By Randy York
Ameer Abdullah scored one of the most meaningful touchdowns of a career Tuesday with his mind, his heart and his soul instead of his strength, his legs and his power. Nebraska’s All-America running back and 2014 Heisman Trophy candidate wore a white sports coat and his Superman glasses for a serious discussion with 1,700 people who gathered to hear his thoughts about the essence of a student-athlete. Even though Abdulla acknowledged being nervous in front of a packed crowd at the Chicago Hilton, his speech was a true national hit. Why? Because his commentary provided perspective for all 14 Big Ten schools represented, as well as every other NCAA school. The focus was on the growth that all college football players can achieve if they apply the same standards of thinking that Ameer selected as his measurements for lifetime success.
Everyone in the hotel ballroom heard something they might not have expected – a high-profile performer embracing and explaining why he’s so sold on Nebraska’s unrelenting mission to put the word student ahead of the word athlete every day and in every way humanly possible. I suggest that first, you watch the video that gives the essence of Ameer’s core spirit and academic/athletic soul. After you’ve done that, check out two prominent national takes on that issue from one of America’s largest newspapers and one of the nation’s most prominent websites. After that, check out the Omaha World-Herald’s and the Lincoln Journal Star’s compelling coverage of a regional event with national implications.
As a primer, here are some highlights from the media:
USA Today’s Paul Myerberg: In pads and out, he stands within range of fulfilling this potential. After acing a summer course, Abdullah said he’s “on the hoof” of earning Academic All-American accolades; he’d be the 315th student-athlete in Nebraska history to earn the honor, the most of any school in the country. With another banner performance in 2014, Abdullah would also become the first player in program history to notch three 1,000-yard seasons. It’s this balance that makes Abdullah a Heisman Trophy contender, the potential antidote to trophy controversy – the thinking man’s option, perhaps, backed by yardage, touchdowns, grades and the built-in name recognition inherent to the Nebraska brand.
Yahoo Sports’ Pat Forde: This year’s speaker was Nebraska running back Ameer Abdullah. If the idea is to showcase the league’s best and brightest, then the Big Ten chose wisely. The ninth of nine children born into a Muslim home in the Birmingham, Ala., suburb of Homewood, Ameer also will be the ninth Abdullah to graduate from college. Several of his siblings have advanced degrees as well. There are two lawyers, a CNN producer, a branch manager of a bank and several business people among the Abdullah’s three boys and six girls. And athletes, too – Ameer considers himself the fourth-best athlete among his siblings. “I’m the failure of the family,” he said with a laugh. The “failure” is on track to graduate with a bachelor’s degree in history in December, and when his playing days are over he may pursue a law degree of his own.
Omaha World-Herald’s Tom Shatel: In Abdullah’s case, it’s all the right stuff: heart, guts and older-than-his-years perspective. The man represented. Take his outfit. Classy white sport coat, dark pants, light blue shirt and dark blue tie. He was dressed to kill. And then he did. But which direction would he go? If you knew something about Abdullah’s background, you wondered. Would he talk about growing up one of nine kids, all college educated? Would he talk about growing up in a Muslim family, and hearing the taunts of other kids after Sept. 11, 2001 – as he told media members earlier in the day? Neither. His theme was “The Essence of the Student-Athlete,” and I believe I saw Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany beam when Abdullah said that.
Lincoln Journal-Star’s Brian Christopherson: He got emotional near the end of speech as he recounted his experience on a recent trip back home to Alabama. He learned that one of his childhood friends, who also had received an athletic scholarship, had become hooked on drugs and was no longer in school. And another was sentenced to 25 years in prison. “I remember thinking to myself, ‘How can this happen to these guys?’ These aren’t people who I read about or see on TV. These are my best friends, guys who I knew from elementary school to high school, and all these things were happening to them,” Abdullah said. “That’s when reality set in. If it can happen to them, it can happen to any student-athlete in this room today. It only takes one bad decision to derail all of our hopes and dreams.”
Ameer Chosen from 1,000 Big Ten Candidates
One of the Big Ten’s best traditions is the annual student-athlete speech for universities and fans in Chicago. “The conference chooses one football player to represent more than 1,000 from the league,” Forde pointed out. Myerberg, a college football writer for USA Today’s nearly 1.7 million subscribers, concluded his national piece in a way that uniquely supports Ameer’s keynote speech.
"We have a saying in Nebraska: We don’t rise to the occasion; we fall back on our training," Abdullah told Myerberg and other national reporters. "So I feel like if I train myself to get ready for that moment, when it comes it’s going to be much more rewarding – much more appropriate." Small wonder why Myerberg calls Abdullah “the linchpin of the Cornhuskers’ Rose Bowl hopes” and “yet another balancing act” for: 1) Ameer’s emerging national status; 2) the promise that lies ahead for his final season in Lincoln; and 3) how he soon will be writing his legacy in real time.
"I know it sounds stupid, but a lot of people envision it but they don’t believe that they can go out and be an Academic All-American, be one of the top backs in the country and be a shining example for the Big Ten," Ameer said. "It means a lot. You never know what kind of history you’re writing. You never know who’s going to tell your story. Just the fact that my story is maybe a story that may be told … in the future."
Ameer’s Home State Has a Suggestion for NCAA
One thing is certain about Ameer Abdullah’s national presence. Even though it was a Big Ten event, his home state of Alabama elevated his name in a major headline on the Alabama Today website. “The next time NCAA resident Mark Emmert is cornered by reporters and asked whether or not athletes at big-time, Division I colleges should be paid, he might want to ask Nebraska running back Ameer Abdullah to stand in for him,” Nick Birdsong wrote on al.com.
“If his talk at today’s Big Ten Football Kickoff Luncheon is evidence enough, the Homewood product might do a better job of articulating the value of a college education for a high-profile athlete,” Birdsong wrote.
Yes, Ameer painted a fresh portrait to help everyone dig their cleats into an ongoing national debate. “The true essence of a student-athlete,” he said, “is someone who has the desire to educate themselves athletically, academically and personally.”
Pelini Wasn’t the Only Enthusiastic Head Coach
Even though I didn’t attend the luncheon, members of Nebraska’s Department of Athletics couldn’t help noticing a head coach who stood up and gave Ameer Abdullah an energetic hug before he stepped off the stage – Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald, a coach for whom Bo Pelini has great respect. Like Bo, Fitzgerald knows a stunning touchdown run when he sees one, and Tuesday – during and after lunch with the conference and the nation – Abdullah did nothing but reinforce what Fitzgerald has said since his own program became the historic catalyst to create the first players’ union in college sports history.
We end this blog with an American fact, which also happens to be my favorite Ameer quote from his speech. “You see, nothing, NOTHING, is guaranteed,” he said. “But if you continually strive to educate ourselves, athletically, academically and personally, then maybe, MAYBE, one day we can reach our FULL potential.”
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