Forget Lane Kiffin, Azeez Al-Shaair is FAU's best story

Azeez Al-Shaair has blossomed into a dominant linebacker for Lane Kiffin's FAU Owls. Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

BOCA RATON, Fla. -- The smoke jolted him awake, the unmistakable smell wafting into the room where he slept with his two younger brothers and a niece.

Azeez Al-Shaair found flames engulfing the kitchen. The stove, left on accidentally, had started the blaze at his grandmother's house in Tampa, Florida. He ran back to get his brothers and his niece, and they watched the house burn down.

A 15-year-old high school sophomore with no future and no plan, Al-Shaair paid no mind to his heroic act. Instead, the constant misfortunes that beset his family played like a film reel stuck in place.

They were only with his grandmother in the first place because he, his siblings and his mother had no home of their own. For years after his mother and father divorced, Al-Shaair and his family bounced from place to place, living off the goodwill of others and struggling to survive. His mother worked multiple jobs, but with eight kids to support, it never seemed to be enough.

Now, six years later, Al-Shaair is an all-conference linebacker and NFL hopeful, leading Lane Kiffin's Florida Atlantic squad into its season opener at Oklahoma as its unquestioned leader. A role model for his work ethic, commitment and determination, teammates look to Al-Shaair for guidance -- in addition to the senior's game-changing plays.

"Every year, he's picked it up a notch, so it's great to see," said teammate Kerrith Whyte Jr., a junior running back. "This year, I wouldn't be surprised if he surpasses last year's tackling mark."

If he does, Al-Shaair would once again find himself as one of the top tacklers in the country. In 2017, he was No. 3 in the nation in total tackles with 147 and tied for fourth in tackles per game (11.3).

When he got to FAU, he had only played a few years of organized football, but his recruiters saw a raw but special talent.

"He's the best I've ever coached," said Buffalo assistant Roc Bellantoni, who recruited Al-Shaair to FAU. "He doesn't have prototypical size -- you like them to be a little bit bigger -- but he plays fast and aggressive. He's a sideline-to-sideline player with energy and enthusiasm, and I think he could have a good career in the NFL."

After the fire, though, the odds that Al-Shaair would even get a shot at the NFL were nonexistent. In the months after they lost everything, Al-Shaair and his family moved into an extended-stay motel, seven people crammed into a room with one bed and a pullout couch. Al-Shaair slept on the floor. He took the city bus to school, and the ride often took two hours because he had to drop his little brothers off first. He wore the same jacket every day, usually ate just one meal and often napped through class.

Sundays provided some relief: His mother loves the Baltimore Ravens, and they started to make a run toward the Super Bowl. The family would crowd around the television in the motel, giving them a few hours where they could think about anything other than how they would pay the rent or eat. Al-Shaair watched Ray Lewis intently, his mind drifting off.

Al-Shaair had just started playing tackle football, an undersized linebacker who thought he had it all figured out. But he listened to the way Lewis talked, to the positive messages that the future Pro Football Hall of Fame linebacker often delivered. Al-Shaair thought he would try it out, and he put a moratorium on any negativity.

"You've got to be able to keep pushing and figuring out a new way to succeed and get to where you want to be," Al-Shaair said. "When I started seeing things in a positive light, I started seeing positive results. Having that positive mindset really helped me blossom into who I wanted to be and who I want to become."

Not that it was ever easy. But Al-Shaair had a maturity that drew others to him. James McQuay, his youth football coach and mentor, saw a respectful, determined, hard worker: Al-Shaair would be up at 5:30 am working out, and again at midnight.

But it was only after McQuay started offering him rides to practice and buying him a few meals that he truly understood what Al-Shaair had going on at home.

Al-Shaair never wanted to burden anyone with his story, and his family's poverty embarrassed him. But as he allowed those closest to him in, they started to understand why he saved food for his family, why he gave up meals, why he put everybody else first.

McQuay often would let Al-Shaair stay at his home on weekends, and he would find him sleeping on the floor, with the bed left perfectly made.

"He touched my heart," McQuay said. "He was just so young and mature, very responsible, just a good person. You could tell him hold this book bag with $1 million and stay right here, and he would stay right where you left him. That's the kind of guy he is."

Al-Shaair likes to say football gave him a "different portal."

"I wasn't just a poor kid who was always wearing the same clothes to school. We're on the football field, and it doesn't matter if you're dirty and sweaty. We've all got the same uniforms on, we've all got cleats on. I could be myself," he explained. "I was always a reserved person, feeling like nobody understood me. When I was playing football, it didn't matter. That feeling just changed me."

Though Al-Shaair began playing football for his high school team as a junior, recruiters soon showed an interest. Miami representatives came by, but a coaching change shifted their recruiting priorities. Wisconsin recruiters came by, but because Al-Shaair had allowed his grades to suffer his first two years in high school, he was not an academic fit. FAU coaches went after him hard, seeing a tall, long, athletic talent they could mold. But maybe even more than that, they saw intangibles that often turn under-the-radar prospects into future NFL draft picks.

"I went to see him practice in the spring, and they had already finished up individual drills," Bellantoni said. "His coach saw us on the field and made Azeez go through them again. To watch his work ethic in practice, that meant more to me than any film we watched. His attention to detail, his leadership with his teammates, that's a major reason we wanted him, because of what I saw in practice that day."

When Al-Shaair arrived at FAU, he was 6-foot-2 and weighed 180 pounds. He had work to do in the weight room, but he also had work to do to better himself. There were times he let his anger and frustration boil over into fights on the practice field. There were moments he felt so homesick that he could not focus in practice.

Bellantoni and then-Owls head coach Charlie Partridge took leading roles in helping Al-Shaair during his roughest moments. Soon, Al-Shaair started to blossom on the field, earning Conference USA All-Freshman Team honors, thanks to the work ethic and commitment they saw in him in high school.

"I couldn't get him out of the office," Bellantoni said. "We'd play a game, it would be over at 10:30 and he's texting me at 12:30 that he's sitting in the office watching the film."

Though his lowest days are in his past, those moments are never far from his mind. Not only did they shape who he is, they pushed Al-Shaair to make another life-altering decision. Shortly after he arrived at FAU, he sat down with his mother to talk about his two younger brothers.

Their lives had not improved after Al-Shaair went off to college, and he could not bear hearing them talking about living in dirty places, with roaches and rats crawling on the floors. So he had his brothers move into the off-campus apartment Al-Shaair shares with his now-fiancée, Yahaira Onofre, following his sophomore year.

At the time they moved in, Al-Shaair was dealing with another big transition, as Partridge and his staff were fired and Kiffin came in to lead the program. Al-Shaair blossomed under his new coach, and the Owls went 11-3, winning their last 10 games and leading to sky-high expectations for 2018.

"I had heard the stories," Kiffin said. "Crazy what he went through -- I think even worse than what is out there that he went through -- and so it speaks a lot to who he is and how he has taken all these obstacles and turned them into positives."

It turns out Al-Shaair needed FAU as much as FAU needed him -- a player and a program focused squarely on better days.