FLORHAM PARK, N.J.
For Jets defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson, there will be a swirl of emotions when he starts Sunday night's season opener against the Cowboys.
Not only will it be his first NFL game, but he'll also be playing only a few miles from where he grew up. And then there is the added significance of playing on the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
But it turns out Wilkerson's story of a local athlete trying to make good on a big night, for him and his country, comes with a bit of a twist. He is Muslim.
"I'm going through this thing the same as everyone else," he said Wednesday. "It was a tragic day on Sept. 11, but on Sunday, I'm going to play my behind off, as if I was a part of those families who lost loved ones."
Wilkerson was in his eighth-grade class in Linden, N.J., when the attacks occurred. He bristles at the idea that Islam was the sole reason behind them. "Me and my religion had nothing to do with it," he said. "I just felt sorry for the people whose lives got taken and for their families."
Wilkerson said he has not felt prejudice personally, although he gets reminders of how differently some people view Muslims. His mother, Janice, wears a hijab, the head covering worn by Muslim women, and he often notices people staring at her.
"People look at my mom funny, and make faces," he said. "They don't act normally when they see her."
The day of the attacks, Janice Wilkerson explained to her four children that these were the cowardly acts of twisted individuals and disavowed them as Muslims.
"I explained to them that those people, they're not Muslims, they're terrorists, they're extremists," she said in an interview.
"Islam is a peaceful religion. It's a way of life. To be a Muslim is to submit to the teachings of Allah, and He says you should never bring harm to anyone, especially women and children. Muslims lost their lives on that day. We, as a Muslim family, truly our hearts go out to people who lost their loved ones."
Janice Wilkerson will be in the stands Sunday, and she knows that people will look at her. "That's OK, that's not going to bother me," she said. "I'm going to be there for my son."
Teammates have embraced the rookie, and his religion has not been an issue. He did not request special dispensation during the holy month of Ramadan, when Muslims traditionally fast during the daytime. Because of his involvement in sports since early childhood, Wilkerson has not fasted during Ramadan, but does plan to do so at some point.
Teammate Bart Scott said Wilkerson's religion is irrelevant.
"My roommate in college was Muslim, so what's the big deal?" Scott said. "9/11 affected everybody. There wasn't a religion that it didn't affect. I'm sure [Wilkerson] felt the same loss and sense of devastation that everyone on the East Coast felt."
He did. It's why his NFL debut will have even more meaning.
"For me," he said, "I'm going to go out there and play as if I was part of those families that were hurt that day."