Seven former football stars win Big Ten sportsmanship award

The Big Ten announced its annual list of Outstanding Sportsmanship Award winners Wednesday, which included a heavy dose of former football players.

Of the 28 winners (every school in the conference nominates one player from each sport), seven of them came from football. That was easily the most players from any sport to win this year, and the most recognition football players have had since the conference started handing out the award. Since it’s never a bad thing to shine a spotlight on do-gooders, here’s a brief recap of the winners and some of their successes on and off the field.

Nebraska RB Ameer Abdullah -- For every accolade Abdullah picked up on the field during his decorated career at Nebraska, he seemed to match it with a good citizen or sportsmanship award. The first Cornhusker player to run for more than 1,000 yards in three different seasons won two Nebraska Student-Athlete HERO awards, the Lowe's Senior CLASS Award and was named to the Tom Osborne Citizenship Team during his time in Lincoln. The youngest of nine children in a well-educated family, Abdullah was a regular volunteer at local elementary schools and a children’s hospital during his college career. The Detroit Lions picked him in the second round of this spring’s NFL draft.

Maryland OL Sal Conaboy -- Another winner from a large family (one of eight children), Conaboy was a veteran fixture in the middle of Maryland’s offensive line. He started at center for two years while running the program’s Uplifting Athletes chapter. He organized team trips to a Maryland children’s hospital in college and headed a Relay for Life event while still in high school. Conaboy interned with the U.S. Marshals this past summer and is aiming at a career in law enforcement.

Michigan QB Devin GardnerThe last memorable image of Devin Gardner in a Michigan uniform is a fitting one. He earned praise for his sportsmanship after dropping to a knee beside injured Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett in the fourth quarter of the heated rivalry in November. Gardner started 27 games at quarterback for the Wolverines and set program records for passing yards in a game and total yards in a game. Gardner worked with a non-profit company to help children from families with social and economic problems. He is currently trying to earn a spot on the Pittsburgh Steelers roster.

Indiana S Mark Murphy – The four-year starter in Indiana’s secondary was one of the best students in college football last season. Murphy held a 3.85 GPA as an Informatics major going into his final fall semester. The Academic All-American was one of 17 players to win the National Football Foundation’s National Scholar-Athlete Award. He was also a finalist for the Bobby Bowden Award, given to the player who best exemplifies a Christian student-athlete each year.

Illinois QB Reilly O’Toole – O’Toole threw from 1,384 yards and 10 touchdowns while batting for playing time at quarterback during his senior season. He stepped in for transfer Wes Lunt when Lunt broke his leg early in the season and kept the Illini offense afloat. He was seen as a team leader despite never starting the season on top of the depth chart and was a member of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. O’Toole is now working at Northwestern Mutual.

Minnesota S Cedric ThompsonThe California native was a three-year starter at safety and helped to lead one of the conference’s best defensive backfields as a senior last fall. Off the field, he spent his Sunday afternoons in college helping low-income high school kids learn to play tennis (despite never having previously played the sport himself). The Gopher captain was the subject of a documentary that outlined his ability to escape gang violence in his hometown and eventually become an academic success. He was drafted by the Miami Dolphins with No. 150 overall pick in May.

Iowa RB Mark WeismanIowa’s hard-nosed runner finished his career with the third-most touchdowns and sixth-most rushing yards in program history. He was also a three-time member of the Big Ten all-academic team and a Capital One second-team Academic All-American. Weisman started his college career at the Air Force Academy before transferring to Iowa to try football as a walk-on. He signed a deal this spring to play for the Cincinnati Bengals.