MSU football recruit recalls journey from war-torn Iraq

Mustafa Khaleefah sat in the Dearborn High bleachers on a recent evening, reflecting on how he had gotten to this point in his life. “It’s been a weird journey,” he said. “Back in Iraq, I would not have seen myself doing this now.” 

As a youngster growing up in war-torn Iraq, Khaleefah never would have envisioned himself growing into an intimidating, 6-foot-6, 285-pound football player who has accepted a scholarship to Michigan State. Back then, the only football Khaleefah knew was soccer. But, back then, everything took a backseat to the Iraqi war. 

“There was some good moments,” he said. “You remember the good stuff, of course, but there was a lot of bad stuff, too. The good stuff, for example, was my grandpa, every morning, would take me out to eat someplace. But there was a lot of bad stuff, like people getting killed.” One murder in particular is difficult for Khaleefah to forget. 

“Some guy was just walking, and some guys pulled up on a motorcycle and shot him up right in front of our driveway,” he said. “My dad had to clean the blood off the driveway. At that point we were like, we can’t have a family here.” Never mind that the person murdered was a police officer — and the police station was across from the Khaleefah home. 

It was typical of the times in Iraq then, when even leaving your home could be dangerous. “When he went to elementary school, me or his mom would take him to school,” said his father, Muhammad Khaleefah. “We were afraid of the kidnappers. It was very bad. So, we’d take him to the school, wait at the school until he’s done from the school and take him back to home.” 

The family first moved to Syria and then Egypt, but the goal was to reach the United States. Khaleefah’s mother, Lina, a civil engineer, received a work permit and took her three children to Virginia while her husband remained in Egypt for four months until his documents were approved. “I remember Mustafa’s face when he was at the airport,” his father said. 

“He was crying, but he could not show me the tears in his eyes. It was very hard for him.” After being reunited in Virginia, the family moved to Dearborn a couple of years later when Khaleefah was in the sixth grade. He played soccer in Virginia, but gave up organized sports when the family relocated in Dearborn. 

He was average size until a growth spurt began in the eighth grade. The next year, he was a freshman at Dearborn and caught the eye of varsity football coach John Powell, who got him to come out for football as a sophomore. “We don’t always get 6-3, 220; we get them only every so often,” Powell said. “I saw him running agilities and I was: ‘Holy, what is this? What is going on with this kid?’ 

He was a soccer kid; he came from a soccer background. “I saw him move, and my line coach goes: ‘He’s going to play on the varsity.’ I said: ‘No kid has never played football in their lives and then played on the varsity at Dearborn High as a 10th-grader with no experience.’ ” So Khaleefah didn’t play varsity as a sophomore ... until Week 3. 

Two games on the junior varsity were enough to convince Powell where the youngster belonged. “He played in a JV game, just dominated the whole game without having any clue what he was doing,” Powell said. “Then we brought him up, and as a 10th-grader he was getting in the way and he was athletic.” 

Powell was not exaggerating about Khaleefah’s cluelessness. The youngster really didn’t understand the game. “I didn’t know what I was doing,” he said, laughing. “They told me to block somebody, and I did. That was about it.” Khaleefah’s first obstacle was convincing his parents to allow him to play football. Their main concern was his safety. Their second concern was how playing football might hinder his academics. 

“At first they weren’t sold on it, they just wanted academics,” said Khaleefah, who has a 3.6 grade-point average. “But then they showed up to one of our games and they saw how much I loved it, and they fell in love with it, too. They know I like it, so they like it, too.” It was not love at first sight for his parents, who were unfamiliar with American football. “When he started to play the football in Dearborn, then I need to learn,” said his father. 

“So I asked a friend, he had a son playing football, and he gave me the rules. I asked Mustafa, and he gave me the rules on how to play the football and everything on the football.” It also helped when Powell told Khaleefah’s parents that if he worked hard and continued to improve, he had a chance to make sure his parents didn’t have to pay for his college education. 

“He told me that he would get the scholarship,” his father said. “He said he knew he would do it. That was the thing I encouraged him to do because it would take something from my shoulders — all the expenses from the college.” Khaleefah said the first football game he watched was the 2011 Super Bowl between the Green Bay Packers and the Pittsburgh Steelers, when he was in the sixth grade. 

Even after joining the varsity, Khaleefah had little working knowledge of the game and how it was played. But he found a way to learn the intricacies of the sport. “I started playing Madden,” he said of the video game. “I learned a lot from Madden, to be honest with you. I learned so much. I learned all the positions where everybody played. That’s how I learned football.” 

But learning the game was entirely different from learning how to play. From the get-go, Khaleefah had superior footwork, but little else. He was big, but he wasn’t strong. That changed before his junior year. “From my sophomore year to my junior year, it was about me and the coaches were just dedicated to it,” he said. 

“We’d be at the school until 9 o’clock at night. We’d be in the weight room. We got my strength up insane in like three months because of how much work we put in.” As his basic understanding of the game grew, the more impressive he became on the field. But while he had his dominating moments as a junior, Khaleefah was far from a finished product, and certainly was not yet a Big Ten recruit. 

“In my junior year, I had some technique, but it wasn’t there yet,” he said. “I was just nasty, that’s why I was so good — I blocked really nasty.” Powell was positive Khaleefah could play in the Mid-American Conference and thought he had a shot to become a Big Ten player. 

“His film as a junior was not a Big Ten film, it just wasn’t,” Powell said. “Part of it was we had to coach him better.” But the key for Powell was to get a Big Ten team to notice the youngster. “I sent Michigan State’s recruiting guy this video of him squatting 410 pounds 10 times,” Powell said. 

“It was like him getting the flexibility of a basketball player. They called me right away and asked: ‘Are you serious, Coach?’ ” Suddenly, Khaleefah was on MSU’s radar and encouraged to attend camp there. His performance then led to an invitation to MSU’s elite camp. And by the end of the elite camp, Khaleefah had an offer, which he didn’t see coming. 

 “I was happy enough to commit the next day,” he said. “I didn’t know football, but I knew who Michigan State was. Out of all the schools in the Power 5 conferences, they were the only ones who kept telling me to come visit.” It seems like a lifetime ago that Khaleefah was watching that policeman being murdered in front of his house. 

Since then, Khaleefah has gone from not knowing how to speak English and having no idea what American football was to earning a scholarship to Michigan State after only two years of organized football. “It has been some journey,” he said, shaking his head. “Basically, it was hard work and dedication. I think that if you work hard, nothing can stop you.” 

by Mick McCabe

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