GUANTÁNAMO BAY, CUBA—News that President Obama had called an immediate halt to detainee prosecutions came as a "welcome relief" to the Bengals' Iranian-American wide receiver Touraj "T.J." Houshmandzadeh, who has suffered through daily questioning sessions at the hands of government interrogators since being detained last December.
"They told me through the slot in my door that Obama will try and close Gitmo within the year," Houshmandzadeh said in a voice barely above a whisper, presumably to avoid aggravating his shattered teeth and cracked jaw. "With any luck, the president will have me out of here by July, so I can get my cracked cheekbone and orbit looked at, regrow the nails on my left hand, have the blood drained from my eye, and rehab my left knee and ankle so I can jump right into training camp."
"I can still feel my hands," Houshmandzadeh insisted. "I know I shouldn't hope—they use your hopes against you here—but I tell myself the pain means the nerves are okay. My hands are okay. I can still catch the ball."
Homeland Security officers took Houshmandzadeh into custody Dec. 20, when the Pro Bowl Bengals wideout attempted to board the team plane for a flight to Cleveland to play against the Browns. It is not known why Houshmandzadeh's name was on the no-fly list, and the incident attracted little attention, overshadowed as it was by the injury of Chad Ocho Cinco, whose hamstring kept him on the bench as the Bengals beat the Browns 14-0.
"When I first got here and they took the bag off my head, I was pretty scared," Houshmandzadeh said. "I had no idea where I was or what was happening. Guys in fatigues asking me who I was working for, telling me I had no idea how much trouble I was in, dropping bars of soap into my socks and bludgeoning me across the face with them. I mean, Coach [Marvin] Lewis is tough, but this didn't seem like one of his ideas."
Over the next week Houshmandzadeh was interrogated at least twice daily, with the exception of one 24-hour period—he believes it was Saturday, although sleep deprivation and frequent electrical shocks made it difficult for him to determine the passage of time—spent in the facility's infirmary. On Sunday the questioning sessions began again, culminating in interrogators informing him that his team had beaten the Kansas City Chiefs 16-6 and subjecting Houshmandzadeh to a "celebratory" Gatoradeboarding.
But that wasn't the worst, Houshmandzadeh said. "They tore pages out of my playbook," said the wide receiver, his voice cracking for the first time. "They set it on fire in front of me, they threw it in the toilet and urinated on it…. It's more than a book to me, you know? It means something. And I have to pay a fine if anything happens to it. That was when I decided I would get through this, that I would survive no matter what."
Houshmandzadeh, who is listed at 6 feet 1 inch and 200 pounds, has lost 15 percent of his weight since coming to Guantánamo, although Homeland Security medics say that he may have gained as much as 2 inches in height as a result of being hung from the rafters for hours of high-pressure fire-hose treatments. Houshmandzadeh is confident that he can still play at his previous level if Obama's administration makes good on its promise to free him on time.
"I'm one of the lucky ones," Houshmandzadeh said softly. "Muhsin Muhammad was rushed to the infirmary last week and he still hasn't been back. Rashaan Salaam hasn't been heard from in years. But the really weird thing is that most of these guys are just shopkeepers and goat herders. It makes absolutely no sense for them to be here."