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High School Sports and Religion Intersect in Dearborn

Members of Fordson High School football team in Dearborn, Michigan during practice session
Members of Fordson High School football team in Dearborn, Michigan during practice session
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As students in the United States prepare to return to school this fall, many student athletes across the country are also gearing up for fall sports. This includes the U.S. sport of tackle football, which for many towns and cities across the country is a time-honored community tradition. But the Fordson High School football team in Dearborn, Michigan, faced a problem. The practice sessions to gear up for this year's season fall during Ramadan. And all but a few players are Muslims, who refrain from eating and drinking during the day. The team's coach came up with a solution, supported by the community, that keeps the players ready to compete without interfering with their religious beliefs.

As the heat of a glaring sun beats down upon the Fordson High School football field, an annual August tradition is playing out in Dearborn, Michigan -- summer practice.

It's an intense time of year for these teenage athletes, running drills and honing their skills for long hours in the grueling heat.

The mascot of the Fordson football team is a tractor, but coach Fouad Zaban knows his players are not machines.  They need water to stay hydrated, and to stay in peak physical condition.

But the drinking fountain next to the field stands empty the water dripping to the ground instead of into the players mouths.

That's because this year's summer practices fall during Ramadan, a time when devout Muslims refrain from eating and drinking from sunrise to sunset.

Many of the players on the squad observe the religious practice of fasting, which presented a unique challenge for Coach Zaban. "It's just not safe, it's not normal for someone to be out here for six to seven hours a day running around in ninety degree (32 degrees Celsius) weather and not being able to drink," he said.

In search of a solution, Coach Zaban talked with his players, both Muslims and non-Muslims, as well as officials at the school district.  He decided the best time to have practice was after his players broke their fast, at night.

The Fordson Tractors spent several weeks in August practicing from 10PM to 4 AM, with the support of the community, and most parents.  Zaban says only one family called him with concerns. "But the few that have been detractors, you know have tried to make it a religious issue, you know why are we mixing religion and school or sports, and ultimately the only answer I can give them is this for the safety of the kids," he said.

It is a very different team than the one Ron Amen played for at Fordson in the early 1960s. Then, he was one of the few Arab-American Muslims at the school.  He says adjusting practices would not have been a consideration. "Wouldn't have happened.  When I was in high school, that very first year, I was lost in a sea of -- for lack of a better term -- white kids, and I made very few friends.  I felt very isolated, and I gave very serious thought to dropping out," he said.

Amen says things gradually got better once he started playing sports at Fordson.  He has watched the Arab-American community in Dearborn grow over the years, and the makeup of this year's football team is very different from his squad fifty years ago. "The football team is probably 98 percent Muslim, but there are some non-Muslims on the football team," he said.

The long night practices have now ended at Fordson. Though Ramadan continues, the current afternoon practices are not as long or as grueling, allowing Coach Zaban to get his athletes accustomed to the conditions during games played in the late afternoon.

"It's time for us to prepare for our first game.  It's a tough game, It's Novi Catholic Central, the number one team, the state champs from last year, so we have our work cut out for us so that's what we're going to be concentrating on," he said.

The team had an undefeated season last year going into the playoffs, something they hope to repeat this year as they try to take the team further toward the Michigan state football championship.

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