Nearly six years ago, Mustafa “Moose” Jalil made a super early commitment to San Diego State. He was barely a junior in high school then, playing on the defensive line for Cathedral Catholic High School in San Diego.
Intensely dedicated to family, Jalil wanted to stay close to home—even though he had BCS scholarship offers and was considered a national top 100 recruit by some services.
On Saturday, he faces off against his hometown college—the Aztecs he once saw himself playing for. When the now-senior got an offer to come play for the Cal Golden Bears in the Pac-12, it was an offer he couldn’t pass up.
Jalil isn’t your average every day college football player. His story is unique. His parents both came to the United States from Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation of the 1980s—looking for a better life, like many who come to our country. His parents–father Seyed and mother Najia–married in Virginia and in 1993, Moose was born.
In Jalil’s home, the family usually speaks Dari—which most Afghanis use. It is similar to Farsi, a language spoken in much of central Asia and especially in the area once known as Persia. These are the languages of the peoples who live near what was once the great Silk Road—the ancient trading route which connected China with the west. These are a proud, hard working people, great merchants, outstanding businessmen.
In fact, Jalil’s father Seyed has taken the business acumen he developed in his home country and used it in San Diego, opening up a successful restaurant serving tradition central Asian cuisine. The name? Kabul West—obviously named after their home city in Afghanistan. The younger Jalil has taken that industrious side and used it to become a great student and player. He is proud of who he is and where his people came from.
It is so rare to find a college football player with his Afghani ethnic background that sometimes other players make the mistake of thinking he’s from another ethnic group.
“Even some of the dudes on the team, when I first came to Cal, asked me if I was Mexican or Samoan, no one even expects you to be Afghani,” Jalil told HERO Sports. “Being asked if I’m Polynesian is actually a compliment. They’re great players. I guess if I shaved off my arm hair I could pass as Polynesian.”
Cal is a perfect place for Jalil. Not only is it an outstanding academic institution, it also is well-known for being an open-minded campus, willing to embrace people of all backgrounds. This is especially important considering today’s friction between nations from the Middle East and the United States. With today being the 14th anniversary of 9/11, it is a sensitive subject.
“Even before 9/11 happened, it was sensitive,” Jalil said. “My family has a box truck for our restaurant, and we had to take off the paint job … When I see fireworks, of course I have no idea what it is like in Afghanistan because I’m a person raised in America, but when I see fireworks it makes me wonder about what it is like there. Because over there, when you see something like that it isn’t joyful. It could come with loud crashes, bombs. It makes me thankful, that my parents created a new life for me and my family here.”
Dealing with occasional societal challenges isn’t the only thing Jalil has weathered, especially during his college years. He was swayed to switch from San Diego State to Cal by then head coach Jeff Tedford. Jalil committed to Tedford in his office in the spring of 2010—about six months after originally picking the Aztecs. Jalil just couldn’t pass up the opportunity. The Golden Bears wanted him, and had been to bowl games in seven straight seasons.
Jalil began his career by playing in all 13 games as a true freshman in 2011. He started against Stanford, had three tackles against Oregon and registered stops against Southern Cal and Texas in the bowl game. But it was up-and-down in 2012 and 2013. He went through injuries, picked up the program’s Joe Roth Award for courage, sportsmanship and attitude—but things weren’t quite going Jalil’s way. And there was a coaching change.
“I guess it’s been like a roller coaster, not a big one but one of those little kiddie roller coasters,” Jalil said. “Coming in freshman year it was great. Sophomore and junior years were nowhere near expectations. I was hurt and then we had coaching changes and everything, but at the end of the day, we still have Cal on our helmet in blue and gold, and even with everything that has happened, nothing changes that. I think that’s the thing that matters.”
Cal head coach Sonny Dykes said Jalil is a quiet and reserved player, or at least he was at first. He’s also fiercely determined and as loyal a player as he has coached. He’s rare, not just because of his background.
“I think his background is certainly something he is proud of, his family and his heritage,” Dykes told HERO Sports. “I think he has realized he is very unique, and as a result he feels more of a sense of urgency to perform and do well because he represents a lot of people who are underrepresented in college football. He’s a proud guy.
“Moose is one of those guys who doesn’t say much when he doesn’t know you, but as he and I developed a relationship, he’s much more open and we communicate more. I think that’s the thing with him … you just first need to build that trust, and then he’s one of those guys who jumps in with both feet and cares a lot about his teammates and his program.”
Jalil certainly does care, and now that he’s fully healed from his knee injury of two years ago, he is flourishing. Last year, not at 100 percent, he started all 12 games at defensive tackle and had 35 tackles and 5.5 tackles for loss. He had two tackles in last week’s win and was listed as a third team preseason All Pac-12 selection—and hopes to improve on that.
“He’s very fun to be around, kind of that gentle giant kind of guy,” Cal defensive line coach Fred Tate told HERO Sports. “He’s very serious about football and school—in fact he’s only a few hours away from getting his degree. He’s serious, but on the flip side, once you get into his inner circle, he’s a really, really good friend.
“Last year he was still kind of injured, but he played in more than 500 plays for us. For him to do that and press through the injuries and still bring to the table what he did for us, what he did really is awesome.”