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Football: There when he needed them

Jay Fitzpatrick | Friday, November 9, 2007

Three years ago, Irish running back Robert Hughes was in a relay race in a rodeo with his brother Earl “Tony” Hughes. Tony lost his footing on his horse and started to fall. So Robert rode up to Tony, and Tony jumped onto Robert’s horse.

“The whole idea of me saving my brother and us being together on the horse and him not being hurt or anything; that was one moment that I’ll never forget,” Robert Hughes said at a news conference Tuesday.

That was how close Robert and Tony were. That is what Robert lost.

When Tony Hughes was murdered last week in Chicago, Robert lost more than a brother. He lost a trainer.

He lost a mentor.

He lost a best friend.

A normal life

Robert Hughes was a dominant running back in high school.

As a freshman, he ran for 1,000 yards and then matched that with 1,034 yards the next season. Hughes had his breakout season as a junior, when he had 1,920 yards with 19 touchdowns. Hughes played both ways that season and notched 71 tackles with five sacks as Hubbard High School’s starting nose tackle.

Hughes said he and Tony were both running backs in high school and that his older brother would always push him to improve.

“Yeah, a lot of times it was just going to the park, running through the park, throwing the football,” Hughes said. “He was a running back in high school, and he was always a level ahead of me telling me I had to get bigger, faster and stronger. We were always working on different things and doing different stuff. Yeah, he basically trained me.”

Coming out of high school, Robert was one of the top players nationally, according to most recruiting lists. He was one of 11 Irish signees on the ESPN top-150 and was ranked 96th overall, good enough for the 15th best running back, according to The Sporting News.

Hughes entered Notre Dame this fall in an already packed running back corps, along with freshman Armando Allen, sophomore James Aldridge and seniors Travis Thomas and Junior Jabbie. Weis said Hughes’ role is to be the team’s power back, and that he runs hard in between the tackles.

Hughes had his biggest game this season against Michigan State when he had six carries for 33 yards and a touchdown. His family was in the stands for that game, and Tony was able to see his little brother score his first collegiate touchdown – something that helped Robert last week against Navy, when he scored his second touchdown.

“I just felt like he was looking down on me [on Saturday], and I knew wherever he is, he is smiling and saying congratulations,” Hughes said. “He was at the Michigan State game when I scored my first touchdown, and I seen how happy he was so all I could do when I scored this one this game, I just went back and related to [Michigan State] when that happened.”

Tragedy strikes

On Oct. 29, Chicago police found the body of Earl “Tony” Hughes near the neighborhood of Lockwood.

He was shot in the head by an unknown assailant, but police speculated that the incident was because of a woman.

“Since it happened, nothing has been normal,” Hughes said. “I’m just moving forward and whatever comes, I’m taking it one step at a time.”

Irish coach Charlie Weis said when Hughes’ mother called to tell Weis about the murder, she wanted the coaches to break the news to Robert. Weis called in Mike Haywood (Hughes’ position coach), Rob Ianello (the person who recruited Hughes) and Corwin Brown (Weis’ “Chicago specialist”) to break the news to Hughes.

“It was pretty traumatic because that was his best friend,” Haywood said.

Haywood said telling Hughes about his brother was one of the most difficult things he has had to do as a coach, but that Hughes has done a good job of slowly accepting the reality.

“It’s one of those things that you’ve probably never experienced as a coach before, but you just learn how to deal with it,” Haywood said. “He’s becoming stronger everyday, and he talks about his feelings a little more often. He’s getting back into the main stream of things right now.”

Hughes said losing Tony was especially traumatic because of their relationship.

“Everything that I stand for today was because of my brother,” he said. “He pushed me and taught me everything I know as far as growing up. As a young guy playing peewee ball, we always worked out together. He was such a motivator for my life and what I stand for today.”

After he learned the news, Hughes said he mostly felt confused.

“So much stuff on my mind the past couple of days when I got the information of what happened,” he said. “A lot of stuff ran through my mind. I have just been trying to get back into the swing of things. I try to turn to my family because I know that’s what [Tony] would have wanted.”

Robert’s two families

One of the reasons Robert Hughes has been able to cope with this tragedy is because of the support of his family in Chicago and his teammates and coaches at Notre Dame.

“Being around the coaches and the players was a huge difference-maker for me and keeping my mind off everything that was going on back home,” Hughes said. “It allowed me to get active and run around and release some of the pain and pressure that I felt.”

Hughes has relied extensively on the other members of the football team, who never hesitated to give him anything he needed.

Hughes has had teammates with him at any time he has needed outside of classes and practice, including staying up with him in his dorm room until he was able to get some sleep, Haywood said.

Haywood also said Hughes has been in his office after most practices just to talk. Haywood has been supportive of the freshman, giving him advice from his experience of losing two brothers – both to “health issues” in the 1990s.

Weis has been one of the most supportive members of the staff since the murder. He drove Hughes to Chicago Thursday night to talk with the player’s family and offer consolation. He also jumped through NCAA hoops to get two buses to take any players that wanted to go to Tony’s funeral there.

“It showed me how much he cared about all his players on his team. It was real huge for me to just talk to him and express the way I was feeling,” Hughes said.

Hughes returned to practice every day last week, using the game as an escape from reality. The culmination of that escape was his three-yard touchdown run against Navy.

“It was really huge for me and my family, especially coming off the loss of my brother,” Hughes said. “Me getting back here and scoring a touchdown was pretty big. It was my mother’s birthday so it kind of made her day a little bit.”

After the run, Hughes gave the ball to Weis so that it could go to his family, who was also at the game to get away from reality for a while.

“Before the game, I asked my mom if she was coming so I could put her on my ticket request. She said she needed to come and wanted to come,” he said. “So it was a good trip to get out of Chicago and to come here and see the game and get the whole Notre Dame atmosphere.”

Without his family at Notre Dame, Hughes said he would not have been able to recover from this tragedy.

“Everyone here stands for goodness,” he said. “Especially when guys like this go through situations like this.”