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Faith, family, football: Bombers' Khan has his priorities straight

The sport he plays, the one that's positioned him as somewhat of a trailblazer in the Pakistani community, is not what defines Obby Khan.

Football means a lot to him, don't misunderstand that, Khan quickly points out, it just isn't his everything.

Obby Kahn (60) is the only Pakistani-Canadian player in the CFL

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Obby Kahn (60) is the only Pakistani-Canadian player in the CFL "My mom still bugs me today, telling me I should retire and become a doctor." Photo Store

"My faith and my family are the two most important things," the veteran Winnipeg Blue Bombers centre said.

Khan, 31, is a practising Muslim and the only Pakistani-Canadian player in the CFL. Per his faith, the hulking lineman prays five times a day -- at sunrise, noon, mid-afternoon, sunset, and in the darkness of night -- and visits one of the handful of Winnipeg-based mosques at least twice a week.

There, despite his long hair and towering 6-foot-3, 300-pound frame, Khan is just another practitioner, known not by 'Obby' but by his given name Ibrahim, the Arabic translation of Abraham.

His faith surrounds him, Khan says, referring to the role it played when his Crohn's disease led to multiple surgeries on his intestinal tract in 2007. Though having his large intestine removed meant he could no longer fully participate in events like Ramadan, the annual month-long fasting sacrifice from sunrise to sunset, the experience cemented his conviction.

"My father passed away at that time, the surgeries -- it was a lot to get through," he said. "My faith helped me with everything at that time."

At the mosque, the fellow practitioners know who he is, but they don't care who he is. He's the "football guy," the one who tries to slip in inconspicuously before Friday night games, the man who volunteers at the Manitoba Islamic Association and the friend who puts big smiles on children's faces simply by giving some of his free time to chat.

"When I go, I always have football cards on me to pass out," he laughed.

The conversations are often centred around how the Bombers are doing but occasionally, the direction shifts into sage advice. Some kids -- and most parents -- are curious how Khan, a devoted follower of the Muslim word who comes from a traditional Pakistani upbringing, was able to achieve the balance between faith, family, and ultimately, football.

It took some convincing on his part, he says.

Growing up in Ottawa, the son of Pakistani immigrants, Khan excelled at the high school football level. His parents, father Iftikhar and mother Rehana, offered the expected support at that stage, allowing their son to continue as long as his grades remained high.

"My parents, though, bless them -- my father passed away a couple years ago -- but they don't have a clue about football," Khan said. "They don't really understand it. And when it came time for college and I got scholarship offers from schools, my parents were not convinced. At that point, they definitely didn't want me to play anymore. My father wanted me to go to medical school.

"I remember it like it was yesterday. We had a lot of family meetings -- a common practice in the Pakistani community -- to discuss the future of the children."

Khan eventually accepted a football scholarship to Simon Fraser, but it wasn't without issue in the family circle. His case for football was still flimsy in his parents' eyes, he recalls, but after five successful years with the Clan, a J.P. Metras trophy in 2003 (awarded to the top CIS lineman), an All-Canadian nomination and being the second overall pick in the 2004 draft (Ottawa), they finally came around.

"I give them credit: They challenged me and made sure I believed in what I wanted to do," he added. "My mom still bugs me today, telling me I should retire and become a doctor."

Khan says there has been a dramatic shift in attitude in the community since that time, believing the newer generations of Pakistani-Canadians are becoming a little more flexible in terms of careers for their children.

"I've seen a big change now," he said. "Not all Muslim kids have to grow up to be doctors or engineers. The paths are wide open now."

Societal influence, relaxed perceptions and the countless distractions of the current age take credit for the change in the community philosophy, Khan points out, dismissing his position as a role model for young Muslim children in Winnipeg.

"I just tell them to be true to what you believe," nine-year CFL veteran said. "If you believe in yourself and what you're doing, people will come to respect the decisions you've made.

"I've always tried to stay true to what I believe in, which is my faith and my family, and I think people have come to respect me for that."

adam.wazny@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 31, 2012 J15

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