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Middle East team in Midwest football

DEARBORN, Mich. -- Hassan Bazzi knows what they're thinking. He sees them stare at his olive-colored skin, his deep, dark eyes and his bushy black eyebrows. He hears them laugh at his Arabic language. He hears them call him derogatory names.

Arab.

Camel jockey.

Saddam.

Gut reaction sometimes is a fist-first invitation to a lesson in race relations. But instead, Bazzi files the anger away, tucking it into the far recesses of his mind, until it's needed.

Until football season.

Bazzi is a junior at Dearborn's Fordson High School, where an estimated 99 percent of this year's varsity football team consisted of Arabs. In the heart of suburban America, lining up across from mostly white Americans, Bazzi and his Arab teammates use America's most popular sport as a release for the everyday challenges in their post-9/11 lives.

"Just wait until Friday nights," Bazzi says. "Then let the popping begin."

"I speak with my shoulder pads," says Shadi Ayoub, one of Bazzi's former teammates at Fordson.

Those hard-hitting ways have helped the Fordson program become one of the most successful in Michigan prep history, with just four losing seasons in the last 38 years. They play a hard-nosed, physical brand of football. No gimmicks, no four- or five-receiver sets. Just this simple plan: Line up and dominate the man across from you.

"They play the game the way it was meant to be played," says Trenton (Mich.) High coach Bob Czarnecki. "They come after you. On every single play, they want to see who's tougher."

It comes from their rugged Middle Eastern backgrounds. It comes from the fighting words of their opponents. And it comes from head coach Jeff Stergalas.

Stergalas came to Fordson 25 years ago, as a "résumé builder." He never left. As the school's student body morphed from a mix of Italian, Greek and Polish immigrants into an almost entirely Arab enrollment, the football coach stayed the same.

White.

"It's like an old couch in your basement. Once you sit down, you never want to leave," Stergalas says. "Everybody has a reason they were put here. Mine is to teach Arabic kids how to play football."

That presents a list of challenges most coaches can't even imagine. Challenges such as convincing parents, who believe family should come before sports, that sports can be family. Such as bridging a communication gap that's often as wide as the field on which they play. And, most daunting of all, such as dealing with the holy month of Ramadan, in which Muslims fast during daylight hours.

Last year, the rotating holiday fell smack in the middle of football season. Fordson finished the season 3-6, the worst mark in school history.

"We were supposed to have a pretty good year," Stergalas says. "But it just killed us. We didn't win one game during Ramadan. It was the most difficult season I've ever had in coaching.

"But that's what this place is all about. We face a whole set of challenges here that other schools just don't have to deal with. It's different."

Islamic America
Drive the streets of Dearborn and those differences stare at you at every turn. Women walk the streets in traditional Muslim covering. On the marquee outside the CVS drug store, Arabic lettering. The same down the street at Walgreens. At Mobil.



Black History Month is a time to reflect on the changes that diversity brings to sports. Over the past year, ESPN.com has explored those changes and found it isn't only a matter of black and white:

Racial harmony: The Linkimers embraced the differences among their family, while remaining indifferent about them.
Closing the cultural divide: It's more than a seven-hour drive that separates Long Beach Poly and tiny Lee Vining. but students at the schools are closing the gap.
Friday night fights: In Dearborn, Mich., an all-Arabic football team shows its opponents the way the game was meant to be played.
No guts, no glory: Vanessa Lucero is out to prove that sports are only for boys until a girl joins in.
A football melting pot: In Atlanta, football players learn more than X's and O's; they learn how to be American kids, too.

This is a city where Chicken McNuggets are blessed. Where food in the Fordson cafeteria is Halal, the Muslim equivalent of kosher. It's a town where satellite dishes hang from nearly every home to bring Al-Jazeera and the Arab version of "American Idol" into living rooms. And down the road from Fordson High, a $15 million, 120,000-square foot Islamic Center of America recently opened as the largest Islamic mosque in North America.

Here, roughly 30,000 people -- one-third of Dearborn's population -- are of Arab descent. They first came here in the 1970s, bolting countries such as Lebanon, Iraq, Israel and Egypt, for the promise of a better life in America. Since then, they've built restaurants, gas stations and drug stores and moved their relatives to America to join them.

"It's pretty simple," says assistant coach Fowad Zaban, a former Fordson football player whose family came over from Lebanon in the 1970s. "If you come to America, [Dearborn] is where you're going to settle. There's a sense of community"

Within that community, the Arabs are more than accepted. In some cases, they're the norm. But once they leave Dearborn, once they go on vacation, the long looks return.

"Say you want to play pick-up basketball or something," Ayoub says. "If they know you're Arabic, they won't pick you. They whisper, make funny faces. Stuff like that. But you learn to deal with it."

Islam vs. football
But there's a bigger challenge than acceptance each season: Ramadan. The month-long holiday moves up 10 days each year. For the past four years, it has fallen during football. Six more years remain before it cycles out of the season.

"Eventually, it will be during two-a-days and in the summer when the days are longer," Stergalas says. "We haven't seen the worst of it yet."

Daylight fasting leaves the players with two options: Wake up before sunrise and eat, or sleep past sunrise and not eat until after practice. It boils down to this: Do you want to be hungry or tired?

"You get on the field, you hit the sled; and sure, you're tired. Sure, you're out of breath," Bazzi says. "But mentally, you have to be strong. You find the power to go on. And before you know it, practice is over."

Ramadan often brings the team closer together, as the non-Muslim players respect their fasting teammates and elect not to drink water during practice. On those days, the trainers don't even put water on the field.

After practice, when the sun has set, the team breaks fast as a group, as Stergalas or a local restaurant donates Halal sandwiches. At games, when the first two quarters are played in daylight, the Tractors play with no nourishment in their bodies. At halftime, if the sun has set, they devour apples, oranges, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and snack bars.

This past season was especially challenging. The team surrendered five touchdowns in the last 30 seconds of the first or second halves of its games.

"The hydration thing just kills us," Stergalas says. "You can see it in their faces. They're long and drawn and pasty looking. And athletically, they're just sluggish."

It puts Stergalas in a compromising position. There are certain ideals he thinks a high school football team should follow, and he has to bend those rules. He doesn't like his kids eating on the sideline. Nor does he like it when officials call a special timeout at sundown, as one crew did last fall, to let the players eat.

"It's a nice thing to do, but you don't want to call attention to what's happening," Stergalas says. "You hear coaches barking, 'I've never heard of a religious timeout during a football game.' All that stuff takes a toll on you. It's tough."

While his players fight their lack of nutrition, Stergalas and the rest of the coaching staff often fight their players' families. In the Muslim religion, family, not football, is king.

Stergalas has had players turn down Big Ten scholarship offers because the school's campus didn't have a satisfactory mosque. He's had parents chew him out because their sons were offered a beer on a recruiting trip.

Each fall, he, Zaban and the rest of the coaches turn into salespeople, convincing parents of the lifelong benefits that can come from playing football. Convincing them that it's OK that their son isn't around the house all day, OK if he can't help out at the family gas station so much.

"Family is such a big thing in our culture," says Zaban, who played college football at Grand Valley State. "Every time I went home and came back, my Mom cried. It was tough."

Who's 'Molasses,' anyway?
Though the majority of players are fluent in English and Arabic, they speak mostly Arabic on the football field. It allows them to talk to each other about their respective assignments without the opposition understanding.

"We'll get to the line of scrimmage and someone will start yelling that they forgot the play or the snap count," Ayoub says. "And the quarterback will just tell him, 'Hassan is going to get the ball,' but in Arabic. The defense has no idea."

Stergalas has a handful of Arab assistants, including Zaban, but there are still communication challenges. Two years ago, the roster featured 14 players with the name, "Ali."

"And that didn't include Ali Ali," Zaban says. "We only counted him once."

A few years ago, after an assistant told a player that he was "slower than molasses," Stergalas watched the player turn to a teammate and ask, "What's he talking about? Who's this molasses guy, anyway?"

At another practice a couple of years ago, when Stergalas' Arabic assistants couldn't get their kicker to keep his head down as he swung his leg through the ball, Stergalas tied the laces on his pants to his facemask.

"You can get away with things here that you never could at a traditional All-American high school," Stergalas says. "Somebody asks you why they aren't playing, and you can just come right out and tell them, 'The other guy is better.' They respond to that."

Some kids, new to the country, don't understand the game, yet want to play. As the final minutes ticked down on a Fordson loss two years ago and the other team was killing the clock, Fordson's starting defensive end lost it.

"Coach! Coach!" he started yelling. "They're stalling! They're stalling! They can't do that! They're stalling!"

"He had no idea," Zaban said. "He thought they were cheating. Our starting defensive end thought basic football strategy -- killing the clock -- was cheating. Some of them just don't get it."

Yet despite all the challenges, they win most of the time. Stergalas is 108-43 at Fordson, with seven playoff appearances and one state championship.

It isn't always easy, though. In 2001, the team started the season 3-0. Then the terrorist attacks of September 11 happened. They didn't win another game.

"Every school wanted to have a candlelight vigil, hold hands and sing songs about how they respected us," Stergalas said. "It was tough on the kids."

Especially since some of the outpourings of love came from schools that had teased the players in the past -- and occasionally still do today. At least once in every four or five games, the players say, a fan or player will call them a "camel jockey" or tell them to "go back to their gas station."

"And then the moment we say something back," Ayoub says. "The ref throws a flag."

When Zaban was playing the 1980s, he remembers walking off the bus and seeing a student hold a sign that read, "What's a Fowad, anyway?"

"It's only natural after awhile to feel like, 'Hey, it's us against them'," Zaban says. "But when I played, it wasn't Arabs against Americans. It was our entire team. Blacks, Mexicans, Italians, Greeks, whatever … against everybody else.

"You picked on me; you picked on all of us."

Today, Stergalas has it ingrained in his players that it isn't the Middle East vs. America, either. It's Fordson against whoever is lined up across from them.

"Every game is that way," Ayoub says. "Not thinking Arabic, but Fordson. The refs aren't going to help us out. The other team isn't going to help us out. We know we're on the bad side of this without having done anything. So we don't rely on anybody."

Don't judge us
His chest bulging through his sweaty gray T-shirt, his biceps creeping out from under its sleeves, Stergalas strolls through the Fordson weight room one afternoon last spring, beaming.

"That's 320 pounds," he says, proudly pointing to a scraggly kid pumping iron on one of four bench presses in the musty, white-walled room. "Tenth grade."

"That's 300," he says, motioning to another bench and another high-schooler who barely weighs 160. "Defensive back."

The season isn't to start for five months. Lloyd Carr isn't searching for his next tailback yet. Yet on this spring day, all over the room, undersized and overworked teenagers lift as if their lives are at stake.

Pound-for-pound, Stergalas says, there isn't a better team in the weight room. The work ethic is unparalleled.

"Think about all the crap they've had to deal with, living under the oppression of people like Saddam," Stergalas says. "Coming over here and listening to me yell at them? That's nothing."

Especially when, in the back of their minds, they think about all those people who don't accept them as new Americans. People who get in their faces at McDonald's, who laugh at their mothers at Target, or who kick their sisters at Cedar Point amusement park.

For all of them, the Fordson Tractor football team has one simple message.

"Don't judge us by who we are," Bazzi says. "Judge us by the way we play the game. A champion is a champion based not on how he wins, but how he gets back up after he loses."

Wayne Drehs is a staff writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at wayne.drehs@espn3.com.