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  • Photo: Sam Janicki

    Photo: Sam Janicki

    Overcoming the Odds: The Sahm Abdulrazzaq Story

    Sahm Abdulrazzaq (photo courtesy of Sam Janicki; SJanickiPhoto.com)

    "It's bigger than wrestling" is a quote I've seen and heard a few times over the years (or at least some variation of it). The person I've seen use this is Army West Point Assistant Coach, Scott Green. Coach Green has a knack for helping us not forget that there is more to life than just the sport of wrestling. I'm sure this is a main recruiting pitch to his coveted student-athletes. As I've stated numerous times, it takes a special person to enroll at West Point. Between the high academic standards, the long, arduous application process, plus West Point having an acceptance rate of approximately 11%, the academy will only accept the cream of the crop. To be frank, the odds are not in your favor. Once into the academy, however, your future is very bright. No student loans to pay off, a guaranteed job after graduation, and, oh yeah, serving military time to The United States of America is an added bonus - for some. The story of how Sahm Abdulrazzaq ended up there is one of the most incredible stories I've heard.

    Sahm was born in November of 1999, in the country of Iraq. With a heinous dictator, named Saddam Hussein, in charge of the nation - life was not exactly easy for the family, as much of the country was in turmoil. Many citizens were not fans of the leader. As an example, Sahm's grandfather was a general in the Iraqi military, after graduating from military school. Once Saddam was ready to take control of the nation in 1979, Sahm's grandfather was one of a few military leaders who quit the military altogether - refusing to serve under Hussein. Sahm expanded on his grandfather, "He was a very educated, smart man who had the foresight to see what would come of this." Safe to say, his grandfather made the right choice. At the time, this was a huge risk. Anyone who publicly spoke out against the regime would be imprisoned - or worse - killed. Due to his former position in the military, and the respect he's gained over his life, he was able to avoid any punishment. So, how did Sahm and his family end up in Woodbridge Virginia - a town outside of Washington D.C.? This is where the story takes a dark, but incredible turn.

    The year was 2003, when the United States invaded the country of Iraq. According to Sahm, the first night of the invasion was when his life changed forever. The date was March 20, 2003. A missile struck Sahm's family home while they were sleeping inside. "Our house got blown up to pieces… My dad got hit in the chest and almost died that night." He continued explaining how half of his home collapsed. Thankfully, his family was in the half of the house that didn't crumble right away - giving his family time to escape the house. They found a way to get his father to the hospital to help him recover.

    Skipping some details, the war carried on over the years. Sahm's father turned out to be a huge asset to the U.S. military in Iraq. Mainly, his background as a veterinarian turned him into an ally. He was helping the U.S. veterinarians who were in Iraq. This led to opportunities to translate for the U.S. soldiers, helping bridge the gap between the civilians trying to survive in an active war zone and the American soldiers ordered to help protect them. As one can imagine, this is not exactly a safe environment to be helping "the enemy" - as many Iraqi officials would put it. Sahm's father was just a citizen trying to protect him and his family at all costs. This was no different than any citizen during this time.

    Somewhere between 2006 and 2007, the family started receiving death threats once word got out Sahm's dad was assisting the Americans. The letter stated "they" knew Sahm's father was working with the U.S. military. They needed to leave the country or face deadly consequences. This was literally a life-and-death scenario. So, they fled. Most of the family quietly snuck away to Syria - which was not at war at the time - and was even considered an escape from what seemed to be endless wars in the region. (This is not the case today, unfortunately). This was all while Sahm's dad stayed in Iraq. He needed to support the family, and figure out a way to escape this reality they found themselves in.

    There were some legal opportunities that arose to escape the region. One was to apply for various VISAs, and special asylum-seeking programs, among other ways. There are plenty of hoops to jump through, as one could imagine the vast number of people applying for the limited number of options to relocate anywhere away from Iraq. Note, the population of Iraq during this time was roughly 28 million - which is slightly less than current-day Texas. In Iraq, during this time, Internet cafes were one of the main ways for civilians to be able to, not only communicate with the outside world, but, more importantly, apply for special VISAs, programs, etc. His father was no exception. He used Internet cafes when he could to check emails and investigate the status of his applications and visas.

    After years of this, finally, he and his family were approved for a "Special Immigrant Visa." This visa program was available to any Iraqi or Afghani citizen who worked directly with the U.S. armed forces for more than a year. The toughest criterion was to obtain a favorable written recommendation from a General or Flag Officer in the chain of command in the U.S. armed forces. Only 50 of these visas are awarded, per year. Luckily, Sahm's father was one of the lucky recipients.

    This program allows your family to receive a United States visa but does not include government assistance of any kind once reaching America. Sahm's dad did not care. Anything was better than what they had to endure on a daily basis in Iraq and Syria. Sahm explained since his father began working with the military, he would be sent to conferences and events across the United States. He would bring home American memorabilia for the family with absolutely zero understanding of what they were. "I remember one time he brought us home a baseball jersey." He stated, "It was his goal to give 'this life' to his kids." These gifts were a symbol of a promise that he will provide a better life for them as soon as he can, potentially in America.

    That timeframe of "as soon as he can" was no joke. Once the special visa was an option, Sahm and his family had to pack up whatever they could and return to Iraq within 48 hours. Anything they could not bring with them was donated to neighbors. Once packed, they drove from Syria to Iraq with nothing but desert and gunfire in the distance. Once paperwork was in hand, they made the trip to Jordan (since there was no U.S. Embassy in Iraq at the time). Some would say the hard part, of receiving the visa, was over. However, Sahm's family did not have anywhere to go in the U.S., they had little money, and no assistance from the government to help get situated in their new home 11,000 miles away. The year was 2007, and the Abdulrazzaq family was finally out of the Middle East.

    Luckily, one of Sahm's father's American connections found a connection through a friend of a friend. He was an older Afghan citizen, now settled in America outside of Washington D.C, in Virginia. The only option they had was to live in the basement of this fortunate gentlemen's house for about a year - until they started to get back on their feet. The family of four shared a one-bedroom section of the basement with a tiny kitchenette and bathroom. "We are just coming to America. We don't have any credit scores - how do you trust that these people will make payments? We had no income at the time. It was all basically trust that we would pay" Sahm explained so eloquently of the Afghani man who was empathetic to their situation.

    Sahm Abdulrazzaq (photo courtesy of Sam Janicki; SJanickiPhoto.com)

    He may have been too young at the time to understand how fortunate he was. He used the phrase "blessed" numerous times throughout our conversation. Looking back on this journey, he fully understands his life could be very different. Just to give a statistic to expand on this point, approximately 20,000 Iraqi civilians died during the span of the war. Sahm's father's dangerous alliance with the United States was a risky one. Any wrong move could have changed the family's life forever.

    For the sake of time, let's fast forward a few years. When did wrestling come into the picture? Sahm talked about how he was a troubled kid growing up in middle school. Goofing off in school and getting into a lot of fights - quite the opposite of what you'd expect from a student graduating from West Point in the upcoming weeks... "I was on the wrong track, to be honest with you," Sahm explained bluntly. He was a lost kid trying to find his path in this new homeland of his. It wasn't until one of his friends introduced him to wrestling after Sahm kept winning fights at school. Sahm was not sold at first. "Nah man, that's weird. Those guys wearing the tights and stuff." Sahm laughed as he remembered his initial opinion on the sport he's grown to love. He continued with a huge smile, "I wanted to impress girls. How can I do that? I need to get in the yearbook. That was one of my theories as a ninth grader." I couldn't help but laugh at his thought process - as I was once a teenager too. Teenage boys have some wild theories.

    After some more convincing, Sahm tried out for wrestling. He was Junior Varsity his freshman year. He quickly fell in love with the sport, despite losing to more experienced wrestlers. Something kept pulling him back. I believe the main attraction was the toughness of the sport. "Maybe it's my background, but I like doing hard things - but these workouts were HARD." Sahm continued, "And Coach Knepp really bonded with me. I remember him telling me to stick with it because he honestly saw my potential." Thankfully, Sahm believed in his coach.

    "I would really like to take time to appreciate my high school coaches somewhere in the article… Without them, I wouldn't be here. I wouldn't be half the man I am today without them." This is a great time to shout out Sahm's two main high school coaches, Ty Knepp and Ryan Hunsberger. Both were former George Mason wrestlers, so they knew what Sahm needed to do in order to reach that next level. Having that guidance is a huge advantage. Currently, Hunsberger is part of the coaching staff at VMI.
    "After losses, I found myself always saying 'These kids are not better than me.'" Sahm said. As great coaches do, Coach Knepp started to use that as motivation to help push Sahm. He would often tell his student-athlete "You are better than this kid." If there is a silver lining to Sahm's troubled reputation of being a fighter, he had the acknowledgment to compare fighting to wrestling - which is a softened version of a fight in a weird way. He had toughness, and the hard work aspects. He just needed to improve his wrestling-based techniques. The drive to win was another deciding factor in Sahm's ability to excel at the sport. The right coach can make athletes love the sport. Sahm was, once again, "blessed." This time, it was to be able to learn from such an inspiring coach staff who deeply cared for his future both on and off the mat.

    Sahm's hard work continued in the offseason. Summer workouts, training, and competitions all had to be squeezed into his schedule while working to help support the family. "My dad was working three jobs at a time. My mom spoke broken English as a bank teller." Sahm explained, "I had to scrape money together to enter these tournaments. I would tag along with friends just to get there." His stories of how the family worked as one to help improve little by little are reminiscent of "The American Dream" ethos. Sahm laughed at the stories of him cutting weight or fasting (due to his Muslim faith), while working at Cici's Pizza. Jokingly, he stated, all the years of mental toughness paid off while working that job. "I was the pizza cutter. I sat in front of the oven and cut the pizza when it was done. The temptations were real" he laughed. He has a great sense of humor about life.

    "Once I found wrestling, my life had balance and order. I had a schedule. Wake up, go to school, wrestle, do homework, go to sleep, repeat." From my experience, sometimes this is all a kid needs to get on that so-called "right path." The structure keeps them focused, determined, and looking forward to the next day and improving upon the previous one. Unbeknownst to him, this daily routine that helped him succeed may have been a foreshadowing that he would find himself in some type of military role in the future, maybe sooner than he imagined.

    "My parents really care about academics. I could have been a five-time state champion (wrestler) - my parents did not care. All they cared about was school. That's our Middle Eastern culture." Sahm made a promise to his father that he'd graduate high school with a 4.0 GPA - but he "only" ended up with a 3.987 GPA. This fine balance of academics and athletics was a perfect fit for Army West Point and Coach Scott Green's "it's bigger than wrestling" motto. Interestingly, Coach Green started in 2021, two years after Sahm started. Maybe a little bit of destiny brought them together? Even more so, since Army West Point was not Sahm's initial decision.

    Sahm's desire to join the armed forces was more of a monetary decision than anything. "I understood I wasn't going to get a full athletic scholarship. It was me asking myself, "How can I afford to go to college?" Once again, Sahm's story could be much different. He assumed community college was the way he would be forced to go. Once the ROTC option was more prevalent to him, this was his way in. He was almost dead set on attending George Mason, not far from his hometown in Virginia. "I even had an ROTC scholarship. I had a full ride" Sahm mentioned, looking back on how he ended up here.

    Army West Point came back into the picture once Sahm was pressured by some people in his life. Sahm had a good laugh when he admitted he didn't understand exactly what West Point was at one point before applying. He then stated how he mistakenly only created an account for the application process and did not fully apply to West Point like he originally thought. It all made sense why he never received any feedback. After a few hiccups, he successfully applied and went through the vigorous interview process. "I got very lucky and very blessed because four hundred to five hundred apply and I was chosen with a small handful of students." Sahm humbly said, "If it wasn't for the right people at the right time, I would never…" His sentence tailed off there. The rest was history.

    Sahm Abdulrazzaq (photo courtesy of Sam Janicki; SJanickiPhoto.com)

    Sahm is set to graduate at the end of May. His little brother will be in attendance, as he is one year younger than Sahm - also enrolled at West Point. Sahm and his family have a fascinating story to tell, and I've only scratched the surface. From escaping the war-torn country of Iraq to living in a one-bedroom section of a basement - to becoming an outstanding scholar-athlete - to now graduating from West Point, all while his brother will follow in his footsteps next year.

    The story, in a peculiar way, comes full circle. Sahm's family home was destroyed the night the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003. His father assisted the United States soldiers - mainly as a translator. Because of this, the U.S. helped Sahm's family come to America. Fast forwarding, Sahm will begin to officially serve the country that potentially changed his life forever. It's the type of story that can be poetic and beautiful - or poetic and twisted? To further my own insight on this theory - I asked Sahm's opinion if this entire story has (for lack of a better word) an ironic ending? I can tell he'd thought of this before, as a little smile came across his face. It's hard to tell who the missile belonged to. It was not rare to have Iraqi missiles miss their American targets. Without knowing who was responsible, it was impossible to tell who was at fault for Sahm's house crumbling to the ground. In reality, his family had other priorities at the time - trying to find food, water and shelter. And simply staying alive was the main goal. I suppose, sometimes, the root of the issue is not the most pressing issue to solve when the situation is literally life or death.

    He does not fault anyone for what happened to him. "I've been asked that question before. And I don't like to think it's weird because I've been provided so many opportunities in the United States. I've been blessed with so many people helping me along the way. I believe Iraq is hopefully healing and getting into a better state. I'd love for Iraq to heal. I don't want any wars there."

    He's even had thoughts of visiting his Iraqi hometown. "Maybe once I achieve all my goals in America, I would definitely go back and visit" Sahm stated.

    It was evident how much gratitude Sahm had for others. He also realizes you need some luck to become who you are today. If his dad had zigged instead of zagged - the outcome of this story could be very different. If the generous Afghani man declined to let Sahm's family live in his basement, Sahm's family could have ended up elsewhere in America - and who knows what Sahm would have done. If Sahm never agreed to wrestle, or quit because he didn't make the varsity line-up, his opportunities may have been more limited when exploring colleges. All-in-all, as challenging as Sahm's life was - and, obviously, no one should have to endure what he did - maybe it was a blessing in disguise - as harsh as that sounds. Sahm overcame every obstacle thrown at him. Sometimes, life's hardships create opportunity. For a portion of the world's population, opportunity is not even in the realm of possibilities.

    I am honored to help Sahm tell his story. It is incredibly motivating. His one simple quote still sticks with me. He nonchalantly said, "Coming from where I was, I was not expected to be anywhere." Thanks to his opportunities, and the supporting cast he met along the way, his "anywhere" destination did not come to fruition solely because of wrestling. Remember, the quote "Life is more than wrestling"? This is 100% true in the case of Sahm. However, wrestling was the vehicle used to help get Sahm "anywhere."

    For more on the Abdulrazzaq family see the interview Sahm and Fahad released earlier this week at the West Point Center for Oral History Listen Here

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