LINCOLN, Neb. -- When Ameer Abdullah arrived in the summer of 2011, an unheralded afterthought of a recruit, 5-foot-9 and 172 pounds soaking wet, bent on excelling in a conference loaded with bigger, heftier running backs, there were doubters. He was used to that.
People who judged him with a tape measure did so at their peril, as far as Abdullah was concerned. He found the negative feedback useful. It drove him to build his psyche, his body and his game, to try to be beyond athletic reproach.
Three years later, three games into the final season of a stellar college career, Abdullah has willed his way into the Heisman Trophy conversation. The 21-year-old from Homewood, Alabama, has shown he can grind out tough yards when needed, but he is most celebrated for his agility and elusiveness in the open field, for changes of direction that fake opposing players out of their socks, for magical spinning escapes from the clutches of would-be tacklers and afterburner accelerations into the end zone, all of which he displayed on a lightning-strike, game-winning, 58-yard pass play in the final minute two weekends ago against McNeese State.
Heading into Nebraska's home game Saturday against the University of Miami -- the first time the teams have met since the national championship in January 2002 -- Abdullah is closing in on Johnny Rodgers' school record of 5,586 all-purpose yards. It was a standard few imagined he would reach, but Abdullah has always drawn his own hashmarks.
Abdullah knows there is another measuring system out there that he can't control, one in which people size him up based solely on his Muslim faith and a name that does not allow him to hide. He navigates this invisible gantlet in a variety of ways, some less obvious than others.
A couple of minutes before every opening kickoff, Abdullah finds an empty spot on the Nebraska bench and faces east, toward the compass point he was taught to find as a little boy.
"I say a little prayer before every game, wishing myself, my teammates and the opposing teammates the best of luck, asking the Lord to help us use our talents just to glorify him [and] not to be selfish or self-motivated today, just to let our talents glorify him and keep us safe from injury, to allow us to go out and show everything we've worked for the week before," he said.
Players and staff wander by as he bows his head, some seemingly oblivious, some simply giving him space. The moment goes by in a blink and is hard to catch -- like him.
This quietly declarative act is crucial to Abdullah's sense of inner consistency, his desire to keep his balance in a world that can swipe and tug at his jersey.
"That's something very big to me: Be who you are all the time," he said.
To read more about Abdullah's climb to becoming one of the best running backs in college football all while staying true to himself and his religion, click here.