When Las Vegas Outlaws place-kicker Ali Mourtada opens his eyes every morning, he has what he calls a “vision board” in his view upon rising from his bed.
There, clear as day, is a picture of Danroy Henry Jr., his best friend in college.
Henry was shot and killed by police officers in front of Mourtada during his junior year in 2010.
Mourtada said he lives each day for his friend and counts his blessings, knowing how precious life can be.
So it was understandable why the Sierra Leone, West Africa, native got goose bumps talking about Henry after winning a kicking contest Saturday that gave him a spot on the Outlaws’ training camp roster. Mourtada outkicked 22 other entrants at the team’s practice facility and was immediately thrust into the media spotlight, doing a handful of interviews before finally reaching out to his mother.
“I love you, Mom, and thank you for everything,” said Mourtada, through tears, during their phone conversation.
Mourtada will compete with Ross Gornall to be the kicker for the Arena Football League team, which opens its first season in Las Vegas at 7:30 p.m. Monday against the San Jose SaberCats at the Thomas &Mack Center.
Standing about 5 feet 7 inches, Mourtada is diminutive compared to his new teammates. But the heart and soul that exudes from his jersey outweighs most of the linebackers on the team.
Mourtada, who left Sierra Leone at age 4 because his father wanted to protect his family from civil unrest, grew up in Massachusetts. He played soccer, basketball and football, and grew up loving the New England Patriots. He moved to New York for college and kicked at Pace University for four years.
But of all the good times, the big games and big kicks and the many stories he left behind, the horrific memory of Henry’s lifeless body after being shot multiple times hours after the two played in their homecoming game is the one thing that continues to drive Mourtada.
“I witnessed that … it was tough to see. I’ll never forget that feeling,” he said. “I always think of his mother, I think of his family, to get that phone call, and I think about my family. It’s something I don’t wish upon anybody. But it’s incredible the impact he’s had on me since this happened.
“It was at that point I decided for myself, don’t worry about what other people are saying, just go after what you love. Since then, I’ve just kind of put in the work.”
After pursuing his master’s degree at Assumption College in Worcester, Mass., Mourtada relocated to Arizona in 2014 to follow his dream of playing professional football. He participated in several small-level combines, ones that could attract attention and potentially get him a call from any franchise, while gaining his certification as a personal trainer.
“I performed well in those combines, but nothing came to pass,” he said. “I went back to the lab, put on some size, tried to improve my athleticism, worked on my game, my technique and came back out this year ready to go and everything seems to be falling into place.”
Mourtada was so excited about the tryout for the Outlaws that a miscommunication brought him to Las Vegas a week early, and he convinced team officials to let him kick anyway. He did and was encouraged to return the following weekend.
Another miscommunication, this time with a buddy who was going to let him crash at his place, left Mourtada sleeping in his car in the parking lot of Lifetime Fitness on West Charleston Boulevard, where he had been working out to prepare for the tryout.
Nothing could stop him, though, not any miscommunication or any hurdles, as his leg proved the best of the bunch.
Mourtada is big on faith and credits his work ethic for making the Outlaws’ camp roster. But there’s a part of him that clings to a belief that the memory of a friend and a little divine intervention has helped him as well.
“To represent a city like Vegas is an absolute blessing, and I’m just excited for the opportunity,” he said. “I’ve been visualizing this for years now, and to see it kind of manifest itself is incredible because I’ve been told I wasn’t good enough, but I don’t take any of that personally. I just go in and put in the work necessary so when I’m out here I can give my best.”