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Robert Hughes’ late brother the driving force behind NFL dream

Robert Hughes (above against USC) has earned sociology degree from Notre Dame. | Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

Robert Hughes (above against USC) has earned a sociology degree from Notre Dame. | Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

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Updated: July 31, 2011 12:16AM

For the last three months, Elias Karras guided the transformation of Notre Dame running back Robert Hughes’ body.

As a trainer of world-class athletes, Karras must develop routines and exercises that push clients beyond their comfort zone — without physical setback — in the name of shaving a tenth of a second off an already-blazing time in the 40-yard dash or adding a couple of inches to an already-towering vertical leap.

But Karras never needed to prod Hughes, who dropped 20 pounds, reduced his body fat to 8 percent and pared at least two-tenths of a second off his 40 time.

‘‘I didn’t have to ever say, ‘Hey, Rob, you slacked off today,’ ’’ said Karras, the founder of EFT Sports Performance in Northbrook. ‘‘There’s always something else pushing him that he kept to himself.’’

When Hughes approached his threshold — when his body yearned for a break — he closed his eyes, inhaled and listened for his brother’s voice.

‘‘You’ve got more.’’

‘‘You’re better than that.’’

‘‘Two more sets.’’

After dominant performances in middle school and high school, Hughes sometimes got frustrated when his older brother Tony nitpicked his technique or lamented an opportunity lost.

Now, though, as he nears the NFL draft, Robert would give anything for Earl ‘‘Tony’’ Hughes to be with him in spirit and body as he prepares to fulfill a shared dream.

A killer, however, still remains at large after Tony was shot to death near his Chicago home 31/2 years ago.

So Robert, five years Tony’s junior, taps into the countless conversations the two had on bus rides to assorted games, film sessions in Tony’s bedroom and late-night sprints — complete with weight vests — in the street in front of their home.

‘‘He’s a lot of the reason I am where I am today,’’ Robert said, ‘‘and to not have that hand in my life is very disturbing. At other times, you feel the strength and courage to try and make him proud.

‘‘He just wanted me to succeed and be better than he was.’’

Model mentor

Growing up, Robert enjoyed nothing more than watching Tony play guard on the basketball court and running back on the football field. He admired his brother’s love of sports, his style and swagger and his rare combination of speed and power.

‘‘On the [football] field, he would be running guys over and using his speed,’’ Robert recalled. ‘‘It was amazing to see. I was like, ‘Man, that’s my older brother.’

‘‘I didn’t need Jim Brown. No offense to him or anyone else, but a guy living with me was my role model.’’

One Halloween, Tony dressed up as legendary Bears running back Walter Payton. The next Halloween, Robert dressed up as Payton, according to their mother, Blanchie Reed.

‘‘He wanted to do everything his brother did,’’ Reed said.

Tony was offered athletic scholarships to several schools, including Illinois, but he didn’t meet the academic requirements. By picking the right school and the right coach, Reed said, Tony could have passed muster.

‘‘Had I had the information that I had for Robert, then Tony could have been in the same spot,’’ she said. ‘‘But you learn through trial and error.’’

So Tony shined at Joliet Junior College, then shifted his focus to ensuring that his younger brother didn’t repeat his history.

Especially in the classroom.

Tony sometimes picked Robert up from Hubbard High School after work and always checked his report card.

‘‘We can’t let him do what I did and mess up his grades,’’ Tony would tell his mother.

‘‘It was something that I was hearing left and right from my mom and brother,’’ Robert said. ‘‘You had to learn from it, or things weren’t going to be good.’’

Once, to bolster his point, Tony posted his full week’s paycheck from Starbucks on Robert’s bedroom door with a note.

‘‘This is what I make right now, for my mistake,’’ Tony wrote.

Right below that, he posted the minimum salary for an NFL player, which was $230,000 at the time.

‘‘This is what you can make if you bust your tail and don’t make the mistakes I made,’’ wrote Tony, who worked as a trainer at EFT Sports Performance.

So after Robert’s first game at Notre Dame ­— he chose the school ahead of many others because of its academics — Tony hustled to him and hugged him.

‘‘Man, we made it,’’ Tony told Robert.

‘‘He was really excited,’’ Reed said. ‘‘That was a very special moment for our family.’’

Control what you can control

Those close to Tony are baffled by his final moments on Oct. 31, 2007. He stepped out of his home, leaving the door open and the lights on, at midnight without his wallet.

‘‘Something brought him out of the house,’’ Robert said. ‘‘In his mind, he was going to do something fast and come right back.’’

‘‘Whoever called Tony out, he trusted them,’’ Reed added.

But Tony was fatally shot in the head, and his family still is searching for answers.

‘‘It amazes me that folks won’t talk,’’ Reed said. ‘‘I don’t know where folks get this ‘no snitch,’ but I sure hope another mother don’t have to bury her son in that way.’’

Reed still lives in the neighborhood, and she makes a concerted effort never to pass the spot where her son was slain.

Robert is frustrated, too, but he leans on his brother’s teaching to handle that challenge, as well as several others. For instance, his role changed dramatically when Brian Kelly replaced Charlie Weis as the coach at Notre Dame, but he embraced whatever opportunity he received, including snaps on special teams.

‘‘You can’t control a lot of stuff,’’ Robert said. ‘‘But you can control how hard you work, your attitude and your impact on other people.

‘‘That’s something my brother helped me develop. Anyone can handle things when they go well. But how do you carry yourself when they’re not going right for you?’’

So whether he’s drafted or not, regardless of the round, Robert holds firm to his NFL dream. NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock said Hughes reminds him of fullback Le’Ron McClain, a fourth-round round pick of the Baltimore Ravens in 2007, who has been a two-time Pro Bowl selection.

‘‘I’m intrigued by Hughes,’’ said Mayock, who highlighted his powerful running style and pass-catching skills. ‘‘I’m a fan of Le’Ron McClain type of backs.’’

Robert fulfilled one of the goals his brother wanted for him by earning his sociology degree from Notre Dame. Now he will try to achieve another by playing in the NFL.

‘‘He’s taken what could have been a negative force in his life and has turned it into a positive,’’ said Eugene Lee, Robert’s agent. ‘‘I think he’s got a bright future ahead of him in football. But I know he’s going to be successful in life.’’

Anyone with information regarding the shooting death of Tony Hughes can call Chicago police at (312) 746-8282.

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