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Abdullah's gritty legacy includes giving back

Nebraska running back ranks among school's all-time greats

Nebraska running back Ameer Abdullah (8) tosses the ball back to the quarterback during the first half against Iowa at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln, Neb., on Friday, Nov. 29, 2013. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)
Nebraska running back Ameer Abdullah (8) tosses the ball back to the quarterback during the first half against Iowa at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln, Neb., on Friday, Nov. 29, 2013. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)
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IOWA CITY — Ameer Abdullah’s legacy stacks up nicely alongside Nebraska’s heroes of old like Johnny Rodgers, Mike Rozier and Tommie Frazier.

Abdullah, a senior running back, owns the Nebraska record and ranks first nationally among active players with 6,798 all-purpose yards. Abdullah is more than 800 yards ahead of Kansas State’s Tyler Lockett and ranks second in Big Ten history behind only Wisconsin’s Ron Dayne. Abdullah is one of three Doak Walker Award finalists as the nation’s finest running back.

But when asked if it’s the records that set him apart, Abdullah instead points to his intangibles. His toughness. His durability. His resolve. His favorite play at Nebraska (8-3, 4-3) wasn’t shedding or barreling seven would-be tacklers on an epic 58-yard catch-and-run for the game-winning touchdown against McNeese State Instead, it involved former teammate Rex Burkhard scoring against Ohio State.

“I just want to be remembered as a guy who gave it up for his team,” Abdullah said. “No matter what odds are thrown at me, an adversity thrown at me, I try to rise above that. I try to do my best with what I’m given. That’s the kind of person that I want to be remembered for here. A guy who genuinely cares about the well-being of the team rather than himself.”

Adversity derailed a potential Heisman Trophy season for Abdullah (5-foot-9, 195 pounds) just as the Cornhuskers entered November. His team was 7-1 and ranked 15th in the inaugural College Football Playoff standings. Abdullah led the nation in rushing yards (1,249), all-purpose yards (1,690) and points scored (114). He set a school record with 341 all-purpose yards against Rutgers on Oct. 25.

Then against Purdue on Nov. 1, his world changed. While diving to recover a first-quarter fumble, Abdullah sprained the MCL in his left knee. He tried to run the football one time with a knee brace but couldn’t play. Nebraska was idle on Nov. 8, so he had two weeks to heal and prepare for Wisconsin.

A devoutly religious man, Abdullah turned to his faith. He needed it.

“I gave the Lord my frustrations,” Abdullah said. “I’m getting better every week. I’m not necessarily 100 percent, but I’m good enough to play. By testing my character, He put me in a situation where I could have folded, I could have said I’m worried about my future. I have a future to participate in the NFL, and I could have hurt that potentially.

“But I can’t be worried my future just because of an MCL sprain. I knew I could play and be out there for my team.”

More adversity struck Abdullah and the Huskers in consecutive losses to Wisconsin (59-24) and Minnesota (28-24). He ran for 69 yards against Wisconsin and 98 against Minnesota. He doesn’t quite have the burst or lateral quickness he displayed before his injury, but Abdullah still accelerates and runs with power.

“The only thing I honestly notice is his knee brace because he still is a strong runner,” Iowa safety John Lowdermilk said. “He still breaks a lot of tackles. He’s still very agile. I haven’t seen a lot of difference. They’ve taken him out on some stuff, but he’s still a hell of a running back.”

“I think he is a warrior. I really do,” Nebraska Coach Bo Pelini said. “He came back quickly off of an injury. He’s been less than 100 percent in the last couple weeks and hasn’t blinked an eye. I think it shows the character he has. To me, Ameer embodies everything you want a student-athlete to be. I believe that in every way. In his life, how he approaches every day, how he competes. He’s a pretty special guy.”

As much as he relishes his role of good teammate, Abdullah also considers himself a community steward. He gave the keynote speech at the Big Ten Kickoff Luncheon in Chicago, and he regularly volunteers in Lincoln. He spent most of his Wednesday morning without fanfare meeting with people unannounced at St. Elizabeth Regional Medical Center. His goal is to lift up the spirits of both patients and their family members. He often receives letters from people remembering when he met with a sick grandfather in the hospital or spoke to a group of youths.

“It’s moments like that that make you realize you can reach someone through the community much deeper than scoring a touchdown on a Saturday,” he said.

Life is full of layers, and Abdullah embodies that perspective. He grew up an under-recruited running back from Alabama and now is adored by thousands in Nebraska. He and his teammates are supported by a passionate community and state, but that passion can swing the other way when the losses build up.

Nebraska, like Friday’s opponent Iowa, had aspirations of a West Division title that ended last Saturday. Nebraska’s title fortunes and Abdullah’s Heisman prospects evaporated, too. His knee injury curtailed any chance at erasing Dayne’s record. But having the passion of an entire state in his corner creates the kind of pressure Abdullah relishes. Abdullah described he and his teammates as “sponges” soaking up the preparation for one final regular-season battle.

“I’ve been a part of team that’s pretty resilient,” Abdullah said. “This fan base here, it can be rough sometimes with expectations. But I wouldn’t want it any other way. It shows what kind of players you are.”

Tough. Durable. Committed. That’s Ameer Abdullah.

l Comments: (319) 339-3169; scott.dochterman@thegazette.com

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