University Press

FAU’s all-time leading tackler is as devoted to his Muslim faith as he is to the game

Every summer, Azeez Al-Shaair endures a month of intense workouts while fasting during the day. And he fights the fatigue through steadfast commitment to his religion.

Azeez+Al-Shaair%27s+laser+sharp+focus+extends+from+the+field+to+his+faith.+Photo+courtesy+of+FAU+Media+Relations
Azeez Al-Shaair's laser sharp focus extends from the field to his faith. Photo courtesy of FAU Media Relations

Azeez Al-Shaair's laser sharp focus extends from the field to his faith. Photo courtesy of FAU Media Relations

Azeez Al-Shaair's laser sharp focus extends from the field to his faith. Photo courtesy of FAU Media Relations

Wajih AlBaroudi, Sports Editor

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Being “hungry” is a common cliche used by athletes during off-season training, but for Muslim linebacker Azeez Al-Shaair it’s a reality.  

For nearly an entire summer month in grueling South Florida heat, the 21-year-old FAU football star tackles a rigorous Division I workout program while fasting for Ramadan. The Muslim holy month sees its participants abstaining from food and drink during the daytime.

Although the challenge of pushing his body to its furthest limits without water or food is daunting, FAU’s all-time leading tackler said he finds the strength to persevere by recognizing that hunger is a plight many face every day — and not by choice.

“It’s really humbling, not being able to eat or drink anything throughout the daytime and still having to live your regular life,” Al-Shaair said. “It really puts it into perspective, how some people really struggle in real life … gives you a different appreciation.”

A lifelong Muslim, Al-Shaair has been fasting every summer for over a decade. Admittedly, he said his discipline wasn’t as strong then as it is today.

When he was 10 years old, he would sneak bites to eat. But, his circumstances forced that to change.

Al-Shaair’s house burned down prior to his sophomore year of high school, sending him and his family into temporary homelessness. Determined to overcome this obstacle, he pushed himself to be an ascending football star on the field and his family’s financial provider off it.

If he could triumph when faced with poverty, he said he knew fasting would be conquerable.

While Al-Shaair said his past helps him tackle fasting’s mental hurdle, the physical aspect remains difficult to this day.

“[Fasting] is something I had to take over on my own when I got to college. Dedicate myself to it, and I mean it’s been hard for me every year,” he said. “When we [are] in workouts I’ll be tired. I might be a little thirsty but after I get through the workout … I’m usually smooth throughout the rest of the day.”

Despite the fatigue, Al-Shaair added that he refuses to let anybody take it easy on him. He partakes in the exact same offseason workout regimen as his teammates, not altering a single repetition or minute on the schedule.

His commitment to FAU football earned him the respect of his entire program.

“That’s why he’s the team captain … for us as a team, as a unit, to see him go out there and still be able to do everything to his full potential, it motivates us all,” teammate Jalen Young said. “it’s just really crazy just to witness it.”

Azeez Al-Shaair became FAU’s all-time leading tackler with an entire season of eligibility remaining. Photo courtesy of Ralph Notaro

While former head coach Charlie Partridge’s coaching staff had some initial concerns about Al-Shaair’s play during Ramadan, they quickly realized that the 6-foot-2, 227-pound tackling machine would not be swayed in his decision. So instead, the coaches turned their efforts to encouragement.

“They’re always trying to keep me motivated and keep me up because I [get] definitely down, feeling down, a lot more tired than I would usually be,” Al-Shaair said. “They still tell me to get up and stay focused, and they push me honestly harder than anything.”

While the coaching staff supporting Al-Shaair through Ramadan changed with the transition of Partridge to Lane Kiffin, the people on campus he relies on most remained the same.

Teammates Devin Singletary, Rashad Smith, and the aforementioned Young have known Al-Shaair for a combined 10 years now. He said they’re a big reason why he’s never faltered through his annual month of fasting.

“I just know there’s times when I [am] feeling so tired, I’m feeling like I can’t breathe,” Al-Shaair said. “They just always like come up on me, pull up on me to the side and just be like, ‘Hey, I know what you’re going through. Let’s go, you gotta keep working.’ So I think really just those guys being in my ear during Ramadan really helps me.”

As soon as the sun drops after a long day of intense workouts, Al-Shaair drinks nearly a gallon of water in one sitting. He follows that up by devouring a sandwich he picks up earlier in the day.

That post-drink meal is just the first of many.

Every 45 minutes for the rest of the night, Al-Shaair eats a sandwich to make up for the calories he would normally consume throughout the day. But for a college athlete burning thousands of calories daily, that’s a task easier said than done.

With the night nearly over and sunrise rapidly approaching comes a challenge on the opposite end of the spectrum: avoiding overconsumption.

When it comes to the last meal before a day of fasting, there is a fine line between eating enough to stay functionable and stuffing one’s face into nausea. Al-Shaair said he walks that line carefully by eating his same breakfast of waffles, fruit, and a protein shake that he would have on a normal morning.

While in the moment it doesn’t always seem like it, Al-Shaair thinks Ramadan can benefit his on-field performance in the long run.

Because he trains without food or water during the day for such an extended period of the offseason, he feels an energy boost when the team returns post-Ramadan. He believes this gives him an advantage over his competition.

“Honestly, I feel like it’s something that kind of like gives me a little bit more of an edge at the end,” Al-Shaair said. “You struggle with it during Ramadan, and obviously it’s harder for me at the time, but I feel like it just makes me better … at least mentally.”

After years of witnessing the linebacker persevere through Ramadan and still be an unblockable force in the ensuing months, his teammates are in agreement.

“I don’t know how he gets through it. It’s tough, I know it’s hard on him, but he gets through it and I guess it makes him better during the season — he’s in better shape,” Smith said.

Al-Shaair said he has fond childhood memories of spending Eid Al-Fitr, Ramadan’s closing festival, sitting on the couch absorbed by the aromas of his mother’s cooking.

Now hours from his hometown of Tampa, Florida, living only with his fiancé and siblings, the ending celebrations aren’t as large — simple family dinners at a restaurant. But, he said they are just as meaningful because of what he’s overcome to support them.

Azeez Al-Shaair led his team to nearly double the amount of wins last season (11) than it had the previous two combined (6). Photo courtesy of FAU Media Relations

After beginning his FAU career with two consecutive 3-9 seasons, Al-Shaair led his 2017 Owls team to a school record 11 wins, Conference USA championship, and victory in the Cheribundi Tart Cherry Boca Raton bowl.

The sweet taste of winning is still fresh in the linebacker’s mouth after last season’s dominant showing, but in his eyes, it still doesn’t hold a candle to that of a hot meal on a Ramadan night.

“Honestly, [food] is better,” Al-Shaair said. “Not having eaten all day then being able to eat something, that’s the best feeling.”

Between the Lines

A look at Al-Shaair’s accomplishments on the field.

2018

  • Named to Butkus Award watch list (best linebacker in the country)
  • Named to Bednarik Award, Nagurski Award watch lists (best defensive player in the country)
  • Named Preseason Conference USA Defensive Player of the Year  
  • His 354 career tackles are the most in FAU program history

2017

  • First team C-USA selection
  • Gathered 147 total tackles to lead C-USA, rank third in the country

2016

  • Became the nation’s No. 24 leading tackler with 93 stops

2015

  • Named USA Today, Scout.com Freshman All-American
  • Became a member of the C-USA All-Freshman Team

Ramadan Rundown

Four things to know about the Muslim holy month.

  1. Every year from dawn to dusk in mid-May to mid-June, over a billion Muslims worldwide abstain from food and drink for Ramadan. It is the Islamic calendar’s ninth month, which Muslims believe is when the Quran, the Islamic sacred book, was first revealed to the prophet Mohammed centuries ago.
  2. Ramadan always begins in the summer but the exact start and end dates change from year to year. This is because the holy month doesn’t officially begin until the first sighting of the crescent moon.
  3. Fasting during Ramadan (Sawm) is one of the Five Pillars of the Islamic faith, with the others being: Hajj (a pilgrimage to Islam’s holiest city Mecca), Zakat (giving to charity), Salat (praying five times daily), and Shalada (declaration of belief in one God and Mohamed being his messenger).
  4. At the conclusion of Ramadan is Eid al-Fitr: a three-day festival to commemorate and break the fast. It traditionally begins with prayer, followed by gift exchanges, family visits, charity donations, and wearing new clothes. Like Ramadan itself, the exact start and end dates of the festival change annually, as it is determined by the sighting of the new moon.

Wajih AlBaroudi is the sports sditor of the University Press. For information regarding this or other stories, email [email protected] or tweet @WajihAlBaroudi.

About the Writer
Wajih AlBaroudi, Sports Editor
Wajih is a multimedia journalism major who’s previously worked as a contributing writer. He currently covers FAU sports for the UP and FAU Owl Access. His goal is to write and live in a mountain town.
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