By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Wednesday morning found Oday Aboushi on the practice field with the rest of the UVa football team.
Wednesday evening found him in Washington, D.C., visiting with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
“It was definitely something to remember,” Aboushi, back in Charlottesville, said after practice Thursday morning. “I learned a lot.”
Aboushi was one of about a dozen Muslim athletes honored at a reception hosted by Clinton at the U.S. Department of State. A 6-6, 310-pound junior from Staten Island, N.Y., he starts at left offensive tackle for the Cavaliers. His parents are Palestinians who immigrated to the United States and still occasionally speak Arabic at home.
Other athletes at the reception Wednesday night included Denver Nuggets forward Kenneth Faried, former NFL offensive lineman Ephraim Salaam and professional boxer Amir Khan.
“I was very humbled to be there,” Aboushi said. “Hearing everybody else’s stories of being Muslim athletes around the nation was really inspiring and will help me to get better.”
The reception commemorated Eid ul-Fitr, the three-day celebration that began Aug. 30, at the end of Ramadan, Islam’s holy month of fasting. During her remarks, Clinton praised the athletic accomplishments of American Muslims and spoke about the importance of religious tolerance.
“This weekend, we will mark the 10th anniversary of September 11th,” Clinton told the athletes. “And we all lost something that day. In the ashes and the aftermaths, we knew that we had lost Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, men, women, young, old. And a decade later, that unity that we felt must continue to inspire and guide us.
“I’m very proud that in our country, despite the challenges, we do honor the freedom of religion. Too many countries in the world today do not, or they make it difficult and even dangerous for people to try to exercise their religion. So as difficult as it may be, the fact that we get up every day and keep trying is a real tribute to all of us. So at this time of celebration and reflection, and as we mark the end of Ramadan and the beginning of a new year of renewal and possibility, I hope we can recommit ourselves to the common cause of spreading peace, prosperity, understanding to all the people of the earth.”
Aboushi left Charlottesville after class Wednesday afternoon and drove to D.C. At a gathering with Clinton, he said, the athletes each “got a chance to talk with her a little bit and introduce ourselves.”
During his conversation with Clinton, Aboushi said, she “talked about the University — UVa — and her familiarity with it.”
Aboushi, who has nine siblings, stands out in the Cavaliers’ football program, and not only because of his strength and size. Most of his teammates are Christians.
“It’s very different,” Aboushi said of being a Muslim in such an environment, “but at the same time once we’re on the field, we’re all one. That’s the great thing about us being in a sport, on a team. No matter where you come from — your background, your practice, your religion — when you get on the field, you’re all brothers, you’re all there to help each other, and you’re all working toward one goal.”
Aboushi said he tries to pray five times a day, as is customary for Muslims.
“I try to get all the prayers in,” Aboush said. “I do Friday prayers when I can, when we’re not traveling.”
Ramadan began Aug. 1 and continued for 30 days, during which the faithful fasted from dawn to sunset. That the football team’s training camp fell during Ramadan did not keep Aboushi from fasting.
Aboushi said he usually ate a large meal each morning around 5 o’clock, after which he would neither eat nor drink until sunset. That meant no water during practice, no Gatorade or protein shakes immediately after.
He’s been fasting during Ramadan since he was in high school, Aboushi said. Even during the grind of two-a-days, his faith takes precedence.
“There are plenty of people who’ve done it before me,” Aboushi said. “Salaam, he did it all 13 years in the NFL. It was tough, but it’s doable.”