Husain Abdullah knew before he even reached the end zone he would drop to his knees in thankful prayer after intercepting Tom Brady in the fourth quarter of the Kansas City Chiefs' 41-14 victory over New England.
He had no idea he would be penalized for it.
But after sliding to the grass in the end zone at Arrowhead Stadium on Monday night, that's exactly what happened. The devout Muslim, who left the game for a year to make a pilgrimage to Mecca, saw yellow flags flying from the officials.
The NFL said Tuesday morning that the unsportsmanlike conduct penalty should not have been issued, with league spokesman Michael Signora telling The Associated Press in an email that "the officiating mechanic in this situation is not to flag a player who goes to the ground as part of religious expression, and as a result, there should have been no penalty on the play."
Abdullah should not have been penalized. Officiating mechanic is not to flag player who goes to ground for religious reasons.— @NFLfootballinfo
But by then the incident had touched off a firestorm on social media, with many wondering how it was different from players dropping to one knee in Christian prayer.
"I don't think it was because of the actual prostration that I got the penalty," Abdullah told the AP afterward. "I think it was because of the slide."
Exception to rule
That's precisely the explanation that Chiefs coach Andy Reid said he received from the game officials. They had no issue with the prayer, Reid said, only the celebratory slide.
Rule 12, Section 3, Article 1(d) of the NFL rule book states that "players are prohibited from engaging in any celebrations or demonstrations while on the ground."
There is an exception if it happens as a demonstration of a player's faith, and players such as former NFL quarterback Tim Tebow have kneeled after scoring touchdowns for years.
But in most of those cases, players have come to a stop before briefly dropping to a knee in prayer. There are few instances in which they have slid to their knees.
Islamic group sees 'double standard'
The Council on American-Islamic Relations, a civil liberties and advocacy organization, issued a statement early Tuesday asking that the NFL take steps in response to the penalty.
"To prevent the appearance of a double standard, we urge league officials to clarify the policy on prayer and recognize that the official made a mistake in this case," CAIR spokesman Ibrahim Hooper said.
Reid didn't agree with the penalty, but he also didn't make much of it.
"When you go to Mecca," he said, referring to the end zone, "you should have the privilege to slide anywhere you want to slide. We have two priests in here. I think they will vouch for me."
Indeed, there were two pastors sitting in Reid's post-game news conference.
Pilgrimage to Mecca
Abdullah is in his second year with the Chiefs after spending an entire season away from the game. He decided that, in the prime of his career, he would join his brother Hamza — who also was playing in the NFL at the time — to make a pilgrimage to Mecca. The Fifth Pillar of Islam is the Hajj, the pilgrimage that all Muslims are supposed to make once in their lifetime.
Abdullah, who also fasts during Ramadan, told the AP in an interview last year the brothers wanted to make sure they did the pilgrimage while they still had the health and means to go.
In the case of Hamza, it proved costly. He never got a shot to return to the NFL.
Husain Abdullah said he didn't expect any repercussions from his penalty Monday night, least of all from his coach. After all, it was Reid who gave him an opportunity to work his way back into the league after he had stepped away.
"I'm pretty sure he understands who I am, what my faith is," he said. "And again, I think the prostration is all right. It's the slide. Come to a full stop, get down, make the prostration, get up and get out."