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Ramadan Poses Challenge for Some US High School Football Players - 2003-11-13

Football season at American high schools is drawing to a close, as the best teams advance toward state and regional championships. In Dearborn, Michigan, the Fordson High "Tractors" are trying to make another championship run in the state playoffs. Players often have to juggle academics, family responsibilities and the football team.

Football is a passion here, and fans follow their teams closely - whether it's perennial collegiate rivals, the Michigan State Spartans and the University of Michigan Wolverines or the Fordson High School Tractors.

"They're pretty good this year," said a student. "I want them to go to the championship and win and everything."

"I think it's a good chance. I think they'll make it. I hope they will," she said when asked about their chances.

The Tractors have won nearly all their games this season and they're expected to advance far into the playoffs. But they're facing one challenge that most other teams in Michigan aren't... the holy month of Ramadan. Muslims are expected to fast during daylight hours...not eating or drinking from sunrise to sunset. That faith-based sacrifice heavily affects the Fordson team, since in this heavily Arab-American community all but two of the Tractors are Muslim. Quarterback Salah Aba-zeed says there was never any doubt that his faith would come first.

"It hasn't been that bad, we know what our priorities are," he said. "We set them straight...and it helps us as a team. It disciplines us. And it helps through adversity and it's helped us in the past games also."

Head football coach Jeff Stergalis says he's seen the make-up of the school change during his 23-year tenure. Once heavily Greek and Italian... Fordson's student body is now more than 70 percent Arab. Mr. Stergalis says he's had to make a few changes to accommodate his team's faith... like making sure there's no water on the field during afternoon it's not a temptation. Some practices have been held after dark... to ease the stress on the students. But the coach says there's one change that really makes a difference.

"I guess the biggest thing we after we come off the field before we go into our weight room or our study session...when they come off the field and change clothes...we feed them a meal," said Mr. Stergalis. "They break their fast together."

Mr. Stergalis says that communal meal has strengthened the players' bonds and focused the team.

Fordson Tailback Ali Hossaiky says, for him, the fasting has done what it's supposed to do... given him a sense of inner strength.

"Ramadan is one of the most important months of the year," he explained. "It disciplines you. It makes you a man. When we go to practice, it's more satisfying. You find out 'yeah, we're fasting and we're doing all this hard work.' It makes you a better man."

The stocky senior says he believes other teams see that inner the Fordson Tractors a reputation that's even tougher than the one they've historically had. Ali says that will make a difference as they continue their playoff run.