Several hours before kickoff at Sunday's Super Bowl, federal inmate No. 24003-037 will sit down in front of the TV in the day room at the U.S. Penitentiary in Atlanta and scan the numbers on the jerseys of players going through their pregame paces.
As always, Abdul Hakim will be looking for No. 81 -- his son.
''As long as he knows his kids are doing well,'' St. Louis receiver Az Hakim said, ''he can handle everything else fine.''
Abdul Hakim declined an interview request relayed through prison authorities earlier this week. But what emerges from a conversation with his son is a story that shatters the easy assumptions.
Az Hakim, 25, has moved on from a childhood as fulfilling as it was disjointed to become a promising young receiver for the most exciting offense in football. His brief pro career has had its shares of ups and downs, not unlike his relationship with a father who, despite long absences, has remained a strong presence in his life. The last time the two met face-to-face was in November, when the Rams played in Atlanta. And when he can't catch a Rams game live on TV, Abdul Hakim watches a videotape and passes along his reviews over the telephone.
''My dad will be watching this one, for sure, and he's always supportive,'' Az said. ''But there are times he'll tell me to do this or that and I'd find myself thinking, 'Dad, I'm a professional now. I wish you could understand my situation, feel what I'm going through.'
''But I never say anything,'' he added. ''He has plenty to deal with himself.''
Abdul Hakim, 57, was a fugitive from justice for 10 years, a role he had practiced for much of his life. He hustled on the streets early and picked up a drug habit by the time he reached his teens. But he never shirked the responsibilities of fatherhood; no matter what else was going on, Abdul Hakim found the time and resources to care for his wife during her pregnancies, and to look after their young children.
In 1987, he was arrested for taking part in a cocaine deal and given a 13-year sentence after pleading guilty to one count of conspiracy to possess the drug with intent to distribute. While free on $200,000 bail, secured when his parents put their Gardenia, Calif., home up as collateral, Abdul Hakim sat his two sons down and asked them to help him make a choice:
Either he'd go to jail and see them occasionally on visiting days, or go on the run and see them as much as he dared. Abdul Jr., and Az chose the latter.
''People will ask questions, but no matter what happens you'll have to say you never knew your dad,'' Abdul Hakim recalled telling his sons during an interview with Sports Illustrated two years ago.
The boys, 12 and 10 at the beginning of Abdul Hakim's odyssey, wouldn't hear from their father for weeks. Then one day he'd call and money for clothes or football shoes would arrive, or plane tickets to fly to a distant city where he'd arrange outings most kids only dream about. Soon enough, though, Abdul Jr., and Az would return to their mother's one-bedroom apartment in the tough ''Jungles'' housing projects of South Central L.A., and wonder when the next adventure would begin.
Both Abdul Sr. and his oldest son were good athletes, but it was Az, slender and fast, whose talent always drew raves. After high school, he left Los Angeles to play football at San Diego State and once there, he developed a pregame routine that never varied. Sometime during warmups, Az would stop and stare into the visiting team's section, looking for the man whose identity he'd spent years denying.
''Sure, it was tough,'' Az said. ''There were times when I'd want to say something or show him something, but I knew there always had to be some distance between us.''
In 1997, Az's senior season, his father traveled to a San Diego State game at Navy with a friend who had no idea Abdul was hiding from authorities. Az caught two touchdowns and returned a kickoff 85 yards for a third that day. Amid the excitement, his friend began pointing out Abdul Hakim, shouting, ''That's his daddy.'' Soon, a TV crew was making its way up into the stands and Abdul took off for the parking lot.
Two months later, just days after Az's college career was finished, Abdul Hakim was in Atlanta to visit his older son and see his two children from a different relationship. When he went to pick them up from school, two U.S. marshals pulled him over. Before he was handcuffed, Abdul Hakim told SI, one of the marshals said, ''I see your son's a heck of a football player at San Diego State.''
Surprisingly, Abdul Hakim received no additional jail time despite his 10 years as a fugitive. He saw his son win a Super Bowl two years ago, while serving his sentence at the Federal Correctional Institution in Lompoc, Calif. Soon after, Abdul Hakim has transferred to Atlanta, where he resides in a low-security camp at the penitentiary.
A parole hearing this summer ''went pretty much the way we expected,'' Az said. ''There's not much encouraging news that way. But at least he's near family now. It's made the wait a little easier.''
Soon after signing his first contract, Az bought a house in Atlanta so that Abdul Jr., a Morehouse College graduate who runs an entertainment business, could look after their stepsister and stepbrother, Sakeenah, 18, and Saleem, 12.
''They're both as bright as the lights in this room. My dad knows we're looking after each other and he's comfortable with the way things turned out.
''But we can't wait for the day,'' Az Hakim said softly, ''when we can be a happy family again.''
Jim Litke is the national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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