Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah has always had the hands and the speed to be a standout receiver or a shutdown corner. But the baby of an accomplished family had his own unshakable ideas about where he would ply his trade
IN THE LOBBY of The Cornhusker hotel in Lincoln, on the eve of Nebraska's 2014 season, Ameer Abdullah was no stranger to anyone. He was the nation's leading returning rusher, a Heisman Trophy hopeful coming off of consecutive 1,000-yard seasons. His keynote speech at the Big Ten kickoff luncheon one month earlier had addressed the "essence of the student-athlete" ("someone who has the desire to educate themselves...."), which he embodied as an all-conference performer, academically and on the field, who aspired to attend law school. No Nebraska athlete was in greater demand for appearances. He was a new folk hero, the face of a storied program.
So when a middle-aged woman approached Abdullah, who was sitting with his parents and his older brother Muhammad, it tripped no alarms. She explained that she was a big fan and that she would be honored if Abdullah signed her tattoo—which was on her rear end.
Abdullah thought the woman was joking. He nudged Muhammad, incredulous about the request. "And the minute I turned back," Abdullah says, "her butt was in my face."
Perhaps sensing the running back's discomfort, the cheeky admirer pulled up her pants and apologized, but not before providing one of the few light moments in a year that would be defined by its negative turns: a Nov. 1 left-knee sprain, a decline in production that dropped him out of the Heisman race and, eventually, the firing of coach Bo Pelini. Thus, Abdullah—all 5'9", 205 pounds of him—finds himself, once again, in a battle with perception as he prepares for the NFL draft. He may have outpaced the small expectations of the big schools back in his home state, but now, at 21, he must reestablish his worthiness as a pro prospect.
"I went from being on top of the world to being on the bottom," Abdullah says of a season in which he ran for 1,611 yards and 19 TDs. "It [became], What happened to Abdullah?"
AISHA AND KAREEM ABDULLAH had nine children. The oldest, daughter Halimah, became a political writer for NBC News. The next oldest, Muhammad, played defensive back at Alabama State before becoming a lawyer in Birmingham. One sister, Madinah, was an All-America volleyball player at Alabama A&M. One sibling became a banker, another an executive director. And so it went. But while their Homewood, Ala., household teemed with goal-oriented achievers, it was no paramilitary operation. It was loud and lively and loving, and part of that love meant pushing the brood to seek something more. Kareem told his children: If the best you can do is a C, so be it. But, he advised, strive to do better than your best. Then you set your own standard.
If that message resonated with the first few kids, imagine the momentum down the line. "You don't want to get outdone," Muhammad says. "You're one of nine; you've got to try to stand out."
Ameer was the youngest sibling, but that didn't discourage him from joining his brother Kareem in tackle football games. On the rare occasion that one of the older kids caught him, Ameer rolled off their tackles and steadied himself with a hand on the ground. "I'd be like, Why are you going easy on him?" Kareem remembers. "And they're like, Dude, I'm not."
Ameer's stature bothered him for only a brief spell in sixth grade, when he says he was "barely five feet tall." During basketball season, on the ride home after one game, he ranted to his father about how he wasn't big enough, strong enough, fast enough. Kareem Sr. stopped the car. You know, he told his son, sometimes you just have to go with what God gave you.
"That resonated with me deeper than I thought it would," Ameer says. "You can't wish you were like someone else, you can't harp on what you don't have.... What God gave everyone was 24 hours, every day, to maximize his full potential."
This became his lodestar. After Abdullah finished his junior season at Homewood High with just one scholarship offer, from Tuskeegee, he redoubled his efforts with Otis Leverette, a former NFL defensive end and now a Birmingham-based trainer, who told him to "work harder than whoever works the hardest, to let them know you're for real."
Abdullah won the running back MVP awards at Nike's LSU and Alabama camps that summer and, his confidence stoked, ran for 1,800 yards and 24 TDs in his final season at Homewood. D-I offers trickled in, but still: Neither Alabama nor Auburn saw him the way he saw himself, as a major-conference running back.
As signing day neared, his family urged him to go where he could do what he wanted. That was Nebraska, one of only a few schools that recruited him as a ballcarrier. Abdullah says the in-state snubs hurt, but they served a purpose: "How hard I worked my freshman and sophomore years at Nebraska, that was the chip on my shoulder."
"Perhaps it was his all-around ability that put him in that situation" in the first place, suggests his Cornhuskers running backs coach, Ron Brown, who points to Abdullah's quick hands and speed. "But can he endure the rigors of playing tailback in the Big Ten?"
Pelini guessed he could. By the start of Abdullah's freshman season he was the school's No. 2 running back; near the middle of his sophomore year he stepped in for injured starter Rex Burkhead (the school's No. 5 all-time rusher) and finished with 1,137 yards, earning him second-team All--Big Ten honors. Replacing a Huskers hero was the first step in becoming the next one.
AFTER HE SIGNED with Nebraska, Abdullah grabbed a blue marker and scribbled a message, which he taped to the back of his bedroom door: YOU'RE NOTHING BUT A SCATBACK. Even after three prolific years in Lincoln, he still had signs like this hanging around his apartment, referencing other slights—too small, only a third-down back. "People are always trying to limit me," he says. "Anytime you can disprove a limit or a standard someone has put on you, it's a great feeling."
Just as his college career neared its end, Abdullah's capacity to prove himself at the next level hit a snag. Pelini was fired on Nov. 30 as the Cornhuskers staggered to three losses in their final four games. That ouster disrupted Abdullah's plans to prep for the Senior Bowl and the combine in Indianapolis; his old strength coach chose not to stick around. Says Abdullah, who always sat next to the projector in meetings, who always liked to be in control: "It was panic for me."
Maybe it shouldn't have been. Doing the work was never an issue. In college Abdullah outfitted his bedroom with an Olympic bench press and was twice named Nebraska's Lifter of the Year. After settling on Michael Johnson Performance in McKinney, Texas, as a training base, he honed his technique, prepped for the combine drills and crafted thorough answers for every potential question he might face.
As he did by breaking 1972 Heisman winner Johnny Rodgers's career record for all-purpose yards with the Huskers, Abdullah has since made a strong case against his doubters. He earned Senior Bowl MVP honors in January; and among running backs he had the best three-cone time (6.79 seconds), 20-yard shuttle run time (3.95), vertical jump (42.5") and broad jump (130") at the combine in February.
Which has still left him with much to prove. "The height thing, for whatever reason, scares teams," he says. "A lot of running backs [my size] are thought of as not durable. But I've never missed a game."
Abdullah, in fact, has come to see his perceived height deficiency as an advantage. His compact build helps him get out of cuts quickly and hide behind the line in goal-to-go situations. It gives him a low pad level when he enters the hole, advantageous in blowing up defenders.
Whether NFL teams agree is another matter—just don't look for skeptics among Abdullah's past opponents. "His greatest strength is his change of direction," says Wisconsin defensive coordinator Dave Aranda. "He'll be going 100 miles per hour one way, stick his foot in the ground, and 100 miles per hour the other way. It's frightening."
ABDULLAH LEAVES little to chance, including the rise of the undead. At Nebraska, he jokes, he and receiver Kenny Bell stockpiled Gatorade and toilet paper at Bell's apartment—you know, in preparation for the zombie apocalypse. "He has the resources we need to survive," says Abdullah.
He is fascinated by outer space ("It's so big, you know?") but considers extraterrestrial invasions unlikely. Interstellar travel takes so long, he argues, that humans might not even be here by the time aliens arrive. Then there's what Ameer calls the Strut, a celebratory dance—staggered gait, rocking side to side—that he and brother Kareem concocted as children. Muhammad (who does not do the Strut) describes the dance as "kind of like Pee-wee Herman, but a lot cooler." Says Ameer, "Imagine the most swag walk you've ever seen in your life. That's the Strut."
In this way, Abdullah is colorful, a deep thinker with strong opinions. And while he recognizes that this is not a combination that the fall-in-line NFL necessarily prefers, he says that in talking to all 32 teams at the combine he demonstrated that he's smart, but not too smart for his own good. "Sometimes it's not good to be too opinionated," he says. "You don't want a guy who's like, I think this is the right way. Who cares what you think, bro? Lace up your shoes and let's go."
If only it were that simple. "Sometimes I feel I get overlooked for things I can't control," Abdullah says. But he's quick to add that he's fine with that. It has kept a fire in his belly, no matter how much of a local hero he's become.
In his ad hoc bedroom weight room last fall Abdullah hung a poster of Muhammad Ali standing over a fallen Sonny Liston, the iconic image from their 1965 heavyweight title bout. Abdullah idolizes Ali, someone who defeated the odds. Every time Abdullah gripped that bench-press bar, he believed he was working harder than anyone else worked that day, ensuring that neither odds nor limits would catch up to him.
Abdullah kept messages taped to his bedroom door—YOU'RE NOTHING BUT A SCATBACK—even after three prolific years in Lincoln.
@ Passes dropped over the last two years (and 48 targets) by Abdullah, making him an ideal multithreat NFL back.
Photograph by Todd Rosenberg For Sports Illustrated
Photo Illustration by SI Premedia
AJ MAST FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
RED TIDE As a Husker, Abdullah broke the 100-yard mark 24 times, second only to Mike Rozier.
[See caption above]