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A year after fatal overdose, former student-athlete remembered for her fortitude

Jackie Jamaleddine, who competed in multiple sports at Staten Island and was on Champion’s cover in 2012, died in March 2018. NCAA Photos archive

Every semester, Jennifer Pizzuto asked students at Staten Island to begin her entry-level English class with a written reflection about a profound moment in their lives. The assignment’s intentions were decidedly less so — it usually enabled Pizzuto to gauge her students’ writing skills and served as an icebreaker as each read the entry aloud. Usually.

In the spring of 2010, though, Jackie Jamaleddine stepped in front of a room of relative strangers and told the story of losing her mother to swine flu the year before. She articulated how the loss had reshaped her life. As she read, the room fell silent, save for her voice and the sound of throats choking back tears.

It’s that ability to square up to hardships and forge meaningful bonds that those who knew Jamaleddine during her time in college say they now miss most — but not because she has moved on or moved away. The former multisport Staten Island athlete, who was the subject of Champion’s Spring 2012 cover story, died in March 2018 after overdosing on fentanyl-laced heroin. The addiction that had begun years earlier claimed her at 27.

“I wish that I could have had the chance to see what kind of woman she grew into,” Pizzuto says, “and the mark that she would have left on this world.”

Jamaleddine was claimed by the opioid epidemic that has been ravaging swaths of the country for more than a decade. She was one of the roughly 100 Staten Islanders who succumbed to a drug overdose in 2018; three of the borough’s four neighborhoods have higher drug overdose mortality rates than the New York City average.

But Jamaleddine’s former coaches and teachers choose to remember her for her potential, not her addiction. Her former track and field/cross country coach Robert Russo, who since has left coaching, met her when she was a freshman walk-on. She had plenty of drive but needed polishing.

The distance specialist was a diligent worker — and occasional practical joker — and eventually added swimming, tennis and basketball to her plate, as well. The busy schedule was a means of immersing herself in something positive, her coach thinks now, and escaping the difficulties brought on by the loss of a mother, a cherished uncle and her sense of stability. With her mom gone, Jamaleddine was left to watch over a pair of younger sisters. “I think she felt like she had to take on the role of, or the responsibility to be, the mother figure,” Russo says.

Pizzuto, who was also an assistant tennis coach, saw Jamaleddine assume the same role with her teammates. When any of them was dealing with food insecurity or problems finding reliable housing, Jamaleddine was quick to provide support, food, even extra clothes. Through their frequent conversations about school and life, Pizzuto came to view Jamaleddine as more little sister than pupil. Even as she fell into the throes of addiction and dropped out of school, Jamaleddine stayed in touch, always quick to deflect conversations from her own problems to ask about someone else’s. To try to help.

Russo remembers seeing Jamaleddine at a home cross country meet a year or two before she died. She pulled her old coach aside to remind him that she still had a year of eligibility left. He told her she would always be welcome. During college, she routinely told coaches and teachers about how she felt sports had saved her, how they gave her purpose and focus and provided a diversion from a more dangerous path. “Had she made the decision to come back sooner,” Russo says, “maybe things would have gone differently.”

Pizzuto awoke one morning last spring stunned to find messages of mourning for Jamaleddine on her Facebook timeline; a pair of stints at a rehab facility had proven insufficient. Pizzuto and her husband, David, the school’s associate director of athletics and sports information director, were among a handful of staff who attended her memorial service. Seeing Jamaleddine in an open casket proved too difficult, and Pizzuto was unable to linger for long. Instead, she turns to their old conversations when she needs a reminder of Jamaleddine’s selfless soul.

In 2014, Jamaleddine messaged Pizzuto on Facebook, thanking her for the support through the years, even as she struggled to fend off her demons. “You know how much you mean to me,” Jamaleddine wrote. “I love you. I’ll let you know how things go. I’m going to try to figure everything out.”

About Champion

Champion magazine goes behind the headlines and beyond the scoreboards to celebrate the unique connection between Americans and college sports. Champion is published by the NCAA.