Port Jefferson teen with muscular dystrophy fulfills football dream
As a young boy, Naji Nizam fell in love with football while watching his older brother Ray play for the Earl L. Vandermeulen High School varsity in Port Jefferson.
Playing was all Naji Nizam ever wanted to do, and he wasn't going to let anything stand in his way. Not even the debilitating disease that should have made his goal impossible.
When he was 7, Nizam was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy, a genetic disease -- for which there is no cure -- that attacks and gradually weakens muscles.
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"People would always tell me I couldn't play," Nizam said. "But that wasn't an option.
"My obsession with this came from the fact that everyone said it was impossible for me. I began disregarding all negative things."
Nizam, now a 17-year-old senior at Vandermeulen, fulfilled his dream by appearing in two varsity games this season, including the season finale on Nov. 2 against Shoreham-Wading River. Listed as a tight end / linebacker, he played in that game as a cornerback.
Nizam is considering studying hotel management in college and also enjoys skiing, hanging out with his friends and working out. Nizam says exercise -- including football workouts -- has been the greatest weapon in his fierce battle against the disease.
"Had I not done stuff on my own in terms of exercise, I'm sure I would be in a different place right now," Nizam said. "Maybe I would need a wheelchair.
"If you really want something, you go for it, and you go all out," he said.
But going all out on the football field was not something his family was comfortable with, not even the older brother who inspired him. Ray, now a 24-year-old law student at George Washington University, was a linebacker at Vandermeulen and knows how rough the game can be.
"I'm glad he didn't listen to me," Ray Nizam said. "He has a magnified risk of injury, but . . . at a certain point you have to let him make his own decisions."
Like many football moms, Mounia Nizam worries constantly about her son.
"I'm always afraid he's going to get hurt," she said. "He feels that he's unstoppable."
But it's that unstoppable attitude that made him such an important part of the team.
Nizam said that when he began playing football his junior year, he feared his teammates would resent him for not being able to keep up in practice. While running sprints last year, he said his teammates stood in line waiting for him to finish.
"I'm delaying the final huddle and thinking everyone is going to hate me," he said. Instead, the team cheered him on, "and that made all the difference."
"He shows up and he works hard," Vandermeulen quarterback Tyler D'Accordo said. "He's an inspiration to the team."
Coach Andrew Cosci said that Nizam has helped teach the team about more than just football.
"It's not about winning and that's what I always hammer home," Cosci said. "You have to learn to deal with adversity and we do that on a daily basis. It shapes you as a person."
Nizam's father, Samir, said there is one word to describe his son: resilient.
"He never fails to amaze me," he said. "I look up to him and I have always encouraged him to accomplish what he wants in spite of his challenge."
Being able to play in his last game as a senior was a moment Nizam will cherish for a lifetime.
"Going into the fourth quarter of my last game in high school . . . I knew it was already going to be a nostalgic moment," Nizam said. "I knew I was going to remember it forever."