“He’s so fast,” CB
And yet …
“They can’t put you in if you don’t know what you’re doing,” Hakim said.
You see, Hakim played soccer for most of his life. As such, his football timeline dates back only to his senior year of high school, and he didn’t take up receiver until junior college.
Sure, he has the natural skills to develop into a dynamic NFL player, but without a wealth of football knowledge to fall back on, he’ll only be so productive.
Enter Az-Zahir Hakim, Saalim’s older brother who played from 1998-2006 as a wide receiver and return specialist for the Rams, Lions and Saints, scoring 32 touchdowns along the way.
Az-Zahir has been keeping busy during his post-football life as the director of sports relations with Symmetry for Health, a postural realignment company. He's also been spending countless hours doing everything he can to ensure Saalim achieves the same level of professional pigskin success.
“He kind of saw how it was done throughout the years growing up,” Az-Zahir, 37, said of his 24-year-old brother, “but he was so young at the time and didn’t really understand the game. I know he has a lot of God-given talent, but I’ve been trying to get him to become more of a complete player on the field instead of just knowing his play.”
Az-Zahir stresses that Saalim must recognize his presnap assignment, alignment, technique and coverages, processing the play in the same way the quarterback would and allowing himself to play “just a little bit faster.”
Referencing his "Greatest Show on Turf" glory days, Az-Zahir said, “That’s one thing that we specialized in was route-running and playing fast. As long as you’re playing faster than your opponent, you’re going to keep them on their toes, and then you shouldn’t have any problem being successful.”
Some other receiving tips from Az-Zahir to Saalim?
■ Transfer his energy from route-running to blocking the moment the ball is thrown to a different receiver.
■ Keep his head up to watch the covering defender.
■ And perhaps most important, be consistent.
All these things and more were practiced on a day-to-day basis a year and a half ago as Saalim trained alongside quarterbacks Drew Brees, Alex Smith, Carson Palmer and others.
But chances are Saalim won’t make this year’s 53-man roster purely for his wide receiver abilities. He’ll likely have to emerge as a return threat as well.
“That was the fastest way that I was able to get on the field,” Az-Zahir said. “We had Isaac Bruce, Torry Holt and Ricky Proehl, so all the receiver positions were filled. I had to know how to play the wide receiver position, but I was going to have to play special teams to get on the field.”
Seeing parallels between his situation then and Saalim’s now, Az-Zahir called up John Carney, his buddy and the former NFL kicker, to boot some balls to Saalim throughout this past offseason.
“I thought that’d be quite beneficial for Saalim,” Az-Zahir said.
Of course, there’s only so much preparation one can do before it’s time to step on stage and show what you can do.
In three weeks’ time, Saalim and the rest of his teammates will trek up to SUNY Cortland to compete in a multitude of heated position battles at training camp. Saalim’s path from one of 90 to one of 53 will be as steep as anyone’s, but thanks to Az-Zahir’s dedication and his own willingness to learn, he’s more prepared than ever before.
“He took the initiative to work really hard in the offseason,” Az-Zahir said. “I can tell that he’s dialed in and he wants to really take his game to that next level to be able to play a role in helping this team win a Super Bowl. I can see the determination in his eyes, and I think the sky is the limit.”
“My older brother taught me a ton, and everything feels so much easier for me now,” Saalim said. “I feel way more comfortable running every route, getting in and out of my breaks, and controlling my speed. I’m still learning, but everything feels great right now.”