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Muhamed McBryde has loved wrestling ever since he can remember, but when he had to choose between shaving his beard and competing for the University at Buffalo, the decision was easy.
McBryde sat on the sidelines.
The pre-med student believes shaving the beard would compromise his faith. He is Muslim.
Even though NCAA rules clearly state that all competing wrestlers must be cleanshaven, the 17-year-old junior said he never considered getting rid of his facial hair.
"My religion says you're supposed to keep a beard," said McBryde of Buffalo.
His refusal to shave, though, cost him nearly a full season of competition.
McBryde, who was home-schooled and graduated from community college, joined the university wrestling team last summer as a walk-on. He said he missed probably 20 dual matches after head coach John Stutzman informed him last December that he could not compete in tournaments because of the beard.
Stutzman gave McBryde the option of continuing with the team, and he decided to stay. Stutzman was out of town and unavailable to comment for this story, according to UB assistant athletic director for communications Jonathan E. Fuller.
McBryde and his father, Mustafa - with assistance from a national Muslim civil rights group - pressed the university to request a rules waiver from the NCAA.
Their persistence paid off in April, when the NCAA Wrestling Rules Committee granted a waiver, allowing McBryde to compete with a beard during the 2014-15 season, as long as he wears a face mask and chin strap to cover it. The university will have to make an additional request for a waiver for any other seasons in which McBryde competes.
"We were just looking for reasonable accommodations for a practicing Muslim," said Mustafa McBryde, a former high school and collegiate wrestler. "A lot of Muslims, we just bend to these sorts of things, primarily because we're not aware of our rights."
Although the season began last September, UB didn't make an official waiver request on behalf of McBryde until Jan. 31, after the university was contacted by a lawyer from the Council on American-Islamic Relations, which frequently represents Muslims in religious liberty cases.
"This is part of his practice as a Muslim. It's basically protected by the First Amendment. From our perspective, it's pretty open and shut," said Nina Kraut, general counsel for the CAIR Foundation.
Mustafa McBryde was frustrated that his son had to miss so much wrestling over a simple matter.
But obstacles seem to be nothing new to Muhamad McBryde.
Earlier in the year, some UB officials had called into question whether McBryde was even eligible to wrestle at the university because of his youth and academic background.
McBryde was home-schooled by his parents and does not have a high school diploma, although he received an associate degree at age 16 from Erie Community College.
The compliance office of UB Athletics had assumed McBryde was a "dually enrolled" student at UB, which basically means someone is technically in high school and taking a limited number of university courses - and thus not eligible to play sports.
In fact, McBryde was a full-time UB undergraduate student, taking a 21 credit-hour course load. The misunderstanding eventually was cleared up, before the beard became the issue.
Muslims who keep beards believe it is in keeping with the words and practice of the Islamic prophet, Muhammad.
"It's a serious matter about being Muslim in America, and it's a serious matter about our afterlife," said Mustafa McBryde.
Muhamed McBryde, who has been wrestling since age 6, encountered a beard restriction on the mat one other time, while wrestling in an open tournament at Niagara County Community College. An opposing coach raised it with the referee, after McBryde quickly got ahead of his opponent.
"He told the ref, 'I'm not going to shave, so we had to forfeit that match,' " recalled Mustafa McBryde.
The McBrydes always have been a devout family.
Muhamed McBryde wrestled for a few years with the Buffalo Grapplers Wrestling Club, and he and his dad declined to travel to out-of-state tournaments with the rest of the team because they wanted to be able to stop and pray along the route at particular times of the day, in accordance with Islamic ritual.
They usually would show up an hour after the team arrived. While other wrestlers stripped down to make weight, Muhamed never worried about his weight and stayed dressed in his uniform and leggings as he was weighed. His religious beliefs also prohibit him from undressing in public as well as being photographed.
Then, he usually went out and won the tournament, according to Todd Rodriguez-Spencer, head coach and founder of Buffalo Grapplers.
As a home-schooled child, McBryde wasn't able to compete in interscholastic matches, but Rodriguez-Spencer is convinced he would have dominated at the high school level.
"There's no doubt in my mind he would've been a state champion. He's a phenom. He's tough," said Rodriguez-Spencer. "All I can say is he's a phenomenal young man."
As a teenager at ECC, which does not have a wrestling program, McBryde sometimes competed in open tournaments, such as the one at NCCC, which featured college kids.
Mustafa McBryde recalled how early on, organizers would ask about his son's school affiliation and age, and then turn him away when they found out how young he was.
Muhamed McBryde learned to show up at the tournaments wearing his ECC student identification so that no one would ask about his age.
At age 13, he already was beating college wrestlers, his father said.
Facial hair rule
NCAA Rule 1.13 apparently was implemented as a health and safety measure, although the McBrydes see no dangers in competing with a beard.
"What's ironic about it is this is an NCAA rule. Internationally, you're allowed to wear beards," said Mustafa McBryde.
In the Olympics, many participating wrestlers have competed with bushy beards.
Muhamed McBryde doesn't yet have what can be called a full-fledged beard. His facial hair consists of wispy patches sprouting in a thin line along his angular jaw. His father jokingly refers to it as peach fuzz.
While looking forward to competing next season, McBryde, who is considered a junior at UB, said he still might not be able to wrestle.
"I feel like there's going to be something else, something silly, because of everything that's happened so far," he said.
McBryde said he enjoyed being part of the team, but he also put the experience in perspective.
"I didn't go to UB for wrestling first. School takes precedence," he said.
Before being sidelined, McBryde, wrestling at 157 pounds, compiled a 7-5 record, including an eighth-place showing at the 2013 New York State Collegiate Wrestling Championships at Cornell University last November.
In his waiver letter to the university, NCAA Secretary-Rules Editor Ron Beaschler requested feedback on McBryde's use of the face mask next season to assist the Wrestling Rules Committee as it considers the issue of facial hair going forward.
"There's a potential they may rewrite the rule," said Mustafa McBryde.