But the coziness between public Christianity and football — prayer circles involving opponents are common in most CFL and NFL games — doesn’t exclude others from expressing the teachings of another faith.
Yaser Elqutub, a Palestinian-American linebacker with the Lions, expresses his beliefs discreetly, in Arabic.
“Every time the team does the Lord’s Prayer, I don’t say it. I do my own thing,” Elqutub explained after practice Tuesday. “It’s called a Fatiha (the main prayer of Islam). It’s almost like, word for word, the Lord’s Prayer.”
So far, in his three-month stay with the Lions, Elqutub has been restricted to doing his pre- and post-game locker-room prayers in civvies. That could change this week, with his possible activation Saturday against the Hamilton Tiger-Cats as the possible roster replacement for Solomon Elimimian.
Elimimian left last Friday’s 29-26 win over the Tiger-Cats with a thigh/hamstring injury and hasn’t practised since. The Lions have one more practice session Wednesday before the team leaves for Alumni Stadium in Guelph, Ont., the Tiger-Cats’ temporary home while a new stadium is under construction in Hamilton.
Elqutub, who has been on the practice roster since the start of the season, hopes to be on the flight east.
“If Solly can’t go, Benny (head coach Mike Benevides) and I have already talked about putting another linebacker on the (game) roster,” Lions general manager Wally Buono said. “We need another guy who can play special teams. Yaser’s worked hard, he’s put some weight on. He just needs a chance to play.”
Born in Houston, Texas, Elqutub’s parents emigrated to the United States following the first Arab-Israeli War. His stepmother, Linda Sobeh Ali, was the Palestinian Authority envoy to Canada until 2011, which is why Yaser’s cellphone carries an unusual area code for a Texan — 613, the calling card of Canada’s capital city.
At Northwestern State (Natchitoches, La.), he was a walk-on, but Elqutub worked so hard to make an impression that the Demons couldn’t leave him off the team. In university, he developed into a triple threat — on the football field, in the classroom, and in the good works department. In 2011, the Academic all-American (Elqutub maintained a 3.85 grade average in pre-med) was named captain of the All State Good Works team, the gold standard for off-field leadership, charity works and volunteerism in college football.
His path to the pros is similar to Lions backup quarterback Thomas DeMarco, who had grown weary of handing over $100 to CFL teams at tryout camps in the U.S. only to be told, “Don’t call us, we’ll call you.” DeMarco went through five rejections before a sixth CFL team, the Lions, finally asked him to stick around.
“I had an open tryout with Hamilton (in Houston), but nobody paid attention, nobody was looking,” Elqutub explained. “Then I had another with Edmonton in Houston. No luck there. I did the NFL combine, and that didn’t work out. I did a Pro Day at my school. It didn’t work out either. The Lions were going to be my last one. I didn’t know if I was going to do it. But I’m glad I did. I’m happy I came here.
“This is the best position for me. I do have a little chip on my shoulder for Hamilton. But J.J. also plays for that team. And I have a lot of respect for him.”
J.J. is Jamall Johnson, the tackle-crazy Ticats linebacker who also went to Northwestern State and started his CFL career with the Lions in 2005 before moving on to the Tiger-Cats in free agency. Now in his ninth CFL season, Johnson is within striking distance of becoming Hamilton’s all-time tackles leader.
“I talked to him maybe 10 times on the phone,” Elqutub said. “Last week (in Vancouver) I got to speak to him for the first time. He had a big impact at Northwestern. I knew a lot about him before I met him. If I can be like another player, I want to be like Jamall.”
Elqutub is so eager to play in Saturday’s game that he has to be reminded it’s not a done deal yet. In July, he was ready to step in for Adam Bighill, after the starting linebacker suffered an ankle injury. But the Lions decided to activate another roster player and Elqutub was back where he’s been since the beginning of the season, standing on the sidelines.
Nonetheless, he’s worked feverishly in the training room and put on extra muscle (he now weighs 225, up from 218) and believes he’s quicker, and more knowledgeable about the Canadian game, than the player who arrived here more than two months ago.
“It’s been hard waiting to play, but I took advantage of it,” Elqutub said. “I hit the weight room, and I’ve only increased my strength and speed since I’ve been here. This week, I’m training to play — a game. The pressure doesn’t scare me. It will just increase my focus.”
With Elimimian on the sidelines, Elqutub worked with the first-team defence Tuesday, an indication the Lions are prepared to activate him, or are at least in the process of considering it. “Even when he’s not playing, he’s always asking questions,” said halfback Ryan Phillips, whose participation in the Hamilton game is questionable because of a groin injury.
“I definitely admire Yaser because he’s always eager to learn. He wants to find out as much as he can about why we’re doing things. As far as his playing ability goes, I’ve seen what he can do on the scout team. But scout team is not a game situation. We don’t know yet. But, hopefully, if he gets his opportunity, he makes the most of it,” added Phillips.
Kneeling in dutiful prayer, as his religion requires, Elqutub hopes to have one answered.