One day not long ago, a peculiar thought popped into Isaiah Mustafa’s head and started to gnaw at him until he saw no alternative but to act on it.
For most everyone, what Mustafa was contemplating would have been outlandish. Time for a reality check. Another one of those Walter Mitty fantasies people often have and never achieve.
But not for Mustafa.
Get this. Mustafa, a marvelously talented basketball player and decathlete, wanted to play football. In college. On a successful team full of successful players.
“If you have the athletic ability, why waste it in one sport?” he reasoned.
Nothing wrong with that concept. Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders followed that logic, turning to professional baseball and football for kicks and profits. Both, however, played the two sports throughout their lives. Mustafa, by contrast, hadn’t put on a helmet and pads since his childhood days in Pop Warner.
No problem. When you are 19, built like a walking commercial for a fitness program and have plenty of self-confidence, a little thing like that is insignificant. Or, in Mustafa’s case, a motivational tool.
“I just believe in myself,” Mustafa said. “When it comes to me, I know what I can do and can’t do. I wanted to prove that I could play football.”
He is making his point.
Despite his inexperience, Mustafa starts for Moorpark College at free safety, a position that is physically and mentally demanding. He’ll be in action tonight at 7 when the Raiders travel to Pierce for a Western State Conference game between two of the four unbeaten teams in the conference.
So far Mustafa, 6 feet 3, 190 pounds, has held his own even though he is learning the position on the job and carries the added pressure of replacing All-American free safety Kenyon Lewis, now at Texas El Paso. After three games, Moorpark defensive backs coach Dave Murphy says he couldn’t be happier with Mustafa’s progress.
“He still has a ways to go,” Murphy said, “but his improvement from the (first) game to now has been fantastic. He is a very intelligent young man and a very gifted athlete.”
That he is. Murphy believes Mustafa, a football freshman but a sophomore in school, has a future in the game at the Division I level and maybe beyond. And Doni Green, the Moorpark track and field coach, sees unlimited potential in Mustafa as a decathlete. It’s hard to argue with either.
Last season, for instance, Mustafa finished second in the decathlon at the state junior college championships.
“He shows a lot of promise, although there are certain areas he needs to improve in,” Green said. “His 1,500 (meters) is terrible and I think he can run much better in the quarter (mile). But those are things he just needs to work at.”
With his zeal for the sport, Mustafa undoubtedly will head for the next track season with a new resolve, fueled by Green’s assessment that he could push it up another notch. Track, Mustafa says, is his favorite sport and self-assurance that borders on cockiness is the driving force.
“I feel that I have a good future in track as a decathlete,” Mustafa said. “I believe there’s nothing I can’t accomplish. To me, going to the Olympics would be easier than going pro (in football). (In track) it’s not someone else picking you. It’s you doing whatever it takes to get there. With football, you have to prove to someone else what you can do. That’s why I like track so much. That and the fact that whoever wins the decathlon (at the Olympics) is considered the greatest athlete in the world.”
Mustafa got into track as a senior at Santa Clara High, where he was a basketball standout. Geof Foley, then the track coach at the school, convinced Mustafa to specialize in the decathlon. It didn’t take long to see why Foley had made the suggestion. At the 1992 Golden West Invitational, Mustafa took fourth in the event.
“One of the things I liked about him was his work ethic,” said Foley, now athletic director at Villanova Prep in Ojai. “He was willing to devote time to work with weights. You can see quantifiable results in the weight room that transfer to the track. That showed me his character.”
Another example of that trait was Mustafa’s commitment to the Santa Clara basketball team. He wanted to play football for the Saints his senior season in 1991, but abandoned the idea because he felt an obligation to the basketball team and Coach Lou Cvijanovich. And Mustafa feared that a long football season could jeopardize his basketball season.
“He was a hell of a basketball player and is probably one of the most loyal persons you’ll ever meet,” Cvijanovich said. “You can’t say enough superlatives about him. Everything he did was positive.”
Mustafa played center on a team with four outstanding teammates--forwards Stevie Amar and Pat Lampson and guards Chris Cole and Art Barron--and averaged 11.7 points and 6.7 rebounds his senior season. The Saints went undefeated in eight games in the Frontier League and won the Southern Section Division IV-AA title with a 56-52 victory over Verbum Dei. Many, including Cvijanovich, expected a Division I school to recruit Mustafa. No one did.
“It surprised me, no doubt about it,” Cvijanovich said. “We used him at center because of his leaping ability and his physical toughness and, to be honest, I think that kind of hurt him in the long run. I thought that (recruiters) would notice his dexterity and switch him over to another position.”
Rather than accept one of the few Division II offers he had, Mustafa decided to play at Santa Monica but quit the team soon after arriving because he didn’t feel he was getting a fair shake. He transferred to Moorpark to concentrate on track with Green, who recruited Mustafa in high school. Then came the football brainstorm.
Green says the idea of an athlete playing two sports in college might have bothered other coaches, but not those at Moorpark.
“We don’t have a problem with that kind of thing,” Green said. “We share athletes pretty well. I couldn’t really tell him not to do it.”
Not that it would have made much of a difference. When Mustafa wants to do something, there apparently is no dissuading him. Even as a child, his mom says, he was determined.
“It scares me. Sometimes I think he is overconfident,” Shahidah Mustafa-Davis said. “He’s always telling me all the things he is going to do. You know he taught himself how to swim when he was a kid?”
Mustafa was born in Portland, Ore., the youngest of seven children in a Muslim family. When he was about 5 years old, his family moved to Mission Viejo, where Wali Mustafa established a limousine service. About two years later, Wali Mustafa died in a car accident and the family later moved to Oxnard. Mustafa lives there with his mom, who has remarried.
Much of Mustafa’s personality, his mom says, was ingrained by his father. It helped him in sports, most of which she says he learned to play basically on his own, and in everyday life.
Mustafa also has done some acting, landing bit roles in a “Romeo and Juliet” production at the Ojai Shakespeare Festival and on TV’s “L.A. Law.”
“His dad would always tell him not to let anybody tell him he couldn’t do something,” Mustafa-Davis said. “His father was like that. And his father got it from his mother. . . . Our whole family are go-getters.”
Now, Mustafa is going after wide receivers and other opponents who wander in his direction. He knows that some teams will try to test him but says he is not concerned. In fact, he is looking forward to it.
“They can come straight at me and they’ll learn to respect me after that,” Mustafa said. “At first, it took me like a week to learn the (defensive) plays. Once I did that, it was a matter of hitting. Now, hitting isn’t a problem at all. I know I can hit, and whoever I hit will know it.”
To some, that might sound arrogant. But, Foley says, there’s nothing wrong with that sort of statement.
“If you can do it, it ain’t braggin’,” he said.