The roar of masked Florida fans drowned out a rather unusual celebration on the sidelines on a late November afternoon.
The Gators were in the second half against the Kentucky Wildcats when Florida linebacker Mohamoud Diabate intercepted the ball and rushed it for 14 yards. His teammates swarmed him as Diabate darted off the field in celebration.
“Mabrouk! Mabrouk! Mabrouk!”
That’s not a word commonly heard on the gridiron. It’s Arabic for “congratulations,” and ask God to boost the good things in life. But that’s what Diabate’s teammates yelled as his first-ever collegiate interception resulted in a touchdown three plays later and secured the Gators’ game against Kentucky 34-10.
The junior is the only Muslim on the Gators football team. Throughout his life, he has sought a delicate balance between religion and football in a modern world.Linebacker Derek Wingo remembers when Diabate sprung up next to the coaches and stood before his teammates at practices. Like a preacher, he repeated the word and urged them to shout it after good plays.
“Mohamoud is a guy who steps on the field, and you really notice his presence,” Wingo said. “Regardless if he’s the one making the interception, he’s the guy whose influence everyone to be in a positive vibe.”
With every practice and game, the team’s Arabic repertoire increased. It embraced Diabate’s identity and became a team tradition.
“He brings his culture into the team,” Wingo said. “He brings his culture out of the team when we’re off the field. That’s a big part of his life.”
Diabate grew up like any other child in Auburn, Alabama. He played sports, hung out with friends and attended a religious Sunday school.
Except he wasn’t like the others.
His parents immigrated to the U.S. in the late ‘80s from the west African nation of Mali. His father washed dishes until he earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Tuskegee University and a Ph.D. from Auburn University. His home heard a mixture of languages, including English, French, Arabic and Bambara, Mali’s national language.
But Diabate links his success to an epiphany in 10th grade. After he shed 30 pounds in a week-long hospital visit to treat an injury, he questioned why God snagged his sophomore football season.
In that dreaded room, he reflected and realized he wasn’t heading down the path he wanted. He watched sermons, picked up a Quran and even a Bible, too.
With every letter he read, Islam drew him in. He grasped onto it like a restraint on a loopy roller coaster. It kept him strong and hopeful as he sat out the rest of the season. He noticed how his view of Islam diverged from what people said about the religion; he isn’t the type to blindly follow along.
“I stopped listening to what people told me here and there,” Diabate said. “You see one thing in the media about Muslims and one thing that you’re taught. The two things are opposite.”
His faith sprouted like a seed in rich soil. God will give him what he needs, what’s maktuub, or written for him. Now, he instills his trust in God, completes the five daily prayers and counters people’s misconceptions about Islam.
Since that hospital visit, Diabate connects the Bible to the Quran and uses every opportunity to combat the false, negative rhetoric that surrounds Islam. In his view, one teammate might share information with three more, who, in turn, tell others. And it trickles down.
“I feel like it’s my job as Muslim for people to understand this is what Islam is,” Diabate said. “I’m a face, I’m an advertisement for Islam with the way I act, the way I conduct myself, the way I compete, the way I do things.”
In sixth grade, Diabate heard teases, taunts and tales that stereotyped Muslims as terrorists. He grew afraid to share his identity. One of his friends, Ahmed, blabbed to fellow classmates that Diabate was a Muslim. Petrified, he stuttered until he reminded Ahmed that he was Muslim, too.
Even close friends participated in the jeers out of ignorance. After track practice in eighth grade, Diabate remembers that one of his friends called him a terrorist in between laughs. With thick skin developed after years of torment, he sternly told the 13-year-old not to say that again.
In a moment of reflection, Diabate said these experiences may have pushed many children away from Islam. But the jabs pulled him in because he knew his religion encouraged treating others well.
As time continued, challenges morphed. But he reminded himself about an ayah, or Quranic verse, in Surah ash-Sharh: surely with hardship comes ease.
Auburn High School never had a Muslim on its football team. The coaches didn’t know how to deal with Muslim student-athletes’ needs. They failed to accommodate his pork-free diet and ignorance persisted in school.
Diabate’s athletic gift enthralled former Auburn High School head coach Adam Winegarden. He recalls a game where Diabate sprinted to the opposite side of the field to catch a SEC-caliber running back.
“His mindset goes beyond the field and goes into everything he does,” he said. “He's somebody that has high expectations for himself.”
From high school to college, Diabate remained a constant in different environments.
“I went from a place like Auburn, Alabama, in the middle of Alabama, to one of the most diverse universities,” Diabate said.
Coaches at Florida understand and respect his dietary restrictions, and teammates are more open-minded. Staff knows what to do during Ramadan, the holiest month in Islam. To fast from dusk to dawn, Diabate receives a specialized meal plan tailored to keep him in shape, and coaches reduce his practice workload.
While a lot shifted when Diabate came to Florida, his faith stuck.
“His faith is a big part of his life,” Winegarden said. “He’s always placed a great deal of value in that, and that’s one thing that has been a backbone of who he is. And I think you see that in other parts of his life.”
Despite the night-and-day difference, Diabate feels people have a predisposed opinion of him because he’s a 6-foot-3-inch Black man with hair twists who uses slang. They don’t see the smart, educated introvert who enjoys cracking jokes.
But he reminds himself that Allah is the best of planners. No matter what someone else does to deviate him from the right path, no one can overpower God’s plan.
That’s why Diabate greets the purple hues of dawn when he wakes up to pray the first prayer of the day. When most remain sound asleep under their blankets, he fights the urge to close his eyes. He then takes his two puppies out and rests until he eats breakfast. He gets treatments in the afternoon, prays the second prayer of the day and heads to spring practice in the evening.
When he returns home, he makes up the third and fourth prayers of the day, does schoolwork and prays the last prayer of the day. As the orange sky darkens, he reflects. The light has too many distractions.
Islam keeps Diabate focused on the game rather than the glitz and glam that pairs with Gator football — assorted bottles of alcoholic drinks, nights out at bars and rowdy behavior.
Memories flood his mind. He carefully ponders every moment. He fixates on minor details like why his feet pointed a certain way at practice. He’s critical of himself but also thinks of ways to improve his interactions with his team and coaches.
Linebacker coach Christian Robinson remembers something Diabate told him early on — he yearns to wear a gold jacket.
“He’s got just a level of seriousness with his craft…. He’s driven,” Robinson said. “He knows what he wants. If I know that he wants to be one of the best, everything that I say to him should be accepted with the right attitude. He’s done that from the moment he’s walked in.”
At the South Carolina game last season, Diabate made a blunder in a play, went up to Robinson on the sidelines and reassured him he would fix it.
“Obviously, guys are going to make mistakes,” Robinson said. “But the desire to fix those and to improve and to push yourself forward; that’s what he has.”
Diabate learned how to bounce back each time older kids threw his 10-year-old self around while they played football outside Village West Apartments in Auburn. Any chance his mother gave him, he rushed outside, even if it meant his head would spin from the body slams.
That’s where his competitive nature was born. Even though few in Mali know about the sport, American football became part of his life when he watched his father root for Auburn and the Washington Football Club. His mother, on the other hand, feared for her son’s well-being in the rough game — and still does, even subtly reminding him he can quit whenever he wants.
“I love football dearly,” Diabate said. “I don’t play this game with any interest of making money. I play it just cause I love it.”
With his infatuation for the gridiron, Diabate aches to lead; to stay physically and spiritually sharp. COVID-19 spared football but stole many other experiences.
Before the pandemic, Diabate frequented Friday prayers at the Islamic Community Center of Gainesville. He listened to the sermon, spiritually and physically purified.
He also attended the Islamic center in Auburn. He usually broke his fast around a community who knew him when he was the mischievous child at the mosque running around the carpeted floors.
But last Ramadan contrasted from those he grew up with. He couldn’t break his fast with others, share late night talks before and after taraweeh, the night prayers common during Ramadan, and celebrate Eid al-Fitr, the end of Ramadan, while donning his traditional African clothes.
He took solace in the recitations of his favorite verses from the Quran that remind him that God was with him.
And Diabate clinches onto that. His relationship with religion has been a journey, and Islam was his guide.
He now dreams of playing professionally. Not just because that’s what he wants, but for others. He wants to support his family, the people of Mali and those suffering in Islamic nations.
“There’s not really people with money in the NFL who are really bringing attention to those things,” Diabate said. “If I get to the league, how can I be somewhere sitting with $20 million in my house, eating good, drinking good, everything, when my brothers and sisters in Islam are suffering?”
To Diabate, it’s simple. The Prophet Muhammad still fed the poor and gave charity even while he was persecuted. Like mixed martial artist Khabib Nurmagomedov, he wants to show the world what being Muslim is really about.
“At the end of the day, if I get $100 million and I didn’t help anybody, what was the point of doing it?” Diabate said. “What was the point of even having it?”
When his days in this life expire, he hopes to leave a legacy, not only as a player on the field, but also as a leader who understands others. And for both, to hear others say: Mabrouk.
Contact Grethel Aguila at email@example.com and follow her on Twitter at @GrethelAguila