DURHAM, N.H. — If Michelle Shafaat had gotten her way, the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga football team's starting tight end truly would have been Awesome. As it is, her son Faysal is an All-American and a three-time All-Southern Conference player who frustrated opposing defenses as much as public-address announcers trying to pronounce his name correctly.
For the record, it's "Fessel."
"I love unique names and I wanted to name him 'Awesome' when he was born, but my husband wouldn't let me," his mother said with a laugh. "Can you imagine him playing college football with that name? But I had a friend whose name is Faysal, so we went with that."
In Friday night's season-ending FCS quarterfinal loss at top-ranked New Hampshire, Shafaat again proved what a valuable receiver he was by leading the Mocs in receiving yards. He caught six passes for 90 yards, including a 26-yarder that converted a third-and-13 into a first down and set up a go-ahead field goal early in the fourth quarter.
Just hours after returning home from the heartbreak of that loss, Shafaat was one of five proud senior players to graduate early Saturday afternoon.
An Orlando native, Shafaat first had to overcome a terrible case of homesickness before his career could take off. Mom made multiple trips to Chattanooga during his first year, despite the fact he was redshirting and wouldn't play, to help him adjust.
"My freshman year I didn't know anything about Chattanooga, and I got homesick a lot and thought about leaving," Faysal said. "But after a while I fell in love with Chattanooga, and I've really enjoyed my time here."
Once he got on the field, the 6-foot-5, 250-pound Shafaat became one of the Mocs' top targets and has been especially productive in goal-line and short-yardage situations, serving as a security blanket for quarterback Jacob Huesman, who was confident if he put the ball anywhere near Shafaat, the tight end would come down with it.
He ended his final season with 34 catches for 413 yards and five touchdowns and has been projected by multiple NFL draft websites as having pro potential.
When he arrived, Shafaat made a reputation for himself by competing in practice like he had a point to prove, even taunting older defenders by flipping the ball at them after he would make a catch against them.
"The older guys hated me that first year because they thought I was a cocky freshman," Faysal said. "I just wanted to prove that I could play with these guys.
"I remember coming in as a freshman and the older guys said before you blink it'll be your senior year. They were right. I'm very proud of the things we've accomplished together for this team. We came in when it was rough, but we've laid a foundation for things to be better."
Michelle's Facebook page is dedicated to her son and the UTC football team's accomplishments. She has put thousands of miles on the family car, traveling to every home and road game the Mocs have played since Faysal's freshman year. But Friday night was the first time she wasn't in the stands while her son was on the field. With graduation scheduled for Saturday, she had to choose between going to the game or being there as her son accepted his diploma.
"As heart-wrenching as it is, Faysal told me that it was OK to watch the game since it's on ESPN and he would rather I be there for his graduation," said Michelle, who left Orlando and headed for UTC early Friday morning, stopping just outside Atlanta to watch the game. "We're not a wealthy family, so paying for his college education was a definite concern. Faysal took it upon himself to earn his way by having good grades, and he was determined to play college ball.
"Proud doesn't even begin to emote what I feel. I am completely beaming. I've driven for three days on no sleep. I've flown a few times, but most of the time, unless there's an outrageous deal, I normally drive. I've driven for three days on no sleep, leaving Friday and getting back on Sunday. But it's all worth it. I get the same adrenaline rush they do coming on the field by driving to the game."
Contact Stephen Hargis at email@example.com or 423-757-6293.