Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Sculpting an identity

Source: Inland Valley Daily Bulletin

DIAMOND BAR -- The football coach hollers, "Water break!" and the players cluster around blue Powerade bottles. Hytham Elsherif stands alone and to the side.

"Somebody soak him down," an assistant coach says.

He unstraps his helmet so a teammate can squirt water on his head. He spits repeatedly to keep it from sneaking into his mouth.

Hytham is a unique member of Diamond Bar High School's varsity team -- he is its only Muslim. Because it is Ramadan, the holiest month of the Islamic calendar, Hytham is fasting from sunrise to sunset each day.

Starving the body for 14 hours is taxing on even the most sedentary. For a 17-year-old offensive lineman, it seems like a death wish.

"If he wants to play, it's up to him," says his mother, Naglaa Elsherif. "But he has to follow God's rules -- he has to fast. If he doesn't have the energy to fast, don't play."

Hytham's is a common dilemma of Muslim-American youths, many of whom find themselves attending class, studying and competing athletically on an empty stomach one month a year.

A first-generation Egyptian-American, Hytham has sculpted an identity as an American youth who happens to be a devout Muslim. He is one of an estimated 10 Muslims in a sea of 3,307 students. But his classmates do not consider him particularly different -- except during that one month each year when they only see him eat at night.

During Ramadan, which this year began Oct. 4 and ends Nov. 3, the 1.3 billion Muslims worldwide who are of age, in good health and not pregnant are called to abstain from food, drink, cursing and sex during the day.

Fasting is one of Islam's Five Pillars. Hytham first participated at age 6. He says it gets easier as the month progresses, that his body adapts to his inability to make up the lost calories.

The coaches and players say they respect Hytham's religion. His conviction leaves them in awe. But they are not without concern for the effect it has on Hytham's performance.

Take Jeff Jansen. As starting quarterback, Jeff's safety from injury largely depends on the offensive line's ability to block defenders.

Jeff worries that Hytham doesn't have the energy on game day to protect him. Against Chino High School, Jeff notes, he was sacked eight times.

"The previous five games I was only sacked once. And then he started doing his fasting thing."


The yellow buses arrive at Chino High at 5:32 p.m. The players step off and into the visitors' locker room. They are anxious. Their team is 3-1-1 and they are up against one of the favorites to win Sierra League.

Hytham hasn't eaten or drank anything for more than 13 hours -- and all he had then was a bagel and a glass of orange juice.

"I'm feeling good," he says.

Hytham is 6 feet 2 inches tall and built like a Buick, his undershirt bulging with muscles and belying his youth. His hair is short, his skin bronze, his eyes calm. Black face paint runs in a C-pattern from both eyes, along the jawbone to the corners of his chin.

His weight has fallen this month from 247 pounds to 226. And more than a week of daytime fasting remains.

"We're undersized," he says. "But we work hard and we hit hard and we work as a team. That's what helps us win games. A team's gotta have heart."

The Brahmas head to John Monger Stadium to warm up.

As the sky's blue fades, and the clock passes 6:30, Muslims throughout the Western U.S. break fast. Hytham is running plays.

Coach calls them in. They huddle and return to the lockers.

"Hytham! Your food's here," linebacker Danny Carrillo bellows.

Hytham gulps a 34 oz. orange Gatorade and then walks to the water fountain. He refills the bottle and empties it again. He grabs a granola bar and, as soon as he finishes that, pops a banana into his mouth.

Other players adjust their pads and get retaped.

Chino makes quick work of their opponents and scores on its fifth offensive play. Clearly, Hytham is not the only Brahma struggling to get into the game.

At the half, the score is 21-0.

In the locker room, Hytham grabs a Gatorade. The athletic trainer tries to hand him a paper plate of spaghetti, a sandwich and some orange slices, but the scoreboard has stripped his appetite.

"My stomach's too tense to eat," he tells the trainer, Stacy Camou.

"You're playing weak. You feel like you don't have to eat, but you have no fuel," Camou responds.

He begrudgingly accepts an orange slice. Camou's not happy either. She asks an intern trainer to grab the food and take it to the sideline in case Hytham gets hungry during the second half.

He eats no more.

The game ends 41-0.


Coach Nick Cuccia's team meets in his classroom on Tuesdays and Wednesdays to watch films of that week's opponent.

Two days before facing Damien High School, desktops are covered with potato chip bags and soda bottles. Players wolf down burgers, burritos, sandwiches. The smell of seasoned french fries saturates the room.

Hytham, clad in blue jeans and a black Cal State Fullerton hooded sweat shirt, twiddles his thumbs, his fingers interlocked atop an empty desk in the front row, his back to most of the munching.

He awoke at 4:50 this morning, had a light breakfast -- bread topped with a spread of feta cheese, tomatoes, cucumbers and olive oil -- and prayed before sleeping for another hour.

By 6:55, he was with his teammates in the high school's weight room, working his legs and lower back for the next hour and a half.

"He's one of the hardest lifters on the team," Cuccia says.

Leg workouts are exceptionally strenuous because they demand energy from so many muscles, which shocks the central nervous system into releasing testosterone and growth hormone and increasing overall muscle growth. But a workout needs to be followed with food if muscles are going to grow.

"If you don't have anything afterward to replenish, you are basically eating away at your muscles all day," says Rehan Jalali, a Muslim and former bodybuilder from Irvine who recommends people fasting exercise at night.

But Hytham says his stomach is too small and his time too tight.

In fact, during the first few nights of Ramadan, he made the mistake of bloating his stomach with water, which stopped him from eating.

Little, if any, medical research has been done on the effects of daytime fasting on athletic performance. Anecdotally, it is perceived to have a negative effect -- but one that can be mitigated.

"You just have to come up with strategies to make up for the calories you're not getting during the day," said Dr. Sameer Dixit, UCLA Primary Care Sports Medicine fellow.

Such strategies include eating large meals in the morning, waking up throughout the night for refueling and avoiding strenuous activity shortly before sunset.

Hakeem Olajuwon and Muhammad Ali made it work. They were role models to many young Americans, especially Muslim youths who wanted to excel at sports without compromising their religious beliefs.

Dixit, a physician for UCLA football, said coaches should watch for signs of dehydration if a player is fasting -- cramps, lightheadedness, headaches, blurred vision, nausea, fatigue.

"The running is what kills me because I can't drink anything, so I get really dehydrated and I get headaches," says Hakam Halabi, a 6-foot-3-inch, 270-pound defensive end on Diamond Bar's freshmen squad. "I'm not really hungry but I'm really thirsty -- very thirsty."

Speaking during practice, Hakam explains that during Ramadan he participates in only the least exhausting drills and doesn't play in games. Fasting connects him with his religion, he says, but it distances him from football. His mouth is parched. His lips look chapped.

"You cannot break fast for weakness, but if there is a legitimate reason" -- such as extreme dehydration -- "you can break fast," said Imam Farid Hasan, head of the Islamic Center of Rialto. "It's not supposed to be a hardship. It's supposed to teach you self-restraint."


Legends are made when athletic ability appears uncanny. For instance, when NFL Hall of Fame running back Walter Payton died in 1999, every credible obituary mentioned Nov. 20, 1977 -- the day Payton, ailing with the flu, set a single-game rushing record of 275 yards.

Michael Jordan in 1998 played through a stomach flu and scored 38 points to lead the Chicago Bulls to victory in Game 5 of the NBA Finals.

"Certainly, there are people who can place mind over body," Dixit said. "It is something we have no explanation for."

Hytham's teammates don't either.

"It doesn't mix," says starting running back Joe Beaudion. "He's half man, half amazing."

Arinze Anih, a defensive tackle, says, "I don't know how he does it. Each practice he gets stronger and stronger." In addition to playing without food, Arinze marvels, Hytham has a torn ligament in his left ring finger and his right pinky.

Coach Cuccia says he has not once heard Hytham complain or hide behind his faith.

Hytham has a simple explanation for his endurance: God is rewarding him.

"You have in the back of your mind, "God is with me,' and you think you can go through anything," Hytham says.

Islam is the reason Hytham has never sipped alcohol, doesn't date and tries not to curse.

He has known nothing else. His parents moved to Southern California from Egypt before their first son was born. Hytham, their fourth child, attended an Islamic school in West Covina through fifth grade and grew up speaking and writing Arabic and English. He and his siblings were taught to appreciate their culture.

"Our mom would say to us, "Out there is America. Do what you got to do to survive. But inside this house is Egypt,' " recalls his brother, Walleed, 23.

Hytham learned discipline and commitment from his mother, who raised her five children alone after their father, Salah, died in 1993.

"That's why Hytham never quits," says Bassam, the firstborn son.

"You don't break your fast because "Oh, I'm tired.' You just got to suck it up and do it," Hytham says.

Practice is the most difficult portion of Hytham's day. It runs from 2:30 to 5:30 p.m.

On the first or second day of Ramadan, he overslept his morning meal.

"That was a mistake he didn't make twice," Cuccia says.

Because of the fasting, special attention is paid to Hytham. But he isn't coddled, and he doesn't ask to sit out drills.

He hustles -- opening holes for inside runs and sweeps, protecting the QB on passes, getting downfield. He drives his practice opponents to the ground as if it were game night.

After a tackling drill that leaves most its participants panting, Hytham is bent over, hands on his knees. A fellow lineman puts a hand on his shoulder.

At 5:11, the temperature has dropped three degrees Fahrenheit to 71. Players are gathering their equipment and leaving practice. Some talk. Hytham is doing up-downs.

"How many you done?" he asks a teammate who is calling it a day. "I've done 30 already."

He does 20 more, then grabs his bags and walks toward the locker room and the setting sun. He heads home, showers, prays, breaks fast, prays some more and goes to bed.

He'll sleep a few hours before another pre-dawn meal. Then he does it all over again.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Disasters shake the faithful

From: The Sun

If God is good, why do terrible things occur?

That's a question people of various faiths wrestle with often, especially during times of crisis. Lately, there has been no shortage of colossal tragedies hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, landslides.

Only a month after Hurricane Katrina blasted the Gulf Coast, landslides buried about 800 people in Latin America, and the death toll from the magnitude 7.6 earthquake in Pakistan was around 40,000 as of Saturday, with that number likely to rise.

But the real question, say some Christians, Muslims and Jews, is not whether God is smiting the world but whether humans are smiting God.

"God has sent us to this earth. We should respect nature, ourselves, human beings,' said Shahana Samiullah, a 41-year-old Rancho Cucamonga Muslim woman who emigrated 15 years ago from Karachi, Pakistan.

Like many religious people, Samiullah finds hope in recent natural disasters.

"Some people start questioning their faith why God causes so much destruction and why people who are innocent are the victim of that,' she said. "To me, it strengthens my faith in God. In the midst of all that is happening, there are miracles that are happening. People are surviving. Like the man I heard about who survived 27 hours in the rubble.'

That man was Umer Mushtaq, a 17-year-old Pakistani rescuers found along with about 25 others living beneath the rubble of the 10-story Margalla Towers, according to news accounts.

"I never lost hope, as I had full faith that God Almighty will save me,' Mushtaq told the Gulf Times, a daily newspaper in Qatar.

A natural disaster is, for many, the ultimate test of faith. For others, it is dramatic validation that either God doesn't exist or that he is a sadistic supreme being.

In the past year, humanity has been rocked by a tsunami-spawning earthquake, two monster hurricanes in the U.S. Gulf Coast and the massive quake in Pakistan. In 2003, Southern Californians fell into their own hell when wildfires raged from Ventura County to eastern San Diego County, including the San Bernardino and San Gabriel mountains.

"If there was a God, how come he let all that happen?' Tom Cotton, 51, of Pinion Hills asked while finishing a burger at a Carl's Jr. in San Bernardino.

"If it's his plan,' Cotton said, scanning the restaurant as if he was going to curse, "he's sure got a messed-up plan.'

God only knows what that plan might be.

"If God is wiser than we, His judgment must differ from ours on many things, and not least on good and evil,' C.S. Lewis, the Christian philosopher and children's author, wrote in "The Problem of Pain.' "What seems to us good may therefore not be good in His Eyes, and what seems to us to be evil may not be evil.'

Lewis begins the book by stating that when he was an atheist, he, too, believed God was either cruel or a farce.

"If you ask me to believe that this is the work of a benevolent and omnipotent spirit, I reply that all the evidence points in the opposite direction.'

But later in life, Lewis came to believe in God, and Lewis' understanding of the root of pain changed from a godless cosmos to the Garden of Eden.

In the story of the fall of man, God is not to blame. Humans are.

"We have sown the seeds of our own suffering,' said Philip A. Amerson, president of Claremont School of Theology, a United Methodist seminary.

The initial seed was when Adam and Eve disobeyed God, sin entered the world, and humans were sentenced to lives of suffering, according to the book of Genesis, a text shared by Christians, Muslims and Jews.

Man has sown many seeds since then, Amerson said, by abusing the environment and encroaching on dangerous environments.

Religious texts don't define building homes in the San Bernardino Mountains as sinful, but development disrupted the forest's natural fire cycle.

The structures that collapsed in Pakistan and India-controlled Kashmir were built in dangerous earthquake zones.

New Orleans lies below sea level, nestled among the Mississippi River, Lake Pontchartrain and the Gulf of Mexico.

When the tsunami wiped out parts of Southeast Asia, a Muslim stronghold, some fundamentalist Christians said God was smiting the sinful. Although that thinking was en vogue in antiquity (think Sodom and Gomorrah), it has fallen out of fashion.

Many local religious leaders said disasters are not God's way of punishing the sinful but are his way of testing the faithful.

"We can either choose to ask the questions: 'Does God exist? Is God evil? Does God punish us?' Et cetera, et cetera. Or we can realize God is testing us and we can decide how we respond to that test,' said Jay Sherwood, spiritual leader of Adat Re'im, an independent Jewish congregation in Rancho Cucamonga.

In our response to that test are "the seeds of our own hope,' said Amerson. "Through opening space for democracy, through welcoming the stranger, through supporting those who are suffering, through feeding the hungry, clothing the naked we are sowing the seeds of hope.'

Friday, October 07, 2005

Breaking stuff in the name of the Lord

From: The Sun

HIGHLAND -- They are giants for Jesus.

Members of Team Impact, a Dallas-based group of gym junkies on a mission, use uncanny strength to share their faith in God.

Six members were invited here by Immanuel Baptist Church and are scheduled to continue their bat breaking, telephone-pole lifting and rubber-bladder bursting tonight and Sunday night. They plan to lead Sunday morning worship services.

"They're incredible,' says Andrew Beck, a 6-1, 140-pound, 19-year-old intern at the Highland church. "They can pound their way through anything. I wish I could do that. I'm a little jealous.'

The house was packed Wednesday night for the former football players, professional wrestlers and no-holds-barred fighters. Close to 100 awestruck people responded to the altar call.

Christian Vines, 4, wasn't running to the stage, but he did return Thursday to see the guys he thought were stronger than Superman.

Christian's eyes shifted toward one of several television monitors that had been repeating a Team Impact trailer while people entered. The audience filled to about 1,300 a few hundred fewer than the night before.

The auditorium lights faded and the stage lights strobed. Young and old clapped and shrieked some swinging glow sticks.

Instantly, Immanuel Baptist was transformed into Hyundai Pavilion at Glen Helen during Ozzfest. But don't mistake the mission or the message: Team Impact was pumping up the audience for the Lord.

With nicknames like "Big' and "The Bear,' the musclemen in purple and black warm-ups took turns snapping bricks, some eight layers deep. They were loosening up.

Trey Talley, a former Mr. Teenage Arkansas, picked up a can of lighter fluid and soaked seven brick stacks. He set them ablaze.

Whap! Crack! Pow!

The flaming stacks turned into rubble. The sanctuary smelled of burned gasoline and fire retardant. Talk about being on fire for God.

Their moxie makes them candidates for the snake handlers and poison drinkers Jesus refers to in Mark; by faith they are able to do outrageous things.

Talley, who was emceeing this particular night, quickly clarified this is not simply "a macho program.' He dedicated the next feat the rolling of a frying pan into a steel burrito "to all the moms in the room.'

Hoops. Hollers. The crowd was insatiable.

The show crested with the sermon.

The Bear 315-pound Randall Harris of DeSoto, Texas says humans are sinful and in need of a savior. He then tore in half a Yellow Pages phone book, which represents God's record of his sin. The blood of Christ, according to the message, shreds that record.

This is the message of Team Impact's first visit to San Bernardino County. They have performed at hundreds of locations this year, including Immanuel Baptist and 34 area schools this week.

Immanuel Baptist spent about $30,000, largely raised through corporate donors, to support the school performances. The strongmen permitted to promote Christianity or the church at schools.

Their message for public institutions is decidedly pro-clean living: stay away from drugs, alcohol and destructive friends.

The festivities resumed and so did the screaming. It was deafening.

It was Richard Williams' turn. Williams walked away from an estimated $4 million NFL contract by backing out of the 2002 draft days before he was expected to be selected in the third round. Now Williams, all 390 pounds of him, makes a living by crushing walls of ice, running through two-by-fours and spreading the Gospel.

"Impact is not when we break concrete or when we break a bat,' Talley says. "True impact is when people invite Jesus Christ into their hearts and lives.'

After some more antics and another charge to purpose-driven living, about 75 people came forward and committed their lives to Christ.