Hammad mixing faith and football

As a practicing Muslim, Texas football player will fast during summer workouts

Updated: July 8, 2013, 1:02 PM ET
By Max Olson | HornsNation

IRVING, Texas -- The dream started in a car. Rami Hammad's biggest dreams usually involved cars.

He remembers the long drives from his home in the Dallas suburb of Irving to the southern tip of the state to visit his mother in McAllen. One of the few highlights of those eight-hour rides came when he and his parents passed through Austin.

Whenever they traveled up and down I-35, a young Rami would gaze off into the distance until he'd spot Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium.

[+] EnlargeRami Hammad
Max Olson/ESPN.comRami Hammad, a three-star recruit in Texas' 2013 class, believes he has a chance to play early.

"One time, I saw a Texas game was going on," Hammad said. "You could see all the fans from far away. I looked at my mom and said, 'I'm going to play there.' "

This dream, always so close and yet seemingly impossible to reach, drove Hammad. He built himself into a menacing 6-foot-5, 310-pound offensive lineman. He got angry after he was labeled an average prospect and he got better.

The plan paid off. Texas finally noticed Hammad and offered the Irving High School standout a scholarship three weeks before national signing day. Now the boy is a freshman, living down the street from the stadium. He's a Longhorn.

The fact he's even at Texas today is a testament to just how far he has come and how much Hammad has wanted this. The young man likes a challenge. His next one is on the horizon.

When the sun sets Monday, Hammad will begin a month of fasting. As a practicing and devoted Muslim, this is his annual duty to honor the holy month of Ramadan. For 30 days, he will not consume food from sunrise to sunset. He will not even sip water during his summer workouts with the team.

From now until Aug. 7, a time when Hammad must establish his reputation and prove he's good enough to contribute as a freshman, he will sacrifice.

Hammad is not doing this for attention or to make an impression on his teammates. He'll fast because he's not afraid to test his faith, not even when a chance to play for the Longhorns is on the line.

But this won't be easy.

Figuring Out The Fast

Texas strength and conditioning head coach Bennie Wylie and team dietitian Amy Culp already know not to underestimate two things about Hammad: His commitment and his communication.

He worked out four hours a day this spring. He went from 335 pounds to a trim 308 in three months. The secret? Two grilled chicken breasts for dinner nearly every night, as Culp recommended. And nearly every day since signing, he has text messaged Wylie and Culp with updates and questions.

This is the Rami Hammad that Texas was fortunate to discover late in the recruiting process, the kid willing to do everything asked of him and plenty more.

His approach was no different last summer. New Irving head coach Aaron De La Torre needed leaders. Ramadan didn't end until Aug. 18 last year, so his fasting schedule collided with two-a-days.

"I'm a big believer in not compromising my standards for anybody or anything," De La Torre said. "The kids know what they have to do. Do it right and we'll do it light. Do it wrong and we do it long."

That meant 6 a.m. lifting sessions plus 100-yard sprints in the dead heat of the afternoon. Hammad remembers running 13 laps one day, 16 on another. In that 30-day period, he broke his fast three times.

"It was hell," Hammad said. "I didn't break it for a good seven days. But then my dad said no more (fasting). I would come home and get in a cold tub, and he freaked out once. He thought I was passed out."

No, he hadn't passed out. Hammad just couldn't find the strength to lift himself out of the tub. Still, he wasn't going to ask his new coach for help for fear of appearing weak.

"He didn't say anything at all," De La Torre said. "No issues. Not one."

By the end of his fasting, Hammad had lost nearly 20 pounds. That can't happen again this summer, not if he's serious about playing immediately as a true freshman. And he plans to become a starter.

Culp gathered as much information as possible to prepare for this month, including calling NFL colleagues for advice and researching the dietary restrictions of Ramadan.

The key to optimizing his nutrition during the fast is knowing how his body reacts. His sweat rate and caloric expenditure are critical. So is the manner in which he's digesting his sundown meals.

"We'll utilize a lot of concentrated liquid calories, because liquid empties from the gut faster," Culp said. "You're not going to be able to eat 6,000 calories of food in a short period of time and then also be able to sleep."

Maximizing fuel and sleep are a must, because one three-hour workout in pads is all it takes for a 300-pounder to burn thousands of calories and shed as many as five to 10 pounds.

"It's a different ballgame when you're a student-athlete and doing a fast like this," Culp said. "Does it pose a challenge and are there risks to it? Yes. Can it be worked around? It can."

Wylie will cut back Hammad's training in the weight room to preserve his energy for practice. He knows sprints will be an issue, and safety is his priority. He also knows Hammad can break the fast if necessary, though he wants to avoid that.

"To me, if he's that committed -- and so far, he's been a committed guy to everything we've asked of him -- the least I can do is be equally committed to him and his faith," Wylie said. "I'm going to do everything I can to make sure he has success."

They're confident that with a lot of help, Hammad can pull off his fast without threatening his shot at playing time. His father isn't so sure.

Honing His Crafts

Hesham Hammad is lonely. Life isn't the same without his son by his side.

"I'm not worried about him, but I do miss him a lot," Hesham said. "He left a big gap in my life here."

Even in his strict household, Hesham and Rami are truly best friends. They're all they've got.

Hesham grew up in Kuwait and found his sliver of the American Dream in Irving, working his way up from mechanic to wholesale car dealer. His son was born in Virginia, lived two years in the country of Jordan as a child and has spent most of his life in Texas.

The home they shared was built on a thick foundation of rules. Chief among them: Everything must be earned. The bad things, he'd tell his son, are very easy to do. Stick with the hard things, the right things.

No video games. No partying with friends. There were no girlfriends, either. To Hesham, these were all wastes of energy and time.

And so, ever since he was a young boy, Rami worked in his father's shop. He became quite the customer, too.

Rami purchased his first car, a burgundy 1999 Mitsubishi Eclipse, when he was 11 with the help of a $100 loan from Hesham. He spent two years fixing it up, cleaned and detailed his prize, and then he sold it.

Repair, detail, sell, repeat. Rami bought and flipped cars nearly a dozen more times as a teen.

"Cars kept him busy," Hesham said. "Cars kept him out of trouble."

He kept selling and saving because he had a plan. He was building toward a dream ride, and some would say he owns one today: A pristine silver 2005 Range Rover.

Now Rami is trying to flip that car, too. The way he sees it, there's always room to improve.

"I love customizing cars, man," Rami said. "That's just what I do. It would be the most difficult decision ever for me to settle on one."

He says all his time spent on football and cars cost him friends and fun along the way, but he learned the value of commitment. The sacrifices gave him a future.

There are lots of stories De La Torre can tell about his year spent coaching Rami. He'll tell his players the best one for years to come.

"It's about a kid who's on 'B' team his freshman year and goes on to play at the University of Texas, one of the best programs in the nation," said De La Torre, whose son Alex is a fullback for UT. "It's all a testament to his ability to dedicate himself to honing his craft and making himself better."

And that's why his plan to fast this summer bothers Hesham.

He stood by Rami's side last year. Hesham, who is also a practicing Muslim, helped his son get through the rough days. There's much more at stake this summer. Rami is taking a legitimate risk, and he must do so on his own.

"I don't want it to happen this year, honestly," Hesham said. "I don't want him to fast. He wants to do it. I can't stop him from doing what he wants now.

"He's insistent he wants to. If he has the energy and the guts to do it, and he can manage it, that will make me more proud of him."

'Time To Be The Good Rami'

The first prayer comes soon after Rami wakes up. Then one before he works out, one when he gets home at night, one after his post-workout shower and one final prayer before bed.

Five times a day, every day. Hammad's dedication to Islam might only be surpassed by his devotion to football.

Ramadan, he says, is a time to rediscover his compassion. The holy month asks him to feel as the poor and less fortunate do, to appreciate the blessings in his life. The humbling nature of these 30 days truly resonates.

Fasting is a serious commitment, and Hammad knows what is at stake now. He accepts that on some days he must break the fast. He believes God will forgive him.

"I'm willing to push myself to extreme limits," Hammad said. "But if fasting comes at a time when we really have to get to work and it's grind time, I'll break it and I'll make it up later."

The goal is to fast for 30 total days. He'll make up every day he misses. Breaking a fast due to illness is forgivable. His father has told him he can even save some fasting days for the winter if he must.

That's because this year is different. People are relying on Rami. This is no time for a setback in his development, not when his dream is finally within his reach.

"I told him he needs to earn it," Hesham said. "Those people have a lot of faith in him. I have a lot of faith in him. You don't go to play. You go to prove who you are. You go to be somebody. It's time to be the good Rami."

Hammad says Ramadan reminds him that his religion is a peaceful one. And yet now, more than ever, he must prove he's as mean a lineman as the Longhorns have when the pads come on.

To not play this fall, to not exceed all the expectations people have of an overlooked recruit, would disappoint Hammad to no end. The Texas coaching staff told him he could get on the field immediately. He must get through the fasting and be better than ever.

"I'm ready to go to work," he said. "I'm not going there for any other reason. I'm sure I'm going to wow some people. They're not going to expect this. That's something I've got to take as fuel."

And on the days when Hammad won't have fuel, he'll have faith.

Max Olson | email

Texas/Big 12 reporter