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Kariem Al Soufi: Committed to his family, his religion and Virginia football

The native of Paderborn, Germany is attempting to earn a starting spot on next year’s offensive line while observing Ramadan

<p>Despite growing up in Germany — a country whose men's national soccer team has won four World Cups and where soccer is king — Al Soufi found it boring and sought a sport that fit his strong build.&nbsp;</p>

Despite growing up in Germany — a country whose men's national soccer team has won four World Cups and where soccer is king — Al Soufi found it boring and sought a sport that fit his strong build. 

It is 3:04 a.m. on April 28, and sophomore offensive guard Kariem Al Soufi has already started his day. 

“[I just] need to get something in my stomach,” the 6-foot-3, 350-pound Al Soufi said. “I made a plan with my nutritionist what to eat before the sun comes up.” 

Al Soufi is Muslim and observes the holy month of Ramadan. One of the five pillars of Islam, Ramadan, or Sawm, is the ninth month in the Islamic calendar in which all healthy adult Muslims fast from dawn to sunset. Born in Paderborn, Germany to two Syrian immigrants, Al Soufi credits his family for his devotion to his faith.  

“Even my grandparents taught me what is right and what is wrong based on our religion,” Al Soufi said. “We didn’t change our whole lives because of our religion, but it was important to us.” 

Alongside their faith, competitiveness has also always been a staple of the Al Soufi family. A former member of the Syrian national basketball team, Kariem’s father would dazzle on the hardwood, while his children dreamed of someday playing on similarly large stages themselves. 

While his brother’s professional soccer career was cut short by an injury, Kariem and his sister, a basketball player, appreciate their family for not only their competitiveness but also their support.

“I can relate to my father … we talk a lot about the sports schedule and how hard it is and how you have to keep trying,” Al Soufi said. “I used to go to [my brother and sister’s] games, they used to go to my games — it was all really supportive.” 

Growing up in a country where most know of football as a sport played with a round ball and two goals, Al Soufi needed all the support he could get as he searched for a sport that would suit his massive athletic frame. 

“I was never a really big soccer fan — I thought it was boring,” Al Soufi said. “Then I got bigger, and I couldn’t play soccer, and I switched sports several times until I found my sport, which fits me.” 

Really, Al Soufi came across American football completely by chance. 

“I went to school with a friend and I saw him playing with a football and it was the first time for me seeing that ball because we are used to round balls,” said Al Soufi. 

The friend told Al Soufi that he played for a local club called the Paderborn Dolphins and encouraged Al Soufi to try out. Still in search of a sport that would cater to his abilities and relinquish his competitive fire, Al Soufi decided to give it a try — and it is safe to say he made the right choice. 

“The first tryout went really well,” Al Soufi said. “I fell in love instantly.”

Al Soufi is not the only German to fall in love with American football in the past decade. With the NFL and the Jacksonville Jaguars having already successfully tapped the English market, the gridiron is quickly making its way across Europe. Boasting two current NFL players and a host of former pros, American football popularity in Germany has skyrocketed over the past few years as NFL games have become increasingly accessible thanks to streaming services such as DAZN. 

As of 2019, Germany had 500 American football clubs and almost 40,000 registered players nationwide. In Al Soufi’s hometown, there was only one club — the Paderborn Dolphins.

“When I started playing football it was not big at all, nobody really knew about it, nobody really went to the games,” Al Soufi said. “It started growing with German TV channels showing NFL games.”

However, Al Soufi doesn’t just represent the 40,000 German football players in his pursuits at  Virginia. A son of Syrian immigrants, Al Soufi represents a community of over 800,000 ethnic Syrians — the third largest immigrant population in Germany. To Al Soufi, this community is also his family.

“We have [a] big community in Paderborn — they’re all connected through the two mosques,” Al Soufi said. 

Having lived in Charlottesville for two years now, Al Soufi is still in search of a community of friends that share similar religious and ethnic traditions. During the month of Ramadan, the offensive guard has found himself observing the strict fast by himself. 

“There was one guy I met who worked at [Observatory Hill Dining Hall] who shared my culture,” Al Soufi said. “We used to text back and forth, but I don’t have a close contact with him anymore.” 

COVID-19 restrictions on group gatherings have made finding a community in Charlottesville even more difficult for Al Soufi.

“I was looking for a mosque,” Al Soufi said. “They have a Muslim community in Charlottesville, but unfortunately they are closed and can’t have actual in-person meetings. ”

Despite these challenges, the offensive lineman has found a loving community in the football team. Since Ramadan began April 12, Al Soufi’s teammates have been amazed by his heightened level of competition while not eating or drinking. 

“[The offensive linemen] were wondering how I could play football and not drink nor eat,” Al Soufi said. “So I told them that it's different than they think because we always talk about deliberate practice in our meetings, and the funny thing is that [fasting] really helped me improve and focus more on my techniques and the little things.” 

From modern NBA players like Enes Kanter to legends such as Hakeem Olujuwan, many Muslim athletes have noted similar abilities to heighten their play during this holy month. Unlike these names, however, Al Soufi understands that there is still much work to be done until the world knows his unique story. 

“I’m coming from a background that is not usual — growing up in Germany with a Syrian culture and with Syrian parents,” said Al Soufi. “I know I am not there yet, [but] I want to achieve big things whether it is football or in life.” 

Spring for college football means earning your role on next year’s team. Over the past month, Al Soufi has certainly demonstrated his commitment to the team and more importantly to his own faith. This undying commitment will certainly not go unnoticed as he hopes to strap on the pads for the Cavaliers this fall.


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