluids, smoking and sex.

"The inclination is to go ahead and drink," Rabih said, "but I'm not going to."

Coaches like to talk about mental toughness and willpower, about sacrifice and commitment. Well, they need to look no further than Rabih. He is all of those things, a man of faith playing a game grounded in fear and brutality.

Can you imagine fasting for a month?

It's challenging enough, but it can be tricky for the handful of professional and collegiate athletes who follow the Koran. Rockets center Hakeem Olajuwon has struggled during Ramadan throughout his career, his statistics noticeably down during this period.

Rabih, 25, makes certain allowances, which probably helps him stay near his ideal playing weight of 227 pounds. He breaks his fast only on game days. Mentally, he can go without. But physically, it's virtually impossible to play on this level without at least one gameday meal.

But other than that, Rabih typically goes nearly 12 hours between meals each day. He eats the traditional predawn meal, called suhur, then won't eat or drink again until dinner, called the iftar, just after sundown.

Even then, he won't pig out. Traditional Ramadan meals include water and dates, although Rabih often eats conventional breakfast food.

Still, how much of that could be left by the start of practice at 2 p.m.

"It's not an incredible hardship on me. People have been doing this for centuries," Rabih said. "I don't think it hurts me at all. In fact, I think I play better."

The drain on Rabih's nutritionally depleted body is not as great as if he were, say, the starting running back and he were getting the ball 20 or 25 times a game like Warrick Dunn. Rabih has carried the ball only 16 times this season for 70 yards (4.4 yards per carry).

Yet, the bulk of his limited contribution this season has come during Ramadan. He had a career-best 38 yards on 10 carries, plus an 11-yard catch, two weeks ago against Dallas. And he had four carries for 14 yards, including a key first down run, Sunday at Miami.

"It's in here," he said, pointing to his head. "It's will. My will, you know? It's a blessing, really."

Rabih doesn't want us to make a big fuss about any of this. He respectfully wants to go about his fasting without attention. Religion is nothing to gawk at. What he's doing, he said, is no big deal.

Maybe so. But I'm getting hungry just thinking about it.

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