BOCA RATON, Fla. — Florida Atlantic star linebacker Azeez Al-Shaair is an observant Muslim, and he understands why there is fascination regarding one particular element of his offseason training regimen.
The Islamic holy month of Ramadan requires Muslims to abstain from all food and drink from sunrise to sunset. There is no exception for football players. So when Al-Shaair would join his FAU teammates for workouts from mid-May through mid-June, some days with the temperature exceeding 90 degrees, he endured the sessions without drinking or eating anything until nightfall.
He gets asked about those days all the time.
"I just say I've been through worse," Al-Shaair said.
That's an understatement, especially considering his story. He comes from poverty, was a late bloomer in football, saw plenty of crime and struggle around him, and never truly valued education until a few years ago. Now he might be one of the best linebackers in the country, one who ranked third nationally in total tackles last season and is a big reason why FAU — which opens at No. 7 Oklahoma on Saturday — has high hopes for 2018.
"There's so much more out there to be done," Al-Shaair said. "The sky's the limit for the team, but at the end of the day, it's all about how much we're willing to do."
He speaks like an optimist.
Given his background, it's amazing he has any hope left.
Al-Shaair and his family were homeless for most of his formative years. His grandmother's home where they once stayed burned to the ground when he was 15, and he soon became one of 11 people sharing a cramped motel room in Tampa. He slept on the floor. He took two-hour bus rides to and from school. He hid his shame from almost everyone, though his situation was ultimately discovered because one of his coaches — unbeknownst to Al-Shaair — worked at the motel. And money? Forget it. He's made do with little, yet teammates tell the story of how he once gave $50 to a fellow student in need. Today, he supports two younger brothers who live with him because they were going down the wrong road at home.
Head coach Lane Kiffin is the face of FAU football, and rightly so.
But ask the Owls who the leader of the team is, and Al-Shaair is the clear pick.
"I think he is one of the best leaders I have ever been around in a locker room," FAU defensive coordinator Tony Pecoraro said. "I tell him that all the time. When he speaks, people listen. Every team is always looking for leadership. Some teams have leadership, some do not. We have no shortage of leadership. I think he's a special player."
If Al-Shaair was so inclined, he could be earning an NFL paycheck and helping his family right now. But he decided to stay in school, coming to that decision toward the end of last season when the Owls went 11-3, won the Conference USA title and rolled to a 50-3 win over Akron in the Boca Raton Bowl.
"There's just some people who are very unique and mature well beyond their years," said Kiffin, who marvels at Al-Shaair's story. "He already practices and prepares like a 10-year NFL vet."
Kiffin is an offensive guru, Al-Shaair is all about defense. Yet they share a special bond anyway, and faith played a role in strengthening that relationship.
Earlier this summer, the FAU football team went to church together. Al-Shaair had never attended church before and had some hesitations. The message that day was about overcoming struggles, and Al-Shaair quickly understood why Kiffin wanted them there.
"When people have faith and people have spirituality, it brings more peace to the world," Al-Shaair said. "When you have something to believe in, when you have values, it stops you from doing certain things that might come to your head, negative things. ... When you don't have a foundation and morals, it really can just create chaos."
And that takes us back to those offseason workouts.
Al-Shaair did everything the rest of his teammates were doing in those sessions, except hydrating and refueling. He would wake up well before sunrise to consume as much protein as he could, and would eat and drink copious amounts after sundown to try to replenish what he was losing during the day. There never was any discussion by the team of changing workout plans to help accommodate Al-Shaair, because they knew he wouldn't accept concessions anyway.
The pain, at times, was brutal.
The payoff, he hopes, is coming.
"Everything I've been through, the passion I play with comes from that," Al-Shaair said. "There was a point where I didn't have anything. Football gave me kind of an escape from everything I was going through. It's the one time I've felt like I was good at something, like I was worth something. Football has done all that and so much more."