"Fessy" Shafaat has become a star in the reality television world, with the former "Big Brother" participant having advanced to the final round of MTV's "The Challenge: Total Madness," which will be shown Wednesday night at 8.
But sometimes Faysal Shafaat, the former University of Tennessee at Chattanooga tight end and two-time Football Championship Subdivision All-American, is reminded of his more humble roots.
In March he was at a birthday party for Keionta Davis, the former UTC defensive lineman and three-time All-American, while hanging around with former teammates C.J. Board and Tommy Hudson.
"They were all calling me Faysal," Shafaat said recently on the GH3 Podcast. "And it was weird because I haven't heard that in so long because everyone just calls me Fessy. So it was kind of weird hearing that, but I don't mind because everybody's always butchered my name since I was young."
Shafaat has also carried himself with confidence and a certain swagger since he was young.
A standout athlete at Orlando Lutheran Academy, Shafaat was a high school star in both football and basketball. At one point he thought he was headed to the University of Illinois, but when that opportunity fell through, it opened the door for the UTC football program and Russ Huesman, the Mocs' head coach at the time.
Huesman sent his defensive coordinator, Adam Fuller, down to Florida to check out Shafaat, whose first question when told about the Mocs' interest was "Do they offer full scholarships?"
When told yes, Shafaat had an interest in the Southern Conference program. Fuller and UTC had to make that offer, though — but the recruit had no doubt that would happen.
"I gave him my highlight tape, and he was like, 'Well, if I like it, I'll give you a call back tomorrow," Shafaat recalled. "I told him, 'You'll like it.'
"He called me back an hour after the meeting. I remember it like it was yesterday."
One dream ends
Shafaat made sure the Mocs liked what he did in college, too.
After redshirting in 2010, he totaled 125 catches, 1,204 receiving yards and 18 touchdown receptions — a number that still ranks fourth in program history — while appearing in 48 games (44 starts) over four seasons. In addition to his All-America recognition, he was a SoCon All-Freshman selection and a three-time All-SoCon selection.
However, those accolades didn't garner the sort of the interest the 6-foot-4, 245-pound Shafaat initially assumed he would receive. Although he didn't really expect to be picked during the 2015 NFL draft, he believed he would at least sign as a free agent, allowing him the opportunity to prove himself in a camp setting.
He waited. The call from a professional football team never came.
"It was hard for a while," Shafaat said. "I couldn't even watch the 2015 NFL season because I knew I was going to see people I played against and other tight ends that were my same class, seeing them perform and feeling like I could do that. It definitely humbled me, because in college I thought I was the hottest thing out, so that was definitely a reality check for me."
An opportunity did arise from that disappointment, although in a much different line of work.
Shafaat was doing some substitute teaching and watching clips of "American Ninja Warrior," a show in which top athletes tackle tough obstacle courses around the country. With his confidence high as usual, Shafaat decided he could handle the physical challenge, so he tried out for the show but didn't make it past the qualifying round.
He then sent an audition tape to CBS for "Survivor," which didn't work out but led to a spot on Season 20 of "Big Brother," where he was the ninth contestant voted off in summer 2018. That paved the way for his spot on the 35th season of "The Challenge," which he has called "his best experience" by far.
In the reality TV world, one of the things about Shafaat that surprises people the most is his size.
"I think people are so used to reality TV people coming on and trying to prove themselves. People saying, 'Oh yeah, I was supposed to go pro,'" he said. "Or, 'Oh yeah, I was good back in the day.' But I'm like, I know everybody says that, but like, I was really all those things and I'm really as big and as fast as I say I am.
"Then fans see me in person, and they're like, 'You're massive,' and it's because most reality TV people are in shape, but they're like 5-foot-9 at the most."
So he wasn't surprised when, during the taping of one episode of the current series, he was thrown into the elimination round, where he won to stay alive.
"The thing is, when they throw you in, you don't know what type of elimination it is," Shafaat said. "So it was funny because they tried to throw me in because obviously they saw me as a threat. And it ended up being a pole wrestle, and we basically do that type of (stuff) in mat throws in football every offseason.
"It's a little different style; usually the bigger man wins, but it's also about body control. And I had both: I knew I was bigger and I knew how to maneuver my body, because that's basically what football players do. That's why we're so strong, because we literally move people out of the way as a sport."
Shafaat was supposed to be taping another show, but due to the coronavirus pandemic, the status of that is up in the air. He has plans to host a tailgate for the Florida-Georgia football game in Jacksonville on Halloween — in the event he doesn't receive a callback to do another season of "The Challenge," which frequently brings back popular contestants — but he has started to invest some of his earnings into stocks, as he said that "reality TV money comes in one lump sum."
"I was kind of going stir crazy, getting cabin fever because all the things I do on a daily basis, I couldn't do anymore," he said. "Literally my life consists of going to the gym, traveling, going to hang out socially, and all of that stuff was shut down."
So how has he been managing?
"I've been going for walks," he said. "I never used to go for walks, but it's so simple to get out of the house, you know, just get some fresh air, get some sun."
And in the crazy reality TV world in which "Fessy" lives, sometimes simple is what's necessary.