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.