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No compromises on faith or football for Wesley Chapel lineman

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Wed. August 10, 2011 | Matt Baker | Email

No compromises on faith or football for Wesley Chapel lineman

WESLEY CHAPEL — No matter how hot it gets on the sauna of a practice field at Wesley Chapel High, Ahmed Elshaer will not drink.

No matter how faint the senior offensive lineman feels, he will not eat. Now matter how tough things get for the 16-year-old Muslim, he will not cave.

Elshaer is fasting from all food and drink from sunup to sundown for Ramadan, the Muslim holy month that lasts all of August.

That means no water or sports drinks during the opening weeks of high school football practice — even as the heat index is expected to reach triple digits and concern about heatstroke is growing nationwide.

“If it’s my time, it’s my time,” Elshaer said. “If not, God watches over me.”

God and the Wildcats coaches.

Coach Ben Alford said the recent deaths of five high school football players, including one in Miramar, in the past month have “amplified the situation” regarding safety in the heat. He moved practices to 7 a.m. when temperatures would be cooler for Elshaer and the rest of the team.

Because Elshaer can’t hydrate during breaks, coaches check to make sure he’s not experiencing symptoms of heat stroke. Linemen like Elshaer are more susceptible to hot temperatures and high humidity because of their size.

“You have to keep an eye on a kid like that,” Alford said. “He’ll push himself. He’ll push himself till he falls over.”

But Elshaer said he won’t break his fast.

He comes from a devout family and prays toward Mecca in the East five times daily. The Egypt native lived in Saudi Arabia before his family immigrated to Virginia when he was 9. That’s about the same time he was old enough to start fasting for Ramadan.

“Millions of people on earth don’t have food or water,” Elshaer said. “It puts you in their shoes.”

Until this year, it kept him out of football cleats.

He said he thought about playing football in middle school, but adults were concerned about how he’d handle practices without food or water. Elshaer practiced with the Wildcats’ basketball team during the summer, but running in an air-conditioned gym isn’t as draining as hitting in pads in 90-degree heat.

Friends finally talked him into joining the football team this year, and he is fighting for a starting spot on the offensive line. Elshaer researched Muslim football players and found that Minnesota Vikings safety Husain Abdullah practiced while fasting.

“If he can do it, I can do it,” Elshaer said.

Elshaer rises before the sun at 3 or 4 every morning and stays awake long enough to gulp from a gallon jug of water and devour two beef bologna sandwiches and a banana before falling back asleep.

“I hate waking up early,” Elshaer said. “I have to do it to get hydrated, or I won’t last.”

During practice, he takes breaks with the rest of the team. Instead of drinking water out of bottles, he douses his head and neck.

After practice, he refreshes himself with a cold shower, a nap, readings from the Koran and some NCAA Football 2012 in the air conditioning. He and his family break the fast with chicken noodle soup and dinner when the sun sets.

“The best part of the whole day,” Elshaer said. “Going home and eating dinner with my family, knowing you accomplished a lot in football practice and worked hard.”

And Elshaer works hard. Alford called him one of the team’s toughest players, even during Ramadan.

“He don’t say much, don’t complain at all,” senior running back Devin Piper said. “He just gets the job done.”

Elshaer credits his new teammates for supporting him during a difficult transition to football. He has lost 10 pounds since Ramadan began, dropping his 6-foot-2 frame to 265 pounds, and he said he nearly fainted during conditioning drills last week but “fought through it.”

Pasco County athletic director Phil Bell said the district has no policies on players who fast during sports. He said the school will provide Elshaer’s family with all of the hydration information it sends to other parents, but it won’t exclude him because of his religion.

Elshaer’s father declined comment for this story.

Bell said he hopes the parents and coaches make good decisions about how hard Elshaer should practice and whether he needs to sit out a few plays.

“Everyone involved there has to use some common sense,” Bell said.

Elshaer’s schedule will get tougher as Ramadan continues. Contact drills in pads begin Thursday, and temperatures are forecast to climb into the 90s.

When school begins in a week and a half, Elshaer will sit through class all day, pray toward the East in the locker room and practice a few hours — all with nothing to eat or drink after dawn.

“It’s tough,” Elshaer said, “but I’ve got to do it for my religion.”

Elshaer said it’s tempting to sneak a drink when teammates guzzle water during breaks. He said he splashes some water in his mouth to cleanse his tongue but spits out every drop.

And when the whistle blows for practice to resume, he faces the field in the East, straps on his helmet and lines up for more.

Matt Baker can be reached at mbaker@sptimes.com or (813) 435-7314.

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