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Re-living ‘99: Az-Zahir Hakim’s career day brings Rams joy, touchdowns vs Bengals

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A difficult childhood with a happy ending, an unlikely juggernaut vs a feeble foe as the Rams get to 3-0

Az-Zahir Hakim #81

Re-living ‘99: A week-to-week look back on one of the greatest seasons in NFL history.

Az-Zahir Hakim was born on June 3, 1977. He’s had an interesting life, though if he couldn’t run a 4.3-4.4 he may not have had any stories written about him. Instead his stories could just be spread via rumors at school or in the neighborhood, and were it not for his athletic abilities, who know what would have become of “Az.”

He was born in Los Angeles and raised mostly in Gardena and South Central. When he was 10, his father came to him and his brother and basically told them that he’d have to become a fugitive if he was going to be able to be their dad at all.

“Boys, look here, Daddy’s got a problem,” your father tells you and your brother. “I’m in some trouble with the law, and we’ve got a decision to make. I can go to jail for the rest of your childhood, and the only time you’ll see me is when you come to visit. Or I can go away for a while, and I’ll stay in touch as much as I can. What do y’all want me to do?”

“We don’t want you to go to jail, Daddy,” you and your brother tell him. “Do what you’ve got to do and come on back.”

It’s decided, then. There’s just one kicker: “The only thing is, you won’t be able to tell people I’m your father. People will ask questions, but no matter what happens, you’ll have to say you never knew your dad.”

Az’s father Abdul started using cocaine in 1979 and then in ‘87, tried to purchase a kilo of the drug to distribute. But the dealers were being watched by the D.E.A. and the bad timing, poor decisions of Abdul led to a 13-year prison sentence. He decided instead to evade, move to Indianapolis, and see his sons or send them money when he could. As Az got better at football, his father found it harder and harder to successfully remain on the lam.

Among the things that could keep Az out of trouble and his mind off of his father’s troubles were football and his incredible speed. Because it was the early 90s, before the widespread availability of the internet, it’s hard to find much about Hakim’s high school experience or statistics. Here’s one thing I found:

Hakim graduated from Fairfax High School in 1994. In high school he was a standout wide receiver and cornerback. He played some quarterback and filled in a running back when needed.

Given that this is in Los Angeles, you may not be surprised to learn that Fairfax High School has quite a few notable alumni. From Mickey Rooney to Mila Kunis and Az-Zahir Hakim mixed in between. He was there about 20 years after Tito Jackson, 11 years after Demi Moore plus Anthony Kiedis and Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, eight years after Slash from Guns N’ Roses, and two years after David Arquette, But Hakim was not going to be a famous rock star or actor, his skills were focused in sports.

He received at least one offer from a Pac-10 school, but according to this story, the University of Washington withdrew interest because of low SAT scores.

The Huskies were high on his list of possible choices as a high-school senior. He had a recruiting visit scheduled but canceled. When he didn’t score high enough on his Scholastic Assessment Test early, Washington backed away.

“I felt they lost their belief in me,” said Hakim

Instead, Hakim committed to San Diego State because schools have different definition of “school.” The Aztecs had not won a bowl game since 1969, their first year as a Division-I (“University Division” then) football team, when they went 11-0 under the legendary Don Coryell. Hakim’s first year with San Diego State was 1994.

The year after they sent a legendary college running back named Marshall Faulk into the NFL with the second overall pick to the Indianapolis Colts.

Needing a new spark on offense, first-year head coach Ted Tollner turned the offense to running back Wayne Pittman. The leading receivers were Curtis Shearer, Will Blackwell, and DeAndre Maxwell. But the speedy Hakim had 17 catches for 370 yards as a true freshman; his 21.8 yards per catch would’ve led the conference had he qualified and ranked second nationally after Jimmy Oliver at TCU. It was better than fellow collegiates Eric Moulds, Marvin Harrison, and Keyshawn Johnson.

It was, however, only on 17 catches. Hakim would get an opportunity to showcase himself as a leading receiver as a sophomore.

After a Week 1 win against Cal and then consecutive losses to Oklahoma and BYU, the Aztecs got off six wins in a row with one of the most high-powered offenses in college football. The star of the team may have been running back George Jones (1,842 rushing yards, 23 touchdowns) and the leading receiver was Blackwell (1,207 yards) but Hakim may have been as explosive as any player in the country.

As an 18-year-old sophomore, Hakim caught 57 passes for 1,022 yards and eight touchdowns. His 17.9 yards per catch ranked third in the WAC but was outside the top-20 nationally. But he was young for his class and to be a 1,000-yard receiver. San Diego State was ranked 25th after the winning streak but that’s when they lost to Wyoming and came back to reality.

Hakim would soon face some harsh realities of his own.

I can’t find the exact reasons, but Hakim played in only seven and eight games respectively over his final two seasons at San Diego State. He was really consistent, posting 36 and 37 catches with 635 and 595 yards in his junior and senior campaigns. But a lot happened to him as a senior.

First of all, Hakim and two teammates were arrested on rape charges during fall practices in 1997. The charges against Hakim were quickly dropped but the accusation alone was damaging.

Plays. Good or bad, that’s what Hakim wanted to talk about. Even his first-half fumble on the Huskies’ 1-yard line would have been easier to discuss than the rape accusation that turned this on-field star into a cautious, unwilling interview.

The 5-foot-10, 175-pound senior lowered his eyes and shook his head as the question finally was asked.

“No comment” is all he’d say.

Hakim and two San Diego State teammates were arrested on rape charges the week before fall practice began and held on $1 million bail for 24 hours before charges were dropped because of insufficient evidence.

Tests showed a DNA match with a teammate (who did not make the Washington trip) but not Hakim’s.

“I saw the stuff on ESPN, and he was already out (of jail),” said Washington strong safety Tony Parrish. “The sad thing about it is he’s got this pasted on his backside.

“His name is going to be tarnished.”

To be clear, there is no sufficient evidence of any wrongdoing that I know of and the D.A. at the time did not sound that suspicious of Hakim and his teammates after looking at the evidence.

“They will not be charged with crimes at this times. There are substantial questions as to whether these men are guilty of these crimes,″ said District Attorney Paul Pfingst. “But we haven’t ruled out charging any defendants.″

The other thing that happened to Hakim that year was that his fugitive father could barely stand to only watch his son play football without rooting for him. Eventually, his love of cheering for Az led to his arrest.

After a schoolboy career highlighted by a six-touchdown game in his senior year, he accepted a scholarship to San Diego State. Whenever Abdul Sr. showed up for one of Az’s games at San Diego State, he would sit in the visiting team’s section and scan the crowd with a pair of binoculars to make sure he wasn’t being watched. At times, though, Abdul’s emotions got the better of his discretion.

After watching his son, who was a junior at the time, catch his third touchdown pass of the day against Oklahoma, Abdul stood, cheered wildly and ripped off his windbreaker to reveal a jersey with Az’s number on the front and HAKIM on the back. “I always felt like I was on the verge of getting caught,” says Abdul Sr. “I had a lot of close calls. But right then I was so excited, I didn’t care if they caught me.”

Pretty soon after, people in the crowd started to say, “Oh that’s Hakim’s dad.” A TV crew approached him, he fled the game, and on November 24, 1997, U.S. Marshals found him and took him in, telling him that his son is “a heck of a football player.”

After a four-year career at San Diego State, Hakim put his childhood and recent issues behind and entered the 1998 NFL Draft. Peyton Manning and Ryan Leaf famously went 1-2, the St. Louis Rams took defensive end Grant Wistrom sixth overall. They next took running back Robert Holcombe in the second, defensive end Leonard Little in the third, and then Az-Zahir Hakim and tight end Roland Williams in the fourth.

Sidenote: The Cincinnati Bengals went hard on defense that year, drafting a pair of linebackers in the first round with Takeo Spikes at 13 and Brian Simmons at 17. they took defensive back Artrell Hawkins in the second and another linebacker, Steve Foley, in the third. The Bengals were dead last, 30th, in defense in 1998.

They were again dead last, but this time 31st, in defense in 1999.

Week 1 - Rams 27, Ravens 10

Week 2 - BYE

Week 3 - Rams 35, Falcons 7

Week 4 - St. Louis Rams at Cincinnati Bengals, October 3, 1999

The red hot 2-0 Rams were coming off of impressive victories over two of the better teams in the NFL in Week 4 and what they weren’t facing was “impressive” when it came to the winless Bengals. Cincinnati had lost by one point to the Tennessee Titans in Week 1, then suffered blowout losses to the San Diego Chargers and Carolina Panthers.

The Bengals were starting quarterback Jeff Blake but peppering in Akili Smith — the number three pick in 1999 — as much as they could, which was often because the games were usually getting out of hand anyway. That would also be the case against St. Louis.

I could not immediately find the full game but here is a long recap of the game highlights:

After a quick three-and-out by Kurt Warner and the offense, Cincinnati managed to put together an impressive drive to open things up. Blake started the day with a 15-yard strike to Tony McGee, then picked up a third-and-9 with a 10-yard completion to Darnay Scott; midway through the drive, Smith entered and completed a 13-yard pass to Willie Jackson. But the drive stalled just as they hit the edge of the red zone and the Bengals settled for a 36-yard field goal by Doug Pelfrey.

They would later come to worship the short amount of time in which they had the lead.

On third-and-five, Warner hit Isaac Bruce for a 60-yard gain, setting the Rams up at the CIN11. Two plays went nowhere, but on third down Warner found Hakim at the far side of the end zone and the Rams went up 7-3.

This was only the second receiving touchdown of Hakim’s career at that point. As a rookie, he broke his hand before Week 1 and never was able to jive with the offense.

Hakim’s NFL career got off to a rocky start. After St. Louis picked him in the fourth round of the ‘98 draft, he broke his left hand during the preseason, then couldn’t crack the lineup.The Rams would finish that season 4-12, but they had a heck of a scout team: In practice Hakim bonded with a third-string quarterback named Kurt Warner. While Warner’s only action was a token appearance in the season finale, Hakim showcased his skills in a Dec. 13 upset of the New England Patriots, scoring touchdowns on a nine-yard reception and a 34-yard reverse.

After two games in 1999, Hakim had caught seven passes for 80 yards. He had returned five punts for 57 yards after not returning any punts as a rookie. That would not be the case against the Bengals.

Though Warner would lose a fumble later in the first, the Rams defense completely stifled Blake, Smith, or anyone else Cincinnati wanted to try to throw at them. Early in the second quarter, Warner marched down the field (three catches for 62 yards by Bruce on that drive) and setup Holcombe for a one-yard touchdown.

14-3.

Torry Holt then fumbled away a ball that was recovered by Spikes but Blake and Corey Dillon couldn’t get the Bengals past the Rams’ 40. They punted it to St. Louis and Hakim returned it 26 yards. Two plays later, Warner hit Hakim for a 51-yard touchdown, his second of the day. Moments before the play the broadcast said, “He’d probably be a starter for most teams, but he’s the number three receiver for the Rams.”

The Bengals then missed a 33-yard field goal attempt at the end of the first half, but at least they’d get the ball to start the second, right? Right?

It’s the Bengals, everybody.

Instead of making the field goal and getting the ball back and scoring to potentially make the score 21-13, Cincinnati missed the attempt and then went 3-and-out on the first drive of the second half. Will Brice punted the ball 61 yards and Hakim muffed the punt — a theme we won’t soon forget with Hakim.

But in this case he would pick it back up and start running with it. He ran with it 84 yards, only stopping because there was no more field left. It was Hakim’s third touchdown of the day and instead of 21-13, it was 28-3; enough for Akili Smith to play the rest of the game for the Bengals.

The teams traded punts and then Keith Lyle intercepted Smith for his second and final pick of the season; Lyle would play in nine games before getting injured and only returning for the final playoff push. That gave the Rams the ball at their own 38 and Warner/Faulk/Bruce/Holt put St. Louis at the CIN18 late in the third quarter. Warner stood tall in the pocket, waited, and threw a strike to the right side of the field for another touchdown.

Another touchdown for the Rams.

Another touchdown for Warner.

Another touchdown for Az-Zahir Hakim.

The Rams went up 35-3 and Hakim scored his fourth touchdown. It is the only three-touchdown game of his career as a receiver. His only four-touchdown game. And at 5 for 147, his only career game with triple-digit return yardage. As exciting as he was with the ball in his hands, Hakim only returned two punts for touchdowns and it so happens to be on the same day he caught three touchdowns.

St. Louis added a field goal later and then Smith led an 80-yard fourth quarter drive that resulted in him scoring from one yard out when the game was more than one yard out of hand.

Final Score: Rams 38, Bengals 10

Record: 3-0

Kurt Warner: 17-of-21, 310 yards, 3 TD, 0 INT

Marshall Faulk: 11 carries, 23 yards, three catches, 17 yards

Leading Receiver: Isaac Bruce, six catches for 152 yards

Torry Holt: Four catches for 58 yards

Az-Zahir Hakim: Three catches for 78 yards, three touchdowns, 147 punt return yards, 1 TD

Sacks: London Fletcher, Billy Jenkins, Wistrom

Interceptions: Lyle

Game Recap (ESPN):

“Warner, Hakim propel Rams to 3-0 start”

The NFL’s worst team of the 1990s? Kurt Warner and Az-Zahir Hakim proved that it’s not the St. Louis Rams. Not even close.

Hakim tied the franchise record with four touchdowns — three on passes from Warner, another on a punt return — and the Rams defeated the Cincinnati Bengals 38-10 Sunday to shed their distinction as the league’s worst team of the ‘90s.

As the decade winds down, the Rams (3-0) are anything but bad.

“Everything’s going so well right now,” said Warner, the first quarterback in the last 50 years to throw three touchdown passes in each of his first three starts. “We just want to continue to roll with the confidence we’ve got now.”

The Bengals (0-4) have no confidence, no wins and no argument when it comes to bestowing the title of most forlorn team of the ‘90s. Heading into the game, they were tied with the Rams at 99 losses for the decade.

They became the first to lose 100 and they did it decisively.

“We were hoping he wouldn’t be as accurate as he was, but he’s hot,” Bengals cornerback Artrell Hawkins said. “For a guy who played Arena Football, he’s a full-fledged NFL quarterback.”

Once Warner figured out a few new wrinkles the Bengals threw at him early, he completed seven consecutive passes to get the Rams rolling.

“There’s no way I could have done what I’ve done by myself,” Warner said of his three-TD spree. “We have so many guys who are special, and a different one comes to the forefront each week.”

Hakim, a fourth-round draft pick out of San Diego State last year, hadn’t scored four touchdowns in a game since high school.

“I kept the ball from the punt return,” Hakim said. “Hopefully, the touchdowns keep rolling.”

Afterward, the Rams’ locker room was filled with cheering, singing and talk of a home game next week against San Francisco.

“It’s a huge game,” Bruce said. “It’s a team we haven’t had a lot of success with. One thing I can tell you: There won’t be a letdown. If there was going to be a letdown, it would have been this week.”

GAME NOTES Three other Rams have scored four touchdowns in a game: Bob Shaw in 1949, Elroy Hirsch in 1951 and Harold Jackson in 1973. The last time the Rams opened 3-0 was 1995, when they won their first four games and finished 7-9

Biggest Takeaway:

We now know that Hakim peaked in 1999, when he was just 22 years old, but what success he did have outside of ball protection helped the Rams show that they aren’t just a three-weapon team. Even if they were, these were three Hall of Fame weapons, but it was true: Hakim could have been starting for a lot of teams. The fact that he was Warner’s fourth or fifth option emphasizes how insane the ‘99 Rams really were.

Hakim was also a huge fan of his situation:

“Not only was he my coach, but he was my friend. He cared about his players, each one of us as individuals. He really took the time to get to know us as people,” said Hakim.

“I thought that was very special because I played for five different organizations and I had many head coaches, and I think Dick Vermeil really separated himself from everybody that I played for. He definitely made an impact on me as a player, especially the little things, the details. I wouldn’t be who I am, I wouldn’t be the player I am, I wouldn’t be the coach I am today if it wasn’t for Dick Vermeil.”

Meanwhile, Warner was now tied with Brad Johnson for the league lead in touchdown passes. Johnson had thrown nine touchdowns and no picks over four games, Warner had nine and two over three. Warner’s 125 QB rating was tops in the NFL, followed by Johnson at 119.9, Steve McNair at 119.4 (in one game), and Drew Bledsoe at 104.4. Warner’s 68.9 completion percentage also ranked first and his 9.93 Y/A ranked first over any player who had made more than one start at that point.

Bruce had caught 17 passes for 312 yards, ranking 13th overall in receiving yards behind players who had mostly played in four games already; the only exception being Harrison, who had 422 yards in three games with Manning. Terry Glenn had 544 yards in four games with Bledsoe.

For this time being, Hakim led St. Louis in touchdown receptions.

Hakim would play two more years with the Rams before signing a big free agent deal with the Detroit Lions. He’d spend three years with the Lions, then one with the New Orleans Saints, before ending his career back in Detroit in 2006.

He either was in the wrong spot or didn’t prove to be a great fit for the NFL, as throws to Hakim were perhaps more detrimental than good during his initial two years with the Lions: he caught only 86 of 190 targets; during those two seasons, 71 players had at least 150 targets and of those, Hakim ranked 70th in catch percentage: 45.3%.

He bounced around a little bit after 2006, signing a contract with the Miami Dolphins but never playing for them, then going to the UFL, a league that lasted four years. He was mostly recently coaching receivers in the AAF before taking the same job with the St. Louis Battlehawks in the now-defunct XFL reboot.

In 2001, he started the Az Hakim Foundation, “to fully address the socioeconomic disparities and community trauma that alters the lives of families affected by incarceration.”

“Growing up with an incarcerated parent was a difficult experience because I had to grow up fast. I knew it was important for me to stay focused on my goals. I never let the incarceration of my dad deter me from accomplishing my dreams, but I also never ignored the realities of my family’s circumstances. There will be challenges in life we just have to believe in ourselves and stay focused” - Az-Zahir Hakim

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