In a past era of pro football, Ameer Abdullah would have been traveling to Chicago this week to attend the NFL Draft in person, taking his place in the invitation-only Green Room with the rest of the top prospects expecting to hear their names called in the first half of the first round of the seven-round event.
In a past era of pro football, Abdullah’s status as one of the three (or five) best running backs in the 2015 draft class could have ensured him a spot in the first round. Today, with pass-heavy offenses and running-back-by-committee platoon systems driving down the perceived value of running backs, being one of the best at his position only means Abdullah’s draft experience will be as unpredictable and nerve-wracking as any other prospect with an uncertain future.
That’s not to suggest Abdullah is sweating the prospect of unemployment.
The 5-foot-9, 205-pound University of Nebraska graduate, raised in a Muslim family in Birmingham, Ala., is projected to go in the second or third round of most mock drafts. As a senior this past season, Abdullah ran for 1,611 yards and 19 touchdowns while helping lead the Cornhuskers (9-4) to the Holiday Bowl. He was named MVP of the postseason Senior Bowl and was one of the highest-rated players (regardless of position) at the NFL Scouting Combine. And at every step along the way, media members and coaches and scouts and fellow players could not talk about Abdullah without talking about his high character and winning personality.
And still, while a parade of quarterbacks, offensive tackles, wide receivers, cornerbacks and pass rushers go from the Green Room to the main stage in Chicago this weekend, Abdullah will be at home with his parents and eight siblings in Alabama, waiting for a phone call from his future employer and a relatively low-key introduction to the NFL.
During a break from his pre-draft training, Abdullah talked to Ummah Sports about what it’s like getting ready for the day every young football player dreams about:
UMMAH SPORTS: What is your typical day like right now as you prepare for the draft?
AMEER ABDULLAH: I train once or twice a day — twice on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, one time on Tuesday and Thursday. I wake up around 5:45 or 6 a.m., make myself breakfast, go for a run or whatever is on the schedule that day. Work out, eat lunch, maybe go see a friend and hang out, come back home and make myself some food. Go back out for my afternoon (workout) on days when it’s two-a-day. Come back home and eat dinner. That’s pretty much it.
US: During the busiest period of this pre-draft process, how many workouts and team visits were you doing?
AA: Probably twice a week, and that was over a period of about three weeks. That’s all pretty much taken care of now. Fortunately, my Pro Day was pretty early in the process — I think Nebraska actually had the first Pro Day of anybody in the country — so a lot of teams had an opportunity to work me out and interview me early on in Nebraska. Now I get to be at home and spend some time with my family.
US: Is the vibe at these Pro Days and individual workouts really like a job interview, as some people describe it?
AA: It is like a job interview. There’s more to it than being able to play football. You have one-on-one interviews with coaches, you watch film and they quiz you on the white board. They want to see if you’re intelligent about the game, not just how good of an athlete you are.
US: Do you have any idea of how many teams are at least interested in you? Do you know which teams like you more than others?
AA: I’ve had other players who have been through this before tell me that the team that drafts you is probably going to be the team that talked to you the least, or didn’t even talk to you at all.
It’s all smoke and mirrors. You can have a really good workout, but for whatever reason a team wants to go in a different direction. Sometimes you can get a feel for what teams are looking at you as a potential pick if you do your homework on things like what kind of offense they run or what kind of person they want to have in the locker room. But I don’t really know. If you want a number, I’d say around 20 teams, maybe.
US: But you’re at least confident that you’ll get drafted, right?
AA: I think so. You never know what could happen, but I’m pretty confident I’ll get drafted. I feel like I’ve done enough to prove myself as a worthy draft pick. I had a pretty good college career, I won Senior Bowl MVP, I was considered one of the best overall performers at the Combine. My Pro Day went really well and I had a lot of great interviews. I think I put myself in a pretty good position to get drafted. It’s just a matter of where and how soon.
US: How often are you checking the mock drafts?
AA: You know, I’m not really checking them. They’re all different. Some of the ones I have seen, they may have a guy slotted over me at my position that, if you compare the film, I feel like it’s not even close.
But it’s not just about getting there (to the NFL), it’s about staying there. I aspire to be in the NFL for as long as I can. I know what I can do for a team, but once you’re there, you’re back at square one. It’s like stepping into a college locker room again for the first time, except obviously the players are better.
US: What is a team getting if they draft Ameer Abdullah?
AA: First and foremost, I hope they would know they’re getting one of the best players in the NFL Draft. They’re getting a guy who can contribute immediately. I could be a featured running back on their team, and at the same time I’m also very comfortable on special teams, possibly returning kicks, playing punt block, kickoff … If the scheme calls for me to do other things as far as catching the ball in the slot, I’m skilled at that. I’m confident in my skills.
Also, you’re going to get a guy who you don’t have to worry about as far as off-the-field issues. I’m not a partyer; that’s not what I’m about. I definitely understand that this is a job and a business; this isn’t a fantasy world of just fame and glamour. It’s about keeping a job, so I’m going to handle things in a very professional manner.
Lastly, they’re getting a great teammate. I think the greatest attribute of any athlete is being able to make their teammates better. People can be individually talented, but what makes players great is if they can elevate their teammates. LeBron James, Peyton Manning, Tom Brady … they’ve made a lot of people look good. That’s the kind of teammate I aspire to be.
US: Do you think you’ve done enough to dispel the notion that you’re too small to have a big role on an NFL team? Some people have said your future is that of a third-down back or maybe as a kick returner, that you couldn’t be an every-down back at your size.
AA: Definitely. I think I’ve done enough. You know, it’s funny to me … people will say that they watch film, but I know they don’t. They may watch highlights, but if you look at the actual game film, what you see is much different than what the analysts have said not just about me, but other running backs.
I hear it all the time, that I’m best suited as a third-down back because I’m not tall. It’s absurd. Look at the game of football, and you never hear of a running back being successful because he’s tall. They don’t open holes for your height, they open holes by width. Being tall has nothing to do with it. There are some great running backs who are tall, like Le’Veon Bell (Pittsburgh Steelers), but typically tall running backs are slower, and they have longer legs so they get chopped down a lot. So I don’t know what this desire is to have a 6-foot-2 running back. I think it’s just this day and age in football, having that fantasy of guys who look the part.
If you look at most successful running backs in the history of the game, they’re 5-foot-11 or under. Walter Payton, Marshall Faulk, Barry Sanders, Emmitt Smith, Warrick Dunn … those are Hall of Fame names. But if those guys came up in this time now, someone of their magnitude may not even be a first-rounder because they’re not tall. It seems like talent is what should be graded instead of measurables. When you watch the film, it doesn’t lie.
US: How does Pro Day compare to the Combine? It seems like Pro Day would be more relaxed because you’re on your home turf, or maybe it’s more pressure because there are fewer players auditioning and so if you make a mistake it won’t be lost in the crowd.
AA: I don’t think it’s more relaxed. I’d say it’s a more conducive environment to being successful, because you can get some sleep and a healthy meal. At the combine, depending on the schedule, you might not even eat. In addition to the drills on the field, you have medical tests, MRIs, meetings with teams, interviews … that all takes precedence over eating. Everyone’s time at the combine is valuable. You might not get done with everything until 12:30 at night, then you’re up at 5 a.m. to go again. You might not eat dinner, or you might miss lunch or breakfast. But if you don’t eat a solid meal, you’re not going to test as well.
It’s not torture. I’m not saying that. They’re not doing it to be mean. It’s just hard for them to fit so much into one week. You have quarterbacks, running backs, receivers, all the positions … in four days, that’s a lot. To get that done you kind of have to move ’em like cattle. Maybe they should expand it a little longer, a few more days. But until they do that, it is what it is.
If you look at it, guys almost always do better at their Pro Day. You can get your meals and get some rest. It’s crazy how much a meal, hydration and sleep make a difference. I ran a 4.6 (40-yard dash, in seconds) at the combine, but less than a week later at Pro Day I ran 4.46.
US: Do you think the 40 is overrated?
AA: Yeah. It’s definitely important. You can measure pure speed and acceleration and you can see a lot in an athlete when he runs. But I think it has taken too much precedence over a lot of other things; too much over the ability to play football. You’ll have somebody who was graded as maybe a sixth-rounder, but then they run a really good 40 and all of a sudden they’re a first-rounder. Or vice versa; a guy who has first-round talent doesn’t run as fast and all of a sudden he’s sliding down the board. That’s crazy to me.
You do seven drills at the combine — vertical jump, broad jump, 40, three-cone drill, the “L” drill, shuttle run and bench press. I had a really good combine. (Editor’s Note: According to NFL.com, Abdullah ranked No. 1 among running backs in every drill except the 40 and the bench press.) But I read one article that said my combine was a failure because I didn’t have the fastest 40 time. So if the 40 is all they really pay attention to, why do anything else?
US: And how often are you running untouched in a straight line for 40 yards during a game anyway?
AA: You know what’s interesting? Back in the day, the 40 was just used to measure how fast a gunner could get down the field (in punt coverage). The average hang time of a punt was four seconds, so getting down the field in four seconds was what they were looking for. That’s how it all started.
I’m kind of a nerd — history major and pre-law minor. I like doing a lot of research, so I look this stuff up. A lot of people don’t even know the history of where the 40 originated from. It’s just crazy that it means so much now, but before it was just a measure of who was the fastest gunner.
US: In your interviews and meetings with teams, how often did your religion come up?
AA: Very seldom. Most teams respected how I carried myself. As far as my religion, I’m not a guy who’s in your face with a Quran like, “You need to read this!” I feel like religion is a very personal thing. Be proud of it, love it and embrace it. You should love the Lord. Never shy away from that. But everyone is their own person and you can’t force anything upon anyone. You can’t force people to do something they weren’t originally doing.
I do my own thing and I hope people respect it. Most teams were respectful of that. What they wanted to know was more, like, how did I keep up with fasting during the season? How might it effect my weight?
US: When did the NFL become a reality for you and not just a dream?
AA: Honestly — and this is going to sound crazy, especially if you know my story about how I wasn’t heavily recruited in high school — when I was six or seven years old, the NFL was a reality for me. I loved football so much. I was looking back at some of my old schoolwork I did when I was young, and when I was seven years old I wrote down that my goal was to break the NFL single-season rushing record. I thought, “How did I know that at the age of seven? How did I know the record?” And my next goal after that was that I needed to run more and lift more weights so I can be better at football. How many seven-year-olds are talking like that? So the NFL was always a reality for me. I always had this feeling I was going to be in the NFL at some point. Even in my senior year, when two months from signing day I only had a couple of (scholarship) offers, I felt like I was going to play in the NFL. I’ve always known it, and here I am today staring it in the face. It sounds crazy, but that’s the God’s honest truth.
US: What are you looking for in an NFL team?
AA: I just really want to get on a team. It would be ideal if they have a good O-line that has been together for a while; those are usually the best. Having a great leader under center who has been proven and battle-tested would be ideal — somebody with a passion to win. A team that is used to winning and playing late into the playoffs. That would be ideal because they know what to do to win.
US: Does the city itself or part of the country factor into where you’d like to go?
AA: Not necessarily. I guess ideally it would be a place with no state taxes. I think Texas, Arizona, Tennessee and Florida are the states that have NFL teams and no state taxes, so you get more out of your paycheck.
US: You grew up in Birmingham, Alabama. You went to college in Lincoln. Nebraska. But you could end up being drafted by New York, Chicago, Miami, New Orleans … Are you concerned at all about potentially going from a smaller town to a big city full of temptations, when you’ll have a lot of money in your pocket and freedom to do whatever you want?
AA: No, not really. Like I said, this is a job and a business. And I think already having been on my own and being far away from home when I went to college helped me too. It’s not like I’ve never been to a big city. I have a lot of cousins in Los Angeles that I’ll visit. I was in Chicago for a week for Big Ten Media Day. I’ve been to Atlanta a lot.
When you’re in a place like that, you kind of find out what you want. You find out what you like. Obviously those big cities have a lot of opportunities, but it’s not enough for me to change who I am. There’s this line by Kendrick Lamar that I like where he says — and I’m editing for language — “Crap don’t change til you get up and wipe your butt.” In other words, nothing changes until you choose to change. That can be taken in different contexts. One is that, you know, you can be from the ‘hood but you can’t take the ‘hood out of the boy. More related to what we’re talking about, though, I won’t change until I start acting out of my true colors. If I start believing the hype.
Something that helps me is to understand who helped me get to where I am. My parents, my brothers and sisters, my trainer in high school … they have about 75 percent to do with why I’m here.