Q&A with Heisman Trophy candidate Ameer Abdullah

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Its location alone evokes images of gargantuan nose tackles and corn-fed linebackers, but the University of Nebraska football program has a rich heritage of electric playmakers on the offensive side of the ball. Dating back to World War I veteran and Hall of Fame player/coach Guy Chamberlin, the Cornhuskers have been home to Roger Craig, Tommie Frazier, Irving Fryar, Turner Gill, Ahman Green, Calvin Jones, Taylor Martinez, Lawrence Phillips and Bobby Reynolds, plus Heisman Trophy winners Johnny Rodgers (1972), Mike Rozier (1983) and Eric Crouch (2001).

Adding his name to that lineage of human highlight reels to tote the rock for Nebraska is junior I-back Ameer Abdullah.

Last season, Abdullah rushed for 1,690 yards (No. 1 in the Big Ten conference) and nine touchdowns, along with two receiving touchdowns. He gained 225 yards on the ground with two TDs in a win over Illinois, and in Nebraska’s Gator Bowl victory over Georgia, ran for 122 yards and a score. Abdullah was named first team All-Big Ten and third team All-American, and was a semifinalist for the Doak Walker Award as the nation’s best running back.

Abdullah could’ve left school early for the NFL draft, and by most projections he would have been chosen in the first few rounds. But the 5-9, 190-pound speedster from Homewood, Ala., raised Muslim in a family with eight older siblings, decided to return for one more shot at a national title and perhaps a shot at the Heisman.

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UMMAH SPORTS: Why didn’t you go pro?

AMEER ABDULLAH: Essentially, it came down to life being much bigger than football. Someday football will fail me. I’m not gonna play forever. I need something to rely on, and that’s my education. Not saying you can’t come back to school if you leave early, but if you can complete your degree with just one more course while playing your senior season, that’s a great opportunity.

What is your plan in case football doesn’t work out, or for after football is over?

I’m majoring in History and minoring in Education. After that, I’m thinking about law school. My brother Muhammad is a tax attorney, but I was thinking about something like being a sports agent. I love football, and you can be connected to the game in many ways even if you aren’t playing.

A lot of people portray college athletes, especially football players, as being disinterested in school and just going through the motions of being a student because they have to. You don’t appear to fit that stereotype.

Education is really important in my family. I’m the youngest of nine siblings, and they all have their college undergraduate degrees. Two of my sisters have their Masters; another sister is in law school; another is finishing pharmacy school; my brother is a lawyer and another one of my brothers is in accounting school. We’re fortunate to have been blessed with great parents who did a great job raising us. Nothing was given to them and they became successful, and they taught us to work for what we have. There are a lot of great role models in my family.

What do your parents do for a living?

My father is retired, but he used to own a mortgage and tax company in Birmingham, Alabama. My mother is an educator. She’s the head coordinator for a Head Start program.

Since education was so big in your house, were you discouraged from playing sports?

Oh no (laughs), my family is a big sports family. I’m not even the best athlete; my sister Madinah is an all-state volleyball player and has all these records in the state of Alabama. My dad played running back in college. My parents feel like it’s necessary to have sports as an outlet to academics.

Being involved in sports is about more than just reaching the NBA or NFL. It’s about building character and creating discipline that helps you grow as a person, and my family understands that. With me and the rest of my siblings, sports were really prevalent in addition to our academics.

Even though you were raised Muslim, I think there comes a time when you have to decide for yourself that this is your religion.

That’s true. I feel like it’s the same thing with politics: When you’re little and your parents are Democrats, you reach that age when you have to make your own decision whether you’re going to be Republican, Democrat or nothing. It’s the same thing. I was raised following the faith of Islam and still feel the same as I did when I was a young boy going to the mosque with my father and mother. That’s my chosen faith.

What was it like growing up in Alabama not only being a Black man, but also a Muslim?

It was definitely a challenge. Alabama is a very … I’ll say it’s a very Republican state, very slow to new movements and new ideas. The school I went to was mostly Caucasian, and the people there were great for the most part. But being an African-American is a challenge, and growing up being a Muslim — especially through 9/11 and incidents like that — people get a bad view of Islam.

I always encourage people not to listen to the news clippings and the headlines and TMZ. Whatever the blogs are saying, you need to do your own research about the religion. Whatever you see on TV doesn’t represent what I follow. Once people do that, they’ll get a good idea of what Islam is about and how Muslims really act. But you can’t take what people are doing overseas and associate every Muslim with that. That’s like taking slave owners — who were Christian at the time — taking those people who did those bad things and saying all Christians are bad because of that. That wouldn’t be fair. So I encourage people to do their own research. That’s my take on it.

Describe yourself as a player.

I’m a pretty fiery guy. I like to compete. I like to one-up on the next man. I was always taught that you’re only as good as your work ethic, so I put an emphasis on being the hardest worker on the field in any circumstance.

What are your strengths? What do you need to work on?

As far as my strengths, I’d say my quickness. I’ve always been a smaller, kind of shiftier guy, lower to the ground, so I use that to my advantage. As far as what I need to work on, I think exploding through defenders. I’m pretty strong for my size, but I can explode through defenders more than trying to get around them all the time. Just overall, I want to be more of a multi-dimensional back and not the scat-back prototype.

Which NFL player would you compare yourself to?

I usually don’t like doing that, because those guys are in a much different league than I am. But when I was younger I always liked Warrick Dunn. He was 5-9, speedy and pretty strong. His work ethic took him far. He did great things in the NFL and is a great person.

Why’d you pick Nebraska?

They came in (to the recruiting picture) earlier in my senior year, but being pretty far from Alabama, they probably didn’t think they had much of a chance of getting me. I was leaning toward Auburn or Alabama, but they thought I was too small or didn’t have the ability to play running back at their school. They offered me at defensive back. I’m a pretty self-driven guy, so once someone tells me I can’t do it, I’m doing it. So Nebraska came in probably late November of my senior year, I took my visit in January and I fell in love with the place. Coach Bo (Pelini), Coach (Ron) Brown, Coach (Tim) Beck, they were honest with me. They didn’t promise me a starting position, they didn’t promise me any playing time. All they promised me was an opportunity.

When you got to Nebraska, was it tough to find a mosque or a Muslim community?

At first I didn’t even know where to start looking. But I have a teammate who is Muslim, (junior running back) Murat Kuzu. His father did his own worship on Fridays, so I started going with them. No matter where you go, you can find a group where you can fit in, and they allowed me to feel comfortable and at home.

How are your workouts and training impacted by fasting during Ramadan?

In the Quran it says when you’re on a journey, the time of Ramadan is forgiven as long as you make it up. I feel like Nebraska is a journey for me that I have to conquer every day. I have to conquer classes, I have to conquer being a better man, I have to conquer being a better football player. I’m battling every day. During Ramadan we’re in fall camp, so I don’t fast then because the physical demands are so great. But later in the year I’ll make up my month of Ramadan, usually in March or April. I live by the word of the Quran in that aspect.

Are there other ways in which Islam and football conflict?

Not necessarily. My position coach (Ron Brown) is very stone Christian, but that’s never been a problem. He understood when he was recruiting me that I’m a Muslim. His teachings are never directed toward Christians, it’s always a universal view. He doesn’t disrespect me in any way. So no, I don’t really have too much conflict.

What about fitting the daily prayers into the busy schedule of a student-athlete?

I’ve worked around my schedule. When I first got to Nebraska it was tough to figure it out, but once you do it every day, you get in a rhythm. I work my schedule around my prayers, and that’s how it should be.

What have you learned from Islam that carries over to football?

When you’re fasting for Ramadan, you have to be disciplined. When I was growing up, fasting from sunrise to sunset was one of the hardest things for me. I wasn’t as mentally tough. I’m at school and other kids are eating, and I wasn’t eating at the time; it was hard, but it really disciplined me. I’ve grown to be much more disciplined and mentally tough.

And, you know, being in college, there are a lot of outside distractions. A lot of students partake in a lot of things I see as distractions, but growing up as a Muslim in which discipline is key, I’ve learned from Islam to stay focused and disciplined.

And on the other end, what have you learned from football that can make you a better Muslim?

I’ve learned that it doesn’t matter what people who don’t know you think. It’s the people who love you; what do they think about you? When your team is winning, everybody loves you. But when you’re down, when you lose some games or when you fumble the rock, then you see who really loves you.

Islam takes a bad rap in our society because, in America, it’s not the dominant religion. For the people who don’t really know about Islam, you can’t look too much into their criticisms. It’s the people who genuinely take the time to research and see what the religion is about — they’re the ones whose opinions I’ll listen to.

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