Photo: Junior Asad Abdul-Khaliq gained confidence as the 2001 season wore on. He gives the Gophers the first clear-cut number-one quarterback they’ve had in three years. Photo by Michelle King
By Chris Coughlan-Smith
The year 2000 was not Asad Abdul-Khaliq’s favorite. Both sensitive and competitive, Abdul-Khaliq placed high expectations on himself. A star prep-school quarterback, a Heisman Trophy was once a dream. But after starting three college games as a redshirt freshman for the Gophers, he found himself benched midway through his first Big Ten contest. Abdul-Khaliq didn’t start again all year, although he played briefly in several more games. "That was the toughest time I’ve had in football," he recalls. "I was not used to being behind anybody. It was hard for me to handle."
Tougher was the reaction of fans and the media, who turned on an athlete they thought might take the Gophers to the next level. "I’ve never felt so bad in my life," Abdul-Khaliq says. "When it first happened to me, it was a big shock. How can fans cross me out? I felt like they hadn’t seen the least of my abilities." Head coach Glen Mason bristles at the memory. "[College football players] need to be treated better than that," he says. "People look at these guys in these football uniforms and forget that they’re kids, really, inside these helmets and not professional athletes."
An educational psychology major, Abdul-Khaliq speaks quickly and softly, by turns humble and confident, friendly and intense. There have been three constants in his life: family, faith (his parents converted to Islam before he was born), and football. Abdul-Khaliq turned to the first two to deal with the third. "They said to me, ‘You’re not perfect. Take it as it comes,’" he recalls. "I needed to be patient and keep my disappointment inside, because it could have ruined me. I could have been mad at the coaches and mad at myself and failed school or transferred out."
Instead Abdul-Khaliq slowly regained his confidence, and, at midseason last year, his starting job. On November 24, he threw for three touchdowns and ran for one to upset Wisconsin in the team’s last game of the season. A few weeks later, after spending most of four years away from home, Abdul-Khaliq married his high-school sweetheart, Jamilla.
Abdul-Khaliq grew up in Elizabeth, New Jersey, an industrial port city about 20 miles southwest of Manhattan. "It’s a poverty-stricken area, and it taught me a lot about myself and to think about what I want for the future," he says. "I don’t want to end up back in Elizabeth. I want something better for me, my wife, and our [future] family. I’ve got to work hard and keep things together so when I do go back there, I can make a change for the better."
Those three constants, especially family, kept Abdul-Khaliq out of trouble. "My family was always around, making sure I did the right thing," he says. "If I did the wrong thing, they let me know they were there too. Their support and religious support helped me keep away from the bad things. I could have easily gone the other way."
Abdul-Khaliq committed to Minnesota out of high school but came up short on his SAT entrance exam. Rather than give up a year of college eligibility, he opted for a year of prep school at Fork Union Military Academy in Fork Union, Virginia. "People ask me, ‘How could you do it?’" he says. "But it was a great experience, bonding with people in the same situation as you. Having all that time alone, you find out a lot about yourself."
He could have discarded his commitment to Minnesota and gone elsewhere, but Abdul-Khaliq felt Minnesota’s staff "genuinely cared about me and were concerned about me." He also wanted to play somewhere he could start for four years. Instead, he has gained maturity and patience through his on-field tribulations. "Some of the guys call me old, but that’s OK," says Abdul-Khaliq, who, with the extra year of military school and a redshirt season is already 22 and just a junior. "It’s bettered me, I’ve grown. My mind is more developed, so I can give these guys advice about things before they even happen, on and off the field."
As quarterback and captain, Abdul-Khaliq leads by example and by word. His own experiences, however, cause him to temper his ire with teammates’ mistakes. "Some of my coaches say, ‘Asad, you don’t yell enough,’ but that has never been me. I’ve always been a guy who will pull you to the side and say ‘Listen, this is what you need to do.’ . . . I’ve always felt that yelling at a person is not the way to get them to play to their fullest."
After regaining the starting job early last year, Abdul-Khaliq began to show glimpses of the potential in his strong and accurate arm and his deceptively fast running, Mason says. "Since arriving here he has always shown signs of great ability, but it has taken him time to mature into that position," Mason says. "He came into his own down the stretch and played an exceptionally fine game in our finale."
Abdul-Khaliq also gained the faith of his teammates. "It was a great feeling to have 75 guys rally around you and look at you like ‘you’re the guy, Asad,’" Abdul-Khaliq says. "[The Wisconsin game] just took my confidence even higher and has the team really jacked up for this year."
Chris Coughlan-Smith is senior editor for Minnesota.