INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Azeez Al-Shaair views his NFL future differently from most other prospects in Indianapolis this week for the scouting combine.
He's not driven by fame or fortune, fancy cars or the latest high-priced gadget, and he certainly isn't interested in comparing material possessions.
What the promising, young linebacker really wants is an opportunity to help his family and those who, like him, have learned life's toughest lessons the hard way.
"We all like the feel-good story when times are good, but I remember eating lunch as a (high school) freshman in the stairwell by myself in dirty clothes always getting made fun of. That's what I remember," Al-Shaair said at the NFL's annual scouting combine. "I want to help those types of people, the people nobody cares about."
Today, he's one of 300-plus players trying to turn one good week into a multimillion-dollar career.
But the former Florida Atlantic star understands a pro career isn't just a lottery ticket; it's a chance to make a difference, to help his family regain its footing after spending the last 6½ years in search of a new home.
The journey began in August 2012 when fire burned Al-Shaair's house to the ground. The high school sophomore helped his seven siblings escape as everything else went up in smoke.
Al-Shaair and his family spent the next four months living with another relative until the cramped quarters led them to move into an extended-stay hotel.
Life was hard, money was tight and Al-Shaair wanted to keep his living arrangements a secret. One visit from Florida Atlantic coach Charlie Partridge helped Al-Shaair see the world through a different set of eyes.
"He was the first person, college coach, that I ever told what I was going through," Al-Shaair said. "I remember meeting him at a Boys & Girls Club because he couldn't do an in-home visit because I didn't have a house. It was embarrassing for me. But that was what made me end up going there. That connection we have, I still text him every now and then, just to see how he's doing and tell him, 'Love you, coach.' If it wasn't for that guy giving me a shot, God knows where I would have ended up."
Back then, Al-Shaair was a 175-pound linebacker full of potential, and it didn't take long for Partridge to see his investment start paying dividends.
Al-Shaair earned Conference USA all-freshman honors in 2015 and finished 24th in tackles in the Football Bowl Subdivision as a sophomore.
Off the field, the college experience was a full-time challenge. As Al-Shaair began to open up about the fire and lack of a home, he tried to balance classwork with the parental responsibilities of his two younger brothers after becoming their legal guardian, and the Owls fired Partridge following the 2016 season.
"It's tough. It's hard as hell. It's not easy at all," he said. "Anybody that says you get a free education, ain't nothing in life free. You're going to have to put in work for it. I commend anybody who can go to college and play sports and go to class. You've got people who have 4.0 GPAs and they're in college with a sport, that's amazing. It's hard to do that. People don't understand, you've got to turn down a lot of other stuff to stay (focused)."
Somehow, Al-Shaair did.
He led Conference USA in tackles as a junior and could have left early for the NFL draft. Under the circumstances, nobody would have blamed him.
But instead, Al-Shaair went back to school, back to work and back to his family, only to endure one more hardship — a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee, which ended his senior season after six games. Al-Shaair had surgery in November and is still rehabbing.
While the injury prevented him from doing any workouts in Indianapolis other than the bench press, Al-Shaair measured in at 6-foot-1, 234 pounds and still had the opportunity to tell teams how his message about the value of life could benefit any locker room.
"We get so tied into the fact of 'I know I should be better than this dude' or 'He got that car, I just bought a brand-new car, but now I've got to have the next nicest car,'" he said. "I constantly battle with that. Even to this day, as a competitor, I want to be the best and it's tough balancing the competitive nature and that sense of being ungrateful. If you break it down, you see so many things in life people deal with other than football. You've got guys that can't walk, or can't use their (limbs), whatever the case may be, there are so many different people going through a million things and you're not the only one. You've got to be humble and grateful for what you've got."
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