Overlooked for his size, Nebraska's Abdullah proving his critics wrong
Dismissed for his size as a recruit, tailback Ameer Abdullah is starring at Nebraska
Abdullah is the youngest of 10 children and grew up competing with older siblings
Huskers' hero Rex Burkhead was injured early in 2012; Abdullah has filled his void
About a month after he signed with the one school that promised him nothing except that it saw him the way he saw himself, Ameer Abdullah still couldn't believe everyone else's eyes. Nebraska gave him an opportunity to play running back, but no one else gave him a chance, with observers assuming a 5-foot-9 prospect was destined for outside sweeps and third-down packages. He was not another roughhewn workhorse. There were I-Backs, and then there was Ameer jitterbug.
He was used to this. He was a kid from Homewood, Ala., to whom his home-state schools only gave a secondary thought, pegging him as a defensive back. So when the latest wave of doubts surfaced, he literally had his response in hand. Abdullah found a piece of paper and the nearest writing utensil, a blue marker, and scribbled down a message. He taped the paper to the back of his bedroom door. Every day, as he headed to workouts, he saw the sign: You're nothing but a scat-back.
"Nothing that people around the house needed to see," Abdullah said. "I wasn't trying to make a statement. It was just something I really needed."
As 8-2 Nebraska surges toward the Big Ten championship game and a possible Rose Bowl berth, the Cornhuskers aren't sure what they'd do without him. Abdullah stepped into the considerable, burdensome void left by injured running back Rex Burkhead and carried on. The sophomore now has four straight 100-yard games in Nebraska's four straight wins, and he needs just 58 yards to crack the 1,000-yard milestone in a season in which he wasn't expected to play with the first-team offense much.
Last Saturday against Penn State, the still 5-9 Abdullah recorded 31 carries in a 32-23 win. At practice two days later, Cornhuskers coach Bo Pelini approached his small back with big praise: You're pretty tough for a little guy. Abdullah laughed. I'll remember that, he told his coach.
"He makes it hard for people to get big shots on him," Pelini said. "He is a slippery guy and has great feet and great change of direction. He doesn't take a lot of big hits, and that allows him to be fresh. Gosh, he carried the ball, what, 31 times the other day? That's not easy to do no matter how big you are. And he feels great. He's ready to go again. If anything, he wants more."
Never has Abdullah settled for less. He is the youngest of 10 children, a clan teeming with competition. One brother, Mohammed, played defensive back at Alabama. A sister, Madinah, was a volleyball All-America at Alabama A&M. Others had collegiate athletics options but opted not to follow them. Ameer was always on the chase.
His first football Saturdays started at 10 a.m. on the swaths of grass at Valley Ridge Apartments or at Homewood Middle School, playing tackle football with his brother Kareem and his friends, who were three years older. If they took a break, it was to play basketball. When they returned to the football field, everyone raced to get there. And when they arrived, Kareem made clear to his friends how to handle his little brother.
Don't go soft on him, he'd say. Don't treat him any different.
"And they couldn't," Kareem said. "They couldn't even tackle him."
Eventually, Abdullah learned you can be brought to your knees without being taken to the ground. Kareem would matriculate at Auburn, and Ameer visited on the weekend of the Tigers' 2010 victory over Clemson. When overtime began, Ameer looked at his brother and said: This is what I live for.
Alabama viewed Abdullah as a cornerback prospect. There was at least clarity in that. Auburn, with an offense then under Gus Malzahn's direction, discussed running back with him at first. But within weeks of an offer, Auburn assistant Trooper Taylor passed through Homewood. He asked Abdullah what he thought about playing defensive back. Abdullah's heart sank. "I was like, man, why can't they see past the size, give me a chance?" Abdullah said.
Pelini was the lone head coach to sit on the Abdullahs' couch. He told Abdullah that he guaranteed nothing, except that he'd put Abdullah in the best possible position to be the best player he could be. That sealed it: Abdullah would be a Cornhusker. The one possible complication was that Burkhead was a Husker, too. By the time Abdullah reached campus, Burkhead already had 1,300 career rushing yards and a fervent, folk-hero following. Burkhead's sprained knee and subsequent re-aggravations this year gave Abdullah an opening, but it was Burkhead who helped show him the way through.
Burkhead's unflagging work ethic matched Abdullah's. During practice, when running backs coach Ron Brown called for a personnel switch, Burkhead sprinted off the field and Abdullah sprinted on. "What they're doing is saying, 'I'm here, I'm ready to go, the next guy coming in is as dangerous as I am,'" Brown said.
Still, it required Abdullah averaging 122.3 yards in the first three games of 2012 to convince everyone else of that. After all, Burkhead was, as Brown put it, "arguably the most popular player that's played here" in his tenure.
"We all know what kind of special player Rex has been for this university," Abdullah said. "I know for the fans, initially, they were definitely holding their breath, swearing, doing whatever they were doing at the time, probably nervous. Which they had the right to be. It's hard to replace a guy like that. But we prepare for that all year, all summer, all fall camp for situations like that. Whoever goes down, the next person has to be ready to fill in. You can't have any weaknesses."
Abdullah has shown he doesn't, producing in a way that is no small matter. He squats more than 500 pounds, and that strength complements his natural quickness to form a complete package, though you might not know by looking at it. "He's got explosive, springing type of ability," Brown said. "When you put hands on him, everything just directs right back at you. I bet he could be a great gymnast. He's so flexible, so powerful, he's got great balance. It's not easy to get him off his feet."
Well, unless he is at home. There, Abdullah is a self-described "game nerd." He lately has been as concerned with the gameplan for the new versions of Halo and Assassin's Creed as the one for Nebraska's next opponent. First, he totes footballs. Then, he totes a bag of potato chips and a Gatorade to his couch. "I'm a bum, really," Abdullah said. "I work hard, but when I get home, I'm a bum."
"We like to sit and be lazy," said Nebraska receiver Kenny Bell, one of Abdullah's close friends, "and then we get here, it's time to turn on the burners and go to work. He's ferocious."
Indeed, Burkhead had just left the field with his injury before a television timeout during the season opener against Southern Miss. Bell then turned to Abdullah, who had entered the huddle. You're going to be our guy, Bell said. Abdullah nodded. And Nebraska seamlessly moved from one hero to another.
"What a stud, right?" Bell said. "The guy stepped into the biggest shoes to fill on our team. You talk about who our most valuable and best player is on this football team, and we've played without him eight of the 10 games we've played. It's huge that Ameer has been able to step in and do the things he has done."
For the youngest of 10, Abdullah always has been more temperate than tempestuous. Kareem said his brother served as a mediator in sibling conflicts. A favorite Ameer bromide, his brother recalls, is a serene one: It is what it is. And as much as the recruiting slights gnawed at him, Abdullah preferred to linger under the radar. That way, he says, he'll never feel like he's arrived.
"I feel like I can go out there every week and I can do anything if my mind is right," Abdullah said. "When your mind is not right and it's not in the right place, then you're not capable of achieving what you want to achieve. Every week, I want to go out there and just completely dominate the person on the other side of me."
The Cornhuskers are three games away from playing in the Rose Bowl. No one would have guessed an undersized expat from SEC country would have carried them there. But what others saw as a limitation, Ameer Abdullah always has seen as a load-bearing frame. "Sweat's never killed anybody, that's what I like to say," Abdullah said. "Sweating that much more wouldn't bother me."
Brian Hamilton is a reporter for the Chicago Tribune. Follow him at @ChiTribHamilton.