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Wow. Just wow.

NY Jets' Shaun Ellis mourning loss of 'little brother' to muscular dystrophy

By Dave Hutchinson/The Star Ledger

November 14, 2009, 11:00PM

Aristide Economopoulos/The Star-Ledger

Shaun Ellis, left, and Kareem Hamad had a bond that began nine years ago when the two met at a Muscular Dystrophy Association event.

As Shaun Ellis raced out of the tunnel at Giants Stadium before the Jets’ game against the Buffalo Bills last month, his eyes scanned the handicapped seating area near the far end zone.

As had been his routine before nearly every home game for the past 10 seasons, Ellis sprinted the length of the field to greet his wheelchair-bound friend, Kareem Hamad, who was fighting Duchenne muscular dystrophy with the same tenacity Ellis shows battling opposing left tackles.

But Kareem, who Ellis calls his “little brother,” wasn’t there Oct. 18 — and the Jets defensive end knew something was tragically wrong.

“My heart dropped,” said Ellis, his voice trailing off. “His mom told me he was getting worse. I was supposed to go see him but I didn’t have the time to get there. I was like, ‘Man, it’s about to happen.’

“It was a sad moment for me sensing Kareem was ready to see the Lord. Amid all the excitement of getting ready to play the game, I knew I was about to lose a good friend. It was tough.”

Eight days later, Kareem died at his family’s Staten Island home. He was 19.

Duchenne muscular dystrophy, an incurable disease that results in a rapid and progressive loss of muscle function and the degeneration of organs, affects approximately 1 in 3,500 males born worldwide. It had claimed the second son in the Hamad family.

“Kareem had such fight in him,” Ellis said. “That’s why I was really drawn to him. He never let his situation get him down. He was a strong kid. Those are the things I take pride in. We bonded right away.”

Ellis will play his 148th career game Sunday afternoon — a club record for a defensive lineman — when the Jets (4-4) meet the Jaguars (4-4) at Giants Stadium, but he can still remember being a rookie and first meeting Kareem at the Muscular Dystrophy Association’s annual “Muscle Team” event in 2000 at Chelsea Piers.

That’s when he hooked up with a then 10-year-old Kareem and fellow Jets rookie John Abraham connected with Kareem’s older brother, Mahmoud, who was 11 at the time.

“My son already knew the outcome of his life,” said Eddie Hamad, the boys’ father. “He saw his brother die. But he would call up Shaun, and Shaun would tell him to keep fighting, be strong. ...

“Shaun’s words of encouragement meant everything to my son. We’re so grateful. Shaun gave him a will to live. When my other son, Mahmoud, died at 15 (in 2004), the doctors said Kareem probably would die around that age, too. He lived another four years. I owe it all to Shaun.”

Eddie Hamad and his wife, Noja, devout Muslims, had seven kids. Three of the couple’s five boys — Mahmoud, Kareem and Ahmed, 13 — were afflicted by Duchenne muscular dystrophy, an inherited disorder. The Hamads’ two other sons and two daughters are healthy.

“Kareem’s mom is a strong woman,” Ellis said of Noja, who carries the DMD gene. Prenatal testing to detect the disease did not exist at the time Noja was pregnant with the boys, Eddie Hamad said.

“This has been very, very tough on her. She gets up every morning knowing she might lose another son.”

Phone calls and texts were frequent boosts to Kareem’s spirit over the past decade, and Ellis would drop by the Hamad home when he could. Ellis shared game balls from some of the Jets’ most impressive victories and gave Kareem several jerseys — one of which has been draped over his now-empty wheelchair in his room.

Photos cover Kareem’s bedroom walls, his favorite a 4-foot-by-4-foot picture of Kareem, Mahmoud, Ellis, Abraham and former Jets linebacker Mo Lewis at a training camp practice.

Aristide Economopoulos/The Star-Ledger

Kareem Hamad's favorite photo

After Kareem finished eighth grade, Ellis threw him a graduation party. And over the years, there were PlayStations, Xboxes and games.

“My son’s face would just glow whenever he saw Shaun,” said Noja Hamad, who recalled how Kareem loved to show Ellis his dead-on impersonation of the Tyler Perry character Madea. “To see my son so happy. Every time I saw Shaun, I said, ‘I don’t know what to say to you anymore for what you’ve done for my son.’”

Ellis’ generosity didn’t stop with Kareem. When the family’s house burned down in an electrical fire in 2005, Ellis headlined a fundraiser at a local hotel to help them raise money to buy a new home.

Ellis signed autographs until his fingers hurt. He smiled for photos all day and all night. Then, he wrote the family a $10,000 check.

“I just tried to do everything I could to help them in between my responsibility to my own family,” said Ellis, who has a wife, Cecile, and three children. “To me, Kareem was like a little brother.”

At 32, the 6-5, 285-pound Ellis is still a force on the football field, equally effective against the run and pass. Nicknamed the “Big Kat” because he’s so athletic for a player his size, he has 25 tackles and 2 1⁄2 sacks in seven games this season. (He was suspended for the season-opener because of a marijuana arrest.)

Ellis, a full-time starter since his second season, was one of four first-round picks by the Jets in the 2000 draft; Abraham, quarterback Chad Pennington and tight end Anthony Becht are the others. He has played in several different defensive schemes but has always been productive. He has 591 career tackles, and his 64 career sacks rank fourth on the team’s all-time list.

“It’s very rare that you get a guy with his size to have that kind of athleticism,” Jets coach Rex Ryan said. “He can play outside, inside, 3-4, 4-3, you name it. He’s really one of our best players and really one of the best linemen in this league.”

In Week 8, the first home game since Kareem’s death, Ellis had five tackles, two sacks and two quarterback hurries in a 30-25 loss to the Dolphins. The Jets held the Dolphins to just 104 yards total offense, the fourth-lowest total in franchise history.

“He was creating pressure and making tackles,” said linebacker Bryan Thomas, Ellis’ closest friend on the team. “He had a couple of big hits. The guy was all over the field just doing what he always does.”

Incredibly, Ellis, who went to the Pro Bowl after logging 12 1⁄2 sacks and 109 tackles during the 2003 season, has missed just five career games. His durability, longevity and productivity is hard to come by at his position. Sunday, Ellis will make his 134th career start, the second-longest active streak among defensive linemen with one team. Steelers defensive end Aaron Smith has started 142 in a row, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

“Shaun is the consummate pro,” Jets general manager Mike Tannenbaum said. “He’s a true every-down defensive end. He has been a bedrock for us since we drafted him. He’s the same guy every day.”

Kareem, who had been in a wheelchair since he was 10 years old, lived for Sunday afternoons at Giants Stadium, when he would see Ellis come running out of the tunnel and head straight for him.

“Shaun would jump up and give everybody high-fives and hugs. It was a rush you wouldn’t believe,” said Kareem’s dad, Eddie. “... But on the day of that Bills game, my son said, ‘Dad, I’m too weak. I can’t go. Tell Shaun I’ll see him later.’ Right then and there, I knew the end was near.”

Aristide Economopoulos/The Star-Ledger

Eddie Hamad, left, and his wife Noja sit on the bed in which their son, Kareem, died last month of muscular dystrophy at 19. They hold a photo of him and Jets defensive end Shaun Ellis. To the left is Kareem's wheelchair, decorated with a Jets jersey.

Kareem, who graduated from Tottenville High, had dropped from 140 pounds to about 50 during the past two years. The disease intensified its attack on his organs. He couldn’t chew his food or keep it down. His esophagus no longer functioned properly, and he often vomited what little food went down.

But Kareem would never let on to how much he was truly hurting.

“I would call him and he would always say, ‘I’m doing great,’ ” Ellis said. “When I saw him, you never saw the pain on his face. He always had a smile on his face.”

In his final days, Kareem refused to go to the hospital. His brother, Mahmoud, spent the last two months of his life in the hospital, where Ellis and Abraham visited him, but Kareem refused to give in.

He said no to painkillers, a feeding tube and a visiting nurse.

“I begged him to go to the hospital,” Noja Hamad said. “He said, ‘No, I have to stay strong like Shaun told me.’ He would never tell me how much pain he was in. I felt so frustrated. He kept saying, ‘I can do it. I can do it.’”

Kareem died Oct. 26 at home in his bed, and he was immediately buried next to his brother. Ellis, traveling back from Oakland with his teammates after their 38-0 victory against the Raiders, was unable to attend the funeral.

“It was tough not being able to pay my respects, but I want to remember Kareem as upbeat, smiling, a guy who never showed what was going on,” Ellis said. “I just look at it as I have an extra angel looking down on me.”

Dave Hutchinson may be reached at dhutchinson@starledger.com.

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