Deep, Dark Secret As Rams wideout Az-Zahir Hakim grew into one of the game's most electrifying players, he had to hide the existence of his father, who was running from the law

December 18, 2000

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 team's section, extending a Muslim salute.
You salute back, and your heart starts pounding the way it did
when you woke up screaming out play calls 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 Torry 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."

Although their father spent a decade on the run, Az and Abdul Jr.
insist he remained a major force in their lives. He separated
from the boys' mother, Mae (Koko) Evans, when Az was an infant,
but he still prided himself on being an involved father. Koko,
who recently remarried and took on the surname Elliott, says that
despite his flaws, her ex-husband "was a devoted father and a
devoted husband. When I was pregnant, he cooked for me every
night. And when I had each of my babies, I was so anemic that it
took me a month or two to regain my energy. So he pretty much was
the mommy and daddy. When I wanted to go back to college, he
stepped up and took care of the kids."

Though he was a high school dropout and had done time for
marijuana smuggling, Abdul was a respected figure in the
Gardena, Calif., neighborhood where he raised his boys, who
stayed with him on weeknights. "People respected him because he
was so real," says Abdul Jr., "and because of the way he took
care of his sons."

All that changed a few months after Az's 10th birthday.

Welcome to the Jungles, Az. You and your brother have been
shuttled across L.A., from your father's three-bedroom house in
Gardena to your mother's one-bedroom apartment at the corner of
La Brea Avenue and Rodeo Road in South Central L.A. Now you're
smack dab in the middle of a group of crime-infested housing
complexes known as the Jungles, and as you sit on the couch with
a lump in your throat on this November afternoon in 1987, you're
finding out you won't be leaving mom's place anytime soon.

"Boys, look here, Daddy's got a problem," your father tells you
and your brother. "I'm in some trouble with the law, and we've
got a decision to make. I can go to jail for the rest of your
childhood, and the only time you'll see me is when you come to
visit. Or I can go away for a while, and I'll stay in touch as
much as I can. What do y'all want me to do?"

"We don't want you to go to jail, Daddy," you and your brother
tell him. "Do what you've got to do and come on back."

It's decided, then. There's just one kicker: "The only thing is,
you won't be able to tell people I'm your father. People will ask
questions, but no matter what happens, you'll have to say you
never knew your dad."

He did it all for the boys--that's Abdul Sr.'s story, and the
people closest to him are sticking to it. But the suspicion
lingers: Wasn't Hakim, a practiced street hustler, conning his
family--and himself? ("Of course we told him not to go to jail,"
Abdul Jr. says now. "I was 12 years old, man. What was I going to
say?")

Before being arrested for involvement in the cocaine deal, Abdul
Sr. held down several traditional jobs and parlayed his clout in
the community into extra cash. Lawyers and real-estate agents
paid him to funnel business from the neighborhood. "I did a lot
of stuff that was barely legal," Hakim says. "Say I'd see a car
accident. I'd refer someone who was involved to certain lawyers
and collect a fee."

At times Hakim was also involved in activities that were flat-out
illegal. "He put food on the table, but no one knew what he was
doing," says Elliott. "It was better that I didn't know, because
some shady things were going on."

Abdul Sr. says he began using cocaine in 1979 and later started
freebasing the drug. He says he got involved in the cocaine deal,
in March 1987, "almost by accident." A friend in Cleveland wanted
to borrow money to purchase a kilo of cocaine, and Hakim decided
to go in for a kilo of his own. It turned out that the dealers
from whom Hakim's friend were buying the coke had been the
targets of a six-month Drug Enforcement Agency sting operation.
Hakim was arrested at a hotel in Annapolis, Md., and pleaded
guilty to a count of conspiracy to possess cocaine with intent to
distribute. He received a 13-year term, more than twice the
penalty he says his attorney told him to expect.

Armed with a lifetime's worth of street savvy, Hakim went
underground, a decision that carried harsh consequences. His
parents, Samson and Roberta Fleming, forfeited a house they
owned in Gardena that had stood as collateral for a $20,000
deposit on Hakim's $200,000 bail. "When I lost the house, I was
so mad I was ready to explode," says Samson. "But my son is
altogether different than he was. He's a much, much better
person now."

It's opening day for the Hawthorne Junior All-American Football
League. Though kickoff is six hours away, you're already sizzling
like a Jimi Hendrix amp. You wake up at the crack of dawn and
check the uniform and towels you ironed the night before and laid
out on the dining room table.

You wake your brother, grandma and cousins with a cacophonous
monologue, a blend of yelps, pronouncements of greatness and
recitations of plays on which you plan to score. It continues
even as you brush your teeth. "Shut up!" Abdul Jr. yells, but
that only encourages you. "Yeah, baby!" you scream. "It's going
down today!"

Sometimes weeks would pass between visits or phone calls, but
whenever Az and Abdul Jr. would start to worry, their dad
inevitably checked in. He would ask them what they
needed--school clothes? football shoes?--and send money when he
could. They'd tell him their problems and seek his advice,
sharing their conversations with no one, not even each other.

A month after he went on the lam, Abdul Sr. flew his sons to
Indianapolis, where he was renting an apartment. They spent
several weeks with their father, and other than the fact that
there was no telephone, things seemed relatively normal. Abdul
Sr. took the boys skiing and horseback riding and on other
outings unlike anything in the urban life they'd always known.

Back home in L.A., Az and Abdul Jr. struggled to adjust to living
permanently in the Jungles. When they'd stayed with their father
in Gardena, they had their own room--and a lot of freedom. They
had spent their posthomework hours playing games at Rowley Park
until the park director kicked them out. Now they shared the
one-bedroom apartment with their mother, her boyfriend and her
sister. The boys viewed their mother and aunt as overprotective,
and they went through the requisite periods of teenage withdrawal
and hostility. Abdul Jr. moved in with his maternal grandmother,
Dolores Evans, and Az followed.

Football was Az's salvation. After a schoolboy career highlighted
by a six-touchdown game in his senior year, he accepted a
scholarship to San Diego State. Whenever Abdul Sr. showed up for
one of Az's games at San Diego State, he would sit in the
visiting team's section and scan the crowd with a pair of
binoculars to make sure he wasn't being watched. At times,
though, Abdul's emotions got the better of his discretion. After
watching his son, who was a junior at the time, catch his third
touchdown pass of the day against Oklahoma, Abdul stood, cheered
wildly and ripped off his windbreaker to reveal a jersey with
Az's number on the front and HAKIM on the back. "I always felt
like I was on the verge of getting caught," says Abdul Sr. "I had
a lot of close calls. But right then I was so excited, I didn't
care if they caught me."

Abdul traveled to the Aztecs' win over Navy the following
September with a friend who was unaware of his legal situation.
After Az's second touchdown, the friend began pointing out Abdul
to others, yelling, "That's his daddy." Word spread, and in the
fourth quarter a TV camera crew approached. Abdul bolted for the
parking lot.

Two days after Az's last college game his dad called from a
federal holding facility in Atlanta. "Son, they got me," he said.

Later Az heard the story: Abdul had traveled to Atlanta, where
Abdul Jr. was close to finishing his studies at Morehouse. On
Nov. 24, 1997--10 years and one day after he had been sentenced--he
left some spaghetti sauce simmering, Goodfellas style, to pick up
Sakeenah and Saleem at school. A pair of U.S. marshals in an
unmarked car pulled him over. He showed them a passport from
Ghana and feigned an African accent, but they had him cold.

"I see your son's a heck of a football player at San Diego
State," one of the marshals said. Abdul didn't respond, and they
handcuffed him and took him away.

A few minutes later, as he was being booked, Abdul suddenly felt
liberated in a way he had never imagined was possible. Finally he
could openly exult in the success of his kids. The booking
officer asked for his full name. "Abdul Muntaqin Hakim," he said
proudly, enunciating each syllable.

Loosely translated, Az-Zahir Ali Hakim means "radiant" and
"high, wise counselor." It's a heavy designation, yet Hakim
radiates a youthful buoyancy his teammates regard as infectious.
As he darts across the middle or squirts free on a punt return,
Hakim still seems like the kid on the junior league field who no
one could catch. "He has a unique ability to run with the
football after the catch," says Rams receivers coach Al Saunders
"He's effervescent and upbeat, and he always lights up a room.
His play is an extension of his personality."

Hakim's NFL career got off to a rocky start. After St. Louis
picked him in the fourth round of the '98 draft, he broke his
left hand during the preseason, then couldn't crack the lineup.
The Rams would finish that season 4-12, but they had a heck of a
scout team: In practice Hakim bonded with a third-string
quarterback named Kurt Warner. While Warner's only action was a
token appearance in the season finale, Hakim showcased his skills
in a Dec. 13 upset of the New England Patriots, scoring
touchdowns on a nine-yard reception and a 34-yard reverse.

In '99 the return to health of All-Pro Bruce and the first-round
selection of Holt kept Hakim out of the starting lineup but not
off the field. With offensive coordinator (and now head coach)
Mike Martz making aggressive use of multiple formations and
Warner emerging as a star, Hakim became a "12th man" who could
score in bunches. In St. Louis's third game, a 33-10 victory over
the Bengals in Cincinnati, Hakim caught touchdown passes of nine,
51 and 18 yards from Warner and returned a punt 84 yards for
another score. Last year eight of his 36 receptions went for
touchdowns, and five of those scores came on third down, tying
him for the NFC lead in that category. He averaged 18.8 yards per
catch and had five touchdowns of 48 yards or more. This season
Hakim has 52 receptions for 730 yards and four touchdowns.

Clad in a beige canvas coat and sitting in the prison's chapel,
Abdul Hakim Sr. tells his story in a far more relaxed manner than
one would expect of a man who recently celebrated his 56th
birthday in a federal penitentiary. Abdul, who did not receive
additional time for his 10-year flight from justice, has served
three years of the sentence he went to such lengths to avoid. He
will plead his case to a parole board in July 2001.

In the meantime he sees all of Az's games at Lompoc, viewing the
ones that aren't televised in Southern California several days
later on videotapes sent by Saunders. Abdul, who normally speaks
to Az the day after games, reached him on the team bus after the
Rams' Super Bowl win. "I was choked up," Abdul says. "I'd have
given both my arms to be at that game."

Abdul leans forward on a chapel bench and bows his head. "I hate
that I lied so much for so long," he says softly. "As Muslims we
are taught to be truthful because there's a life after this, and
God has a punishment for everything you do in this life."

Abdul has something to say about Az: "I feel him at all
times...," but he is cut off. An emergency situation is at hand,
and the warden has ordered an immediate prisoner count and
lockdown. Another guard appears, telling the reporter and
photographer he'll escort them from the premises. Hakim extends
his hand, but it's just out of reach. "Goodbye," he says, and
like that, he is gone.

Back in St. Louis, Az waits for his father to be free. "I pray
for the day he gets out, because our family has some big plans,"
he says. "My dad knows what he's done, and he's a better person
now because he gets to be himself again. I'm blessed I can be
there for him when that day finally comes."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY PETER READ MILLER COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH DOUBLE TROUBLE Hakim has a career-high 52 catches (including two against the Niners on Oct. 29) and is the league's leading punt returner. COLOR PHOTO: OTTO GRUELE/ALLSPORT PLAYMAKER In 36 games at San Diego State, the thrill-a-minute Hakim scored 22 touchdowns and averaged 17.8 yards a catch. COLOR PHOTO: JOEY TERRILL TIME TO REFLECT Abdul, who still has 10 years to serve on his 13-year sentence, says he went on the lam for the good of his family.

SCHULTERS BELIEVES HAKIM IS AS GOOD AS THE RAMS' VAUNTED STARTING
WIDEOUTS. "HE DROPS BOMBS ON YOU," SAYS THE 49ERS SAFETY.

AFTER AZ'S THIRD TOUCHDOWN, ABDUL TORE OFF HIS JACKET AND CHEERED
WILDLY. "I DIDN'T CARE IF THEY CAUGHT ME," HE SAYS.

"I'M NOT PROUD OF WHAT I DID," SAYS ABDUL. "BUT THE SUCCESS MY
KIDS ARE HAVING IS MY REWARD."

"MY FATHER IS THE MAN MOST RESPONSIBLE FOR MAKING ME THE PERSON
I AM TODAY," SAYS AZ.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)