Ameer Abdullah makes his way

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 proved 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 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, 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," he said. "Be who you are all the time."

He learned this from a strong-willed brace of blockers at home, parents who insisted on living purposeful lives and eight older siblings with a perfect college graduation rate.

There are also times he runs right up the middle at his otherness.

At the annual Big Ten conference media gathering in Chicago this past July, a fidgety Abdullah, awaiting the luncheon where he would deliver the student-athlete keynote speech, commandeered a camera from the Big Ten Network and joined scrums of reporters grilling players in the hotel ballroom.

Michigan State defensive end Shilique Calhoun played along.

"I've heard of this guy Ameer Abdullah, something like that ..." Calhoun began.

Abdullah leaned forward, eyes widening over the viewfinder.

"Ab-doo-lah? Is that how you pronounce it?" he deadpanned, exaggerating each syllable. "Sounds foreign. I dunno."

As a kid fasting during daylight hours to observe Ramadan, it pained Abdullah to sit in the school cafeteria with his stomach growling while everyone else dug into lunch. He is often asked about it and says hunger helped strengthen him as much as any reps.

Another question became familiar to Abdullah once he got to Nebraska. His position coach, Ron Brown, is an evangelical Christian whose views on social and cultural issues, including gay rights, have drawn national attention and made him a polarizing figure in the past.

Brown routinely sprinkles Scripture amid secular proverbs during the running backs' sessions. One day last month, the mostly empty dry-erase board in their meeting room bore a couple of cryptic X-and-O notations and several go-to reminders from the coach:




Who are you INside

INtegrity = all IN -- can't be divided

Though the Lord is great, he cares for the humble, but he keeps his distance from the conceited. Psalm 138:6

Abdullah grew up in the Deep South, and Brown is far from the first Christian authority figure in his life. Yet the mechanics of their relationship sparked curiosity, and still do. Abdullah understands the fascination and why people might think there would be friction between them.

But there were practical reasons for Abdullah and Brown to make things work. Foremost among them was Abdullah's incandescent talent, which alters and wins games. At the very least, the two men share 100 yards of common ground every day.

Abdullah came to that field equipped with uncommon life experience.

Abdullah exudes restrained power when he enters a room, like a sports car in idle. He has put on 20-plus pounds of muscle since he got to Lincoln and is heralded at the entrance of the Cornhuskers' weight room with a plaque naming him Lifter of the Year. His hazel eyes seem perpetually backlit. They absorb everything within 180 degrees and read an interviewer the way they read a defense, anticipating the next question.

His Twitter handle -- @Ameerguapo -- incorporates the Spanish word for handsome, a high school language class nickname. In person, he leans toward the self-deprecating. He laments his inability to grow a full beard and makes do with a well-groomed mustache and goatee. Watching video of himself, Abdullah remarks that he needs a haircut. It's been a couple of years since he ditched the mop of dreadlocks. "More professional," he said.

Abdullah almost always has somewhere else to be and one more thing to wedge into the pie chart of his day. After the season opener against Florida Atlantic University, he slipped out to see his waiting parents and evaded reporters who wanted to talk about his career-high 232 rushing yards. After the close call with McNeese State, he met the media with his knapsack on. It sagged with a history of Latin America textbook, his iPad, laptop, playbook, film notes and a few toiletries from the team's customary hotel stay the night before the game.

"I'm kind of a nerd," he said. "You never know when the zombie apocalypse might happen, so you gotta have your backpack ready, toothbrush, extra pair of underwear, laptop, stay with the social media just in case you're the last person on earth and you're trying to find someone else."

His brother Kareem, who helped him pick out the crisp white jacket he wore to make the Big Ten speech, attests that he is meticulous about his clothing. His close friend and teammate Taariq Allen said Ameer couldn't abide seeing dishes pile up in the sink in their off-campus apartment.

So intent is Abdullah on squeezing the most out of each 24 hours that he recently told CBS Sports Radio host Jim Rome he had pared down his personal playlist to groups whose lyrics he finds meaningful. (He is an avid fan of the '90s hip-hop group Outkast, a legacy from his older brothers.)

"After a while, you become what you listen to, and it really pollutes your mind," he told Rome.

In the same interview, he called himself "the failure of the family." It's hard to take the assertion seriously, but it has an earnest echo, the baby brother always scrambling to catch up.

Before each school year, Kim Schellpeper, Abdullah's academic counselor, hands out daybook-style calendars to athletes, even though most of them prefer phones to paper. Abdullah always filled in the squares. He'll finish his degree in history this December and is no longer required to meet with her, but he still drops by her office almost every day. When Schellpeper told him she was taking yoga classes, he informed her he had chops, then dropped to the floor, planted his hands and did a headstand to prove it.

Abdullah is a list-maker and a relentless planner. He openly covets a slot on the academic All-America team, and he mapped out a route to early graduation so he could spend the first few months of 2015 training for the NFL combine and draft. Law school could be Plan B, or Plan A, depending how things pan out.

One thing Abdullah didn't see coming was the way he would feel as his junior season ended. His yardage and his stock, as they say, had never been higher. "Now you're like something up in Wall Street," he said.

He felt his resolve wobble: Should he turn pro? Was this an opening he should muscle through? "My mind was racing, a lot was going on," Abdullah said in the deserted press room adjoining Memorial Stadium, with his ever-present backpack at his feet.

Speculation was peaking on New Year's Day, when Nebraska beat Georgia in the Gator Bowl. As the Huskers celebrated in the rain on the field in Jacksonville, Florida, Brown approached Abdullah.

"I just got blunt with him," said Brown, who is rarely anything but. "The talk had been before, 'He might go, might not go, blah blah blah.' I said, 'Hey, tell me, what are you gonna do?' And he whispered over to me, 'An Abdullah never goes anywhere without a diploma.'"

Eight days later, Abdullah announced he was staying to finish his degree.

"The average [NFL] career is roughly four or five years," he said. "Unless you're one of those top-tier guys. And I'm not saying I can't be one of those guys, you can't just conclude that's gonna be your life."

Abdullah paused, then disclosed the real bottom line: "It would have been tough telling my mom. That probably was the biggest deciding factor -- looking my mom in the face and telling her I'm leaving."

Aisha Abdullah, the daughter of a coal miner and a social worker, was 11 going on 12 during the spring and summer of 1963, when her deeply segregated hometown of Birmingham boiled with protests. African-Americans peacefully entered stores, restaurants and churches and asked for equal treatment. Children deployed by organizers marched through the streets and were swept up in mass arrests. Police turned dogs and fire hoses on the crowds.

The Birmingham campaign won promises of integration, but bombings and other attacks on the black community continued. Aisha remembers neighbor men parking in her family's driveway and keeping a lookout.

"My role was to bake cookies for them while they were sitting shotgun," she said. "I guess you could call it the first version of Neighborhood Watch."

Her own mother, Marie Brown Boykin, tried to impress her with the selflessness of the movement.

"All those people on the lines out there, they're sacrificing for you," she told Aisha. "They will not benefit from what they're doing."

In September 1963, a bomb planted by white supremacists exploded in the 16th Street Baptist Church and killed four young girls. A friend of Aisha's, 11-year-old Denise McNair, was among them. The murders haunted Aisha for years. The spiritual quest that eventually led her to Islam was, she said softly, "a way to come to terms with that death."

Ameer's father, Kareem, was raised in Mobile, Alabama, a child of relative privilege and the grandson of a Baptist minister. Kareem's father, William Lovett, founded a black burial insurance and funeral parlor business in the 1940s, switching his tires from the family car to a hearse and back again to keep it going. The enterprise eventually flourished, but that success was only a partial shield against the social injustices of the day.

Kareem's memory is still seared by the image of his pregnant mother being denied the use of a whites-only restroom when the "colored" toilet was out of order along the route of a long Greyhound bus ride. He joined one of the Selma-to-Montgomery marches and listened to Martin Luther King Jr. speak from the steps of the state capitol. Several years later, while serving in the Army in Germany, he was on another bus when word spread of King's assassination.

Like other young African-Americans at the time, Kareem and Aisha converted to Islam as college students seeking answers they couldn't find in the churches in which they were raised. Their choice was rooted in a political and racial context but quickly deepened into a broader spiritual commitment. They met through friends, courted mostly by telephone and married 40 years ago this month.

The Abdullahs raised their older children in a middle-class environment in Mobile and sent them to a private Muslim school. Their circumstances changed abruptly when they moved back to Birmingham in 1989 so Aisha could help take care of her father, who was dying of black lung disease. They moved into her parents' house on Center Place West on the southern edge of the historic neighborhood of Titusville, where they brought Ameer home in June 1993.

There were a dozen of them in the small house with a porch converted into a bedroom. Birmingham's violent crime rate peaked in the mid-1990s, and Titusville had its share, much of it drug-fueled. As a preschooler cared for by a neighbor, Ameer understood there were times he needed to be away from the windows because of what was going on outside.

"There was a lot of gang influence," he said. "We had the choice to be this kind of person or be better."

His parents chose altruistic paths. Aisha is a longtime local program coordinator for Head Start, the national organization dedicated to underprivileged children. Kareem, now semi-retired, sold insurance and had other jobs. But his true passion was his role as an imam for a local congregation, leading weekly Friday jummah prayers, working with prisoners, the homeless and the hungry, and representing the Muslim community at interfaith events in Birmingham. In 2007, he delivered the opening prayer on the floor of the Alabama State House.

To be Muslim in the United States, especially since 9/11, often means enduring additional screening in airports or passing through a figurative X-ray machine in people's eyes. Kareem's dignified face furrows in discomfort when he talks about the particular pain terrorist acts cause for ethical members of his faith.

"It's like having a hammer that's made to hit nails to build a home, a society," he said. "If you take that same hammer and hit another person ... you don't blame the hammer -- you blame the crazy person."

He and Aisha, who now live in Bessemer, Alabama, advised their children to answer questions about Islam with patience, to avoid being defensive and to ignore provocations. Ameer's sister Halimah, the oldest of the nine, says that approach might sound idealized but is very real to her and her siblings. She is unsurprised by Ameer's ability to thrive as a transplant in Nebraska.

"In a lot of ways, being 'other' -- I say 'other' with air quotes -- has kind of allowed us a glimpse into lots of different types of worlds because we move between these worlds very comfortably," said Halimah, a national political writer who has worked for CNN, McClatchy Newspapers and other outlets. "We've always been, on paper, that 'other.' The trick and the way to function in that is to embrace it, to accept it, to be empowered by it, and then to use that in a way to move forward and to make connections with others, and that's what Ameer has done."

The siblings have constructed careers in law, journalism, accounting, banking, telecommunications and education. The youngest sister, Madinah, a former standout high school and college volleyball player, is in a graduate pharmacy school program.

They have a group chat on their smartphones and check in with each other by text most days. After Ameer had his star turn at the dais in Chicago, which drew widespread praise on social media and from reporters in attendance, his sister Ruqayyah McPherson typed a message:

"Hey, great speech, I'm very proud of you. Now get back to the books."

Ameer means "prince," but he was always Peewee to his brothers and sisters, a tiny, sweet kid who smiled a lot and rarely spoke.

He was so little they lost track of him once. The three youngest kids were playing hide-and-seek. Ameer curled up in the back of a long, narrow kitchen cabinet meant for pots and pans. Somehow, the other kids got distracted and abandoned the game, and suddenly, Ameer was missing. No one could imagine where he had gone, and his brother Kareem panicked, thinking he'd been kidnapped.

They had neighbors out looking for him, and "it was raining stupid hard," said Kareem, an Auburn-educated accountant who lives in Northern California.

"It was like a movie. The most sad I've ever been in my life was that 30 minutes or whatever it was."

Finally, Ameer emerged, crying and asking why no one had come to find him.

When Ameer was about to enter first grade, the family moved to an apartment in suburban Homewood. The suburb's highly ranked school system had a more diverse enrollment than the surrounding communities, but the transition still induced culture shock. It got tougher in September 2001, the month Ameer started third grade at Edgewood Elementary School.

"Things definitely changed for me," he said of the way he processed the fallout of 9/11 as a child. "I was fighting a perception."

Shy and, by his own description, "socially awkward," he often felt alienated. He immersed himself in the Harry Potter books Halimah bought him, the way he would later devour books about Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X.

John Dorough, a teacher at Edgewood and one of Ameer's middle school football coaches, remembers Ameer as a pint-sized introvert who revealed his personality only when he was in motion.

"We played a game called flag tag, where everyone put on a flag football belt, and you tried to take somebody else's and keep yours on," Dorough said while sitting on kid-sized furniture in the school library. "He was always the last one out there."

Aisha bought Ameer's first set of football cleats on layaway. Kareem filmed games and practices and broke them down with his son afterward. Ameer played basketball and baseball, too, but football was his abiding love, and his team was the Auburn Tigers.

Sports helped Ameer feel accepted in Homewood, but away games could be fraught. "Where's your turban?" one opposing player sniped during a basketball game. And he heard worse.

When he came home agitated, his father told him, "All you can do is encourage people to educate themselves on a matter before they make a decision on how they feel about it." That was a tall order for a slight, competitive boy, but he tried to grow into it.

When Ameer was in ninth grade, a lanky kid named Aaron Ernest, whose family had been left homeless by Hurricane Katrina, moved in across the hall. Ernest, who played wide receiver for Homewood, shared Ameer's ambition and was awed by his discipline when football practice collided with the observance of Ramadan and fasting during daylight hours. He vividly recalls Ameer waiting for the sun to dip below the horizon before he wolfed down the snack in his hand.

Ernest, now a track standout at Louisiana State University, noticed something else: Whenever Ameer was stymied on one play, he'd bust out something special on the next.

"He always wanted to prove people wrong," Ernest said. "If he has moments of weakness, he's good at hiding them."

When pressed on Ameer's foibles, his brothers agree he was bad at being bad. He slipped out in the middle of the night once and took his mother's car to a friend's house to watch a movie. It was not the perfect crime. Ameer put a stool in the parking space to reserve it, a grace note his father, who awakened with a parent's subliminal radar, spotted immediately.

A key mentor parachuted into Abdullah's life his sophomore year at Homewood High, when former NFL defensive end Otis Leverette attended a game to watch his fiancée's son.

"[Ameer] might've been 5-foot-3, 5-foot-4 at the time, probably 100 and nothing," Leverette said. "And he catches this punt return and only takes it about 5 or 6 yards, but this was like the most electrifying 5 or 6 yards I've ever seen."

Leverette had just started a strength-and-skills coaching business in which he charged families what they could afford, which sometimes was zero. (Another early client was reigning Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston.)

"What separates him from a lot of kids is he was so concerned with details," Leverette said of Ameer. "'How do I get over there [on routes], what am I doing wrong?'"

Yet Ameer seemed unconcerned about the minor detail of his size, a trait that reminded Leverette of Steve Smith, the veteran NFL wide receiver.

"They will fight a grizzly bear with a pocketknife," Leverette said. "They don't care. They didn't get the memo that they were small."

In April of Ameer's junior year, Leverette drove him to a Nike camp at LSU. It was one of several low-budget trips with parents caravanning and kids sleeping as many as eight to a hotel room, splayed all over the floor. Leverette wanted Ameer to be motivated but realistic about the competition that awaited him.

"I said, 'Ameer, they've got all these five-stars [recruits].' I went on and on," Leverette said. "Ameer didn't say nothing. He just let me talk. He's looking out the window. Five minutes, I'm going on and on. He looks at me and says, 'Coach. How are they gonna say that they're the best if they ain't never seen me?' And he just went to looking back out the window."

Abdullah was named MVP at that camp and another one in Tuscaloosa that spring. But as the months passed and his senior season rolled around, he wasn't getting the scholarship nibbles he thought he deserved. Interest from Auburn and Alabama was tepid. Most big programs were dubious about his future in the backfield and envisioned him as a cornerback or safety. Ameer wanted to be wanted as a running back.

The hole at Nebraska opened up late, courtesy of a transfer. "See what you can find," head coach Bo Pelini told Tim Beck, now the Huskers' offensive coordinator, sending him on a scavenger hunt in January, when most quality players were already spoken for. Beck came across Abdullah's highlight film, and within days he and Pelini were sitting in the family's living room with Ameer, his father and his brother Muhammad. Aisha was away on business, but she quizzed the coaches about academics from a speakerphone on the coffee table.

It wasn't as if Nebraska was thin at the position, with Rex Burkhead (now a Cincinnati Bengal) already in Lincoln and highly touted recruits Aaron Green and Braylon Heard stacked up behind him. But Beck was smitten with this kid who already had power that belied his frame and could slither through a straw.

Pelini felt the family's aura and sensed he wouldn't have to worry about Abdullah off the field.

"You could see the closeness, the discipline, really good priorities," he said. "They got it. It was obvious. And it was obvious the type of respect he showed to his family, the type of kid we were gonna get. Combine that with talent and it's usually pretty special. How can you balance everything, every day? That's what he's been able to do."

Abdullah logged a lot of time with special teams his freshman year, and he outworked and leapfrogged Green and Heard.

"Those other two guys eventually left, not because they couldn't beat out Burkhead, but because they couldn't beat out Abdullah," said Brown, the running backs coach. Abdullah established himself the next season, while Burkhead was injured, and jetted onto national radar his junior year with 1,690 rushing yards.

Turnovers have been Abdullah's nemesis, a flaw Pelini attributes to an otherwise admirable stubborn streak.

"Sometimes his competitiveness works against him," the coach said. "He's trying to fight for that extra inch when maybe you're better served going down because you've got five guys raking at the football. Sometimes [that's] hard for a guy like Ameer to accept."

Ron Brown finds a football in his office after a fall camp practice and shoves one end into his rib cage to explain how he's trying to keep Abdullah from being mugged and stripped.

"I don't use the term 'tuck' anymore," Brown said. "I use 'lock.'"

He slaps the front end of the football, pulls it away from his body and slaps the back end.

"The front door has to be locked, the back door has to be locked," he said. "The problem sometimes with guys who are quick and athletic is they make moves and extend the ball away from their body. You tell any thief, 'The front door's locked, the back door's open,' where's he going?"

Abdullah had 15 fumbles lost in his first three seasons at Nebraska, too many by any standard and 15 more than he himself considered acceptable. This past summer, Brown made Abdullah the running backs coach at the Huskers' youth camps.

"He designed the drills," Brown said. "A lot of them were ball security drills. I wanted him to coach and be aware of mechanics." The approach seems to have paid off, as Abdullah has a clean slate so far in 2014.

Much earlier, there was something more important than ball security that Brown wanted to lock in with Abdullah: a sense of personal security.

He summoned the freshman before the season and told him what he knew was in the wind. Brown was a high-profile force in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and a leader of team prayers. Some people were already wondering whether there would be tension.

"I didn't come in with, like, 'Ameer, this could be a problem,'" Brown said. "I said, 'There's stuff out there a little bit. Hey, look, this is what I believe. I know what you believe.'"

It was a timely pre-emptive talk because Abdullah felt isolated and homesick in his first weeks and months on campus. He missed his biological posse and his friends. He missed hills, and he dreaded the cold and snow, which he had experienced for the first time on his official campus visit. He worried about his dad, who had been treated for prostate cancer, and privately questioned whether he should be so far from home.

"He actually came to me," Abdullah said of Brown. "I'm sure he was getting a lot of questions from the media about it, and I guess he was unsure if I felt uncomfortable. I made it known to him that I appreciate his sermons -- or speeches -- that he gives our running backs' room every day. It teaches me a lot about life."

Brown says Abdullah has a strong enough sense of self to absorb various sources of motivation, spiritual or otherwise, and use what he needs.

"He's got a level of confidence about him that dares to say 'I can do this,'" Brown said. "'I can learn from you, but I've gotta spill this out in my own way. I'm not a puppet.' He was unhappy about something today and said, 'Why are we changing something that works?'"

Abdullah wasn't the only Muslim on the team or even in the running backs' room the past three years. He and Murat Kuzu, a walk-on from Plano, Texas, who is of Turkish heritage and now a redshirt junior, have attended Friday services together at the house on the north side of town that is used for worship by the Islamic Foundation of Lincoln.

The coach maintains that he would never discriminate against players in his care for any reason, and players from Abdullah's tenure, including Burkhead, a good friend, say they sensed no faith-based friction. A couple of months into Abdullah's freshman year, former running back Tyler Legate asked Abdullah whether he felt uncomfortable. Legate doesn't recall Abdullah's exact words, but said the 18-year-old said something like, He's strong in his faith, and I'm strong in mine.

"I thought that was really mature," said Legate, now teaching elementary school in Pierce, Neb.

"I'm not forcing anything down their throats. I'm not gonna make them feel uncomfortable in this room. I'm gonna love 'em like they're my sons," Brown said. "There may be another kid in there who grew up in a Christian family but doesn't really buy in. What's the difference?"

Abdullah said the relationship has been affectionate and respectful.

"I've cried with Coach Brown a couple times," Abdullah said. "I've shared a lot of things with him [and] he with me. We have that trust level. He's called me at night sometimes when he has a problem and asked me to pray for him. And I've done the same for him. That bond has helped me feel really secure and welcome here. I feel like he's part of my family, really."

Brown considers that a high compliment.

"Quietly yet tenaciously, this family has stuck together and had kind of a nonnegotiable mentality of, 'We're gonna get our diplomas, we're gonna finish what we start, we're gonna be complete people,' and you can see he's got all that," Brown said.

Abdullah downplays his prolific day against FAU and says the Huskers squandered too many opportunities for his taste. The last-gasp McNeese State win was preferable to defeat, but Abdullah expresses only subdued relief that he was able to deliver. He values analysis over dramatic bloat and is fond of saying things are never quite as rosy or disastrous as they seem in the immediate aftermath of a game.

That resonates more with him since a little boy from Omaha with curly hair and almond eyes and terminal brain cancer entered his life. Donovan James Miles Jr. was a few months shy of 2 years old when he came to a Huskers practice during the 2012 season with his grandfather, Steve Reddick. D.J. already had undergone surgery and chemotherapy. One of the few words he knew was Ameer's last name, which he joyfully crowed: "Doolah!"

"Kids have a sixth sense," Reddick said by phone from his home. "He clung to Ameer."

They ate a meal at the training table and toured the locker room.

"It was amazing to see how much of an impact I had on him," Abdullah said. "It stole my heart that day, a baby knowing who you are before you've ever seen this child."

The effect was mutual. When Abdullah wearied of a workout, he'd think, 'Why can't I just put my head down, smile and continue to grind, if this 2-year-old is doing something far more intense?'

D.J.'s prognosis wasn't good, but Abdullah let himself hope, and Reddick kept him updated through Twitter and texts. At a Huskers awards breakfast in the spring of 2013, the toddler hopped into Abdullah's arms and turned his winsome face toward the audience. Advisor Schellpeper cried along with many others in the room.

When Reddick called Abdullah last September to tell him D.J. hadn't made it, the news crushed him. Sheer will and prayer, the two things Abdullah relies on, hadn't been enough to alter this outcome. He found it difficult to function and didn't go to class for several days.

"Some nights, I just stayed up and cried," Abdullah said on the phone this past week, a year to the day since D.J.'s death. "If I could just trade places, you know, with someone like him ..."

Abdullah stopped, politely excused himself, tried to speak, couldn't. He took a deep breath.

"If I could just trade places with someone like him," he began again, his voice quaking, "It would mean much more to see his life rather than mine because his take on life was perfect. No matter what you're going through, someone's always going through something worse. No need to complain, no need to feel sorry for your own predicament. All you can do is work with what you have and keep grounded through life.

"That's something I learned from a 2-year-old boy who couldn't put together the sentence I just did. It's something that's gonna stick with me for life."

Sometimes, when Abdullah scores, he touches his chest and points upward, as athletes of many faiths do. He has done it several times with D.J. in mind. Unlike the earth, the sky is not sectioned off with dotted lines of belief for people to tussle over. There is enough space up there for everyone's hope and grief and appreciation.

Abdullah can occasionally duck behind a lineman, but he's too big to hide anymore. To remind himself that there are people out there who would still misgauge him, he has papered his bedroom walls in Lincoln with a few signs:

Not a top-five back in the country!!!

Lacks top-end speed!!!


Not an every-down back!!!

He's a fumbler

5th-7th rounder at best!!!

He accepts that he's a marked man and losing the ball is like giving a burglar keys to a bank vault in front of 90,000 people with savings stashed there. It's a responsibility, but he takes pride in his reach and the team's hold over people.

"We are the big ticket here," Abdullah said.

All over Nebraska and in far-flung places where alumni dress for game day, there are peewee-sized kids wearing Abdullah's No. 8 jersey. He's pleased when people post the photos, and he retweets them. He has become something of a household name, and that doesn't seem like a foreign concept at all.