Your daddy's here, staring down at you, the lean lightning bolt in the number 3 jersey, wishing he could hug you in front of everyone. You feel his presence as you go through pregame warmups on a sunny September afternoon in 1997, so you stop in the middle of a route and peer into the stands, locking your gaze on a man who pops in and out of your life like a ghost. There he is in the middle of the visiting teams section, extending a Muslim salute. You salute back, and your heart starts pounding the way it did when you woke up screaming out play calk in the middle of the night before youth-league games.
Now it's time to go to work. This is the first game of your senior season at San Diego State, and NFL scouts are watching. Bam, you catch a short pass and race 40 yards for a touchdown, giving your team a 7-0 lead over Navy. After the Midshipmen tie the game in the second quarter, you field the ensuing kickoff at your 15, dart through traffic and score again. You sneak a look into the stands, just to check out your father's smile.
In the fourth quarter you clinch the victory with a 47-yard touchdown reception. After the game, reporters, fans, well-wishers and family members mob you—yet your dad is nowhere to be found. Someone asks if your parents were at the game. "My mom was there," you reply. The questioner assumes you don't have a father, which is exactly what you want him to think. You've been denying your dad's existence for half your life, trying not to betray a man who has been a fugitive since you were 10 years old.
Az-Zahir Hakim has a secret, one he's finally willing to share after 13 strained years. At 23, the St. Louis Rams' wideout is an engaging young man who's well-liked by his teammates. Yet none of the Rams' players know a thing about Hakim's unique story. In fact, only a handful of family members and friends have any idea that while Hakim was developing into an open-field threat, his father was relying on equally slick moves to survive in a far more dangerous arena.
To football fans, the 5'10", 178-pound Hakim is a game-breaking blur. The pass defenders charged with stopping him are even more impressed. "Az Hakim? The word that comes to mind is wow" says Tennessee Titans All-Pro safety Blaine Bishop of the player who is also the league's leading punt returner. "All the Rams' receivers are great, but he's the quickest one we've faced in a long time." Another Pro Bowl safety, Lance Schulters of the San Francisco 49ers, says, "He's as good as [ St. Louis wideouts] Isaac Bruce or Tony Holt. He doesn't make small gains; he drops bombs on you."
As he sits on the patio of a restaurant in Creve Coeur, Mo., Hakim addresses a subject that's been taboo for 13 years. "My father, Abdul Hakim, is the man most responsible for making me the person I am today," he says. "Along with my mother he's the one who taught me right from wrong, made sure I treated others with respect and showed me the discipline I needed to survive. He is my backbone, and you can't tell my story without talking about him."
When one's backbone resides in a small cell in the Federal Correctional Institution in Lompoc, Calif., it's easy to feel disconnected. A relentlessly upbeat young man in the running for his first Pro Bowl appearance, the Wizard of Az smiles more than Kathie Lee Gifford, but there's an underlying strain of regret. Each night Hakim asks Allah to help reunite him with the man who long ago disappeared from his day-to-day life.
Abdul Hakim Sr.'s story does not fit neatly into a box. A street hustler with a drug habit during Az's early years, Hakim nonetheless was an attentive, loving father. After he got caught taking part in a 1987 cocaine deal, Abdul was scared not only of going to jail but of what might become of his adolescent sons, Az and his older brother Abdul Jr. Facing a 13-year sentence, he spent the next decade running from the law.
Since being captured and imprisoned three years ago, Hakim has had plenty of time for reflection and repentance. He takes solace in the rewards of the present and in the hope of a brighter future. Abdul Jr., 25, is a Morehouse College graduate who runs an entertainment company in Atlanta. Two of Abdul Sr.'s children from another relationship, daughter Sakeenah, 16, and son Saleem, 10, live with Abdul Jr. in an Atlanta home purchased by Az, who resides there in the off-season.
"I'm not proud of what I did," Abdul said in a recent interview inside the prison's chapel, as a pair of armed officers stood by. "But the success my kids are having is my reward."