The End Zone

The sweat dripped down my nose and chin, and I searched for the saliva in my mouthpiece to quench my thirst. Then everything went black.

I came to at 8:30 that night, way past iftar, the appointed time to eat. It was the holy month of Ramadan, when I and other practicing Muslims refrain from eating and drinking from sunrise until sunset. Practicing football in the August sun without any water was crazy, I knew…but people do crazy things for love.

I’ve been playing the sport ever since I could say the word “football.” My coach is a legend. He’s in his 70s with no plans to retire. The better players do, the harder he pushes. He’s been known to call me “the Palestinian” instead of by my name. I’ve been subjected to ridicule throughout my life, but nothing I couldn’t handle. In the world of football, it was an acknowledgement of my hard work. I had earned the position of starting receiver, and I didn’t want to let my coach or my team down. But the decision was inevitable. It was either stop fasting, or ask the man I lived to impress for a leave of absence.

“What?” he said, as though he had no idea why I was requesting the month off. “Oh yeah,” he cut me off. “It’s your religion.” My coach gave me his famous stare. “You have to come to football practice.” He turned back to the film he was reviewing. It took me a moment to realize the conversation was over.

I had a hard time turning my focus inward that month. Without hours of practice every day, I had free time for the first time in years — but I didn’t use it to get a jump on my summer reading or play basketball with my little sisters like I always imagined I would. Instead, I found myself watching training videos on YouTube and repeatedly checking my stats. There was even one point when a friend, who had recently come out to his unsupportive family regarding his sexuality, was telling me about his anger, disappointment, and utter feeling of being lost…and out of nowhere I found myself thinking, inexplicably: me too.

I had known that sacrifice should bring blessing, not hardship — but I didn’t really believe it until I experienced it myself. Unexpectedly, a whole world opened up to me after football. I took my focus to track where I’ve earned top ten placement in numerous events. As exhilarating as it is to soar through the air in the long jump as the crowd cheers, the true rewards have been more everyday moments, like seeing a kid at the youth center score his first touchdown. Figuring out how to stay true to my personal beliefs in a world that’s not always accommodating used to seem like an unfair hardship. Thanks to an old school coach (who pushed me farther than he probably intended), I realized it’s an opportunity.