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Setting a good example

SARAH HOFFMAN/THE WORLD-HERALD

With a third straight 1,000-yard season, Ameer Abdullah climbed to No. 2 on the Huskers’ all-time rushing list with 4,588 yards.

Ameer Abdullah’s Nebraska legacy includes community involvement; he plans the same during his time in the NFL.

By Rich Kaipust / World-Herald staff writer

BRENDAN SULLIVAN/THE WORLD-HERALD

Despite knee trouble, Ameer Abdullah was a Doak Walker Award finalist. Abdullah finished the season with 1,611 rushing yards and 19 touchdowns.

2015 WARE AWARD FINALISTS


In all, 11 student-athletes were named finalists for the Fred Ware Award:

Kelli Browning: Creighton swept the Big East volleyball regular-season and tournament titles behind the 6-foot-4 middle blocker from Waukesha, Wisconsin. She led the team in kills (403) and blocks (180) as the Bluejays finished 25-9. She was the first CU All-American in volleyball with AVCA third-team recognition.

Jessica DeZiel: DeZiel was a first-team All-American in the all-around to complete a career in which she earned nine NCAA All-America honors. The senior from Rogers, Minnesota, was named the Nebraska Female Student-Athlete of the Year for 2014-15.

James Green: With a third-place finish at the 2015 NCAA championships, Green became only the second four-time All-American in NU wrestling history. The 157-pounder from Willingboro, New Jersey, recently earned a spot on the U.S. World Team.

Fabian Herbers: The CU sophomore was named Big East offensive player of the year and received first-team All-America honors after having 10 goals and eight assists during the 2014 season. A native of Ahaus, Germany, Herbers helped the Bluejays post the nation’s best winning percentage and make the NCAA Elite Eight.

Lizabeth Kuhlkin: The senior from Schenectady, New York, led the Huskers to NCAA bowling championships in 2013 and ’15, and a runner-up finish in between. Kuhlkin was the 2015 National Tenpin Coaches Association Bowler of the Year and a three-time first-team All-American, and also a three-time Academic All-Big Ten pick.

Cole Manhart: The Lopers offensive tackle was a first-team NCAA Division II All-American. He played in the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl, and is now with the Philadelphia Eagles as an undrafted free agent. The 6-foot-6, 310-pounder was a two-time captain for UNK and a criminal justice major with a 3.68 GPA.

Rachel Martin: She was NU’s only individual national champion in 2015 (smallbore) as the Huskers finished fourth at the NCAA championships. The sophomore from Peralta, New Mexico, was Academic All-Big Ten and a two-time member of the Tom Osborne Citizenship Team.

Ryan Massa: The Mavericks goalie finished his career by setting UNO single-season records in goals-against average (1.96) and save percentage (.939), leading the nation in the latter category. Massa turned aside 73 of 74 shots at the NCAA Midwest Regional to be named most outstanding player, leading UNO to its first Frozen Four. He was also named to NCHC Scholar-Athlete team.

Bailey Morris: The 5-foot-4 point guard from Clay Center, Nebraska, left the Concordia women’s basketball program as its all-time leading scorer with 2,054 points. Also ranks among the school leaders with 502 assists and 394 steals, and was named the 2014-15 NAIA Division II player of the year. The Bulldogs went 119-21 during her four-year career.

Terran Petteway: Posted his second straight 500-point season, averaging 18.2 per game as a junior. Petteway joined Dave Hoppen as the only Huskers to reach 1,000 points (1,143) in their first two seasons with the NU program (after transferring from Texas Tech). Third-team All-Big Ten pick in 2014-15, after being first-team the year before, when Nebraska made NCAA tournament for first time since 1998.

James White: The high jumper completed his senior season with All-America finishes at both the NCAA indoor and outdoor meets. Native of Grandview, Missouri, came to NU after holding the national high school record in the long jump and winning a national championship at Iowa Central Community College.

PREVIOUS WINNERS

2015: Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska football
2014: Doug McDermott, Creighton basketball
2013: Doug McDermott, Creighton basketball
2012: Ethan Finlay, Creighton soccer
2011: Jordan Burroughs, Nebraska wrestling
2010: Ndamukong Suh, Nebraska football
2009: Jordan Larson, Nebraska volleyball
2008: Dusty Jonas, Nebraska track and field
2007: Zac Taylor, Nebraska football
2006: Les Sigman, UNO wrestling
2005: Alex Gordon, Nebraska baseball
2004: Peaches James, Nebraska softball
2003: Kyle Korver, Creighton basketball
2002: Eric Crouch, Nebraska football
2001: Greichaly Cepero, Nebraska volleyball
2000: Heather Brink, Nebraska gymnastics
1999: Ed Thompson, UNO football
1998: Grant Wistrom, Nebraska football
1997: Johnny Torres, Creighton soccer
1996: Tommie Frazier, Nebraska football
1995: Darin Erstad, Nebraska baseball/football
1994: Trev Alberts, Nebraska football, and Keith DeFini, Creighton soccer
1993: Karen Jennings, Nebraska basketball
1992: Janet Kruse, Nebraska volleyball
1991: Pat Tyrance, Nebraska football
1990: Gerry Gdowski, Nebraska football, and Sammie Resh Gdowski, Nebraska track
1989: Lori Endicott, Nebraska volleyball
1988: Tom Schlesinger, Nebraska gymnastics
1987: Karen Dahlgren, Nebraska volleyball
1986: Dave Hoppen, Nebraska basketball
1985: Mark Traynowicz, Nebraska football
1984: Turner Gill, Nebraska football
1983: Merlene Ottey, Nebraska track
1982: Dave Rimington, Nebraska football
1981: Jim Hartung, Nebraska gymnastics


Almost like a Nebraska coach monitoring a star player’s workload on the football field, Keith Zimmer had to watch how much he was using I-back Ameer Abdullah off the field.

As the person who oversees the Huskers’ life skills program, one aspect of which is involving NU student-athletes in the community, Zimmer admits it was tempting to take all the time Abdullah was willing to give.

Especially with the clout the player was building.

“The turning point was after he decided to come back (for his senior season) and made his very eloquent statement, emphasizing education and being a role model,” Zimmer said. “And the first time after that when I brought him into my office, I said, ‘No. 1, glad you’re coming back. But No. 2, we have an opportunity to get you out even more, within reason, and people will listen. If you’re talking about the importance of education, you’re living it.’ ”

Abdullah’s response?

“He said, ‘I’m all for it,’ ” Zimmer said. “With guys like that, who are higher profile, we try to pick our spots. But he was always very accommodating.”

Abdullah’s ability to make a difference, with or without a football in his hands, is the reason he is being named today as winner of the Fred Ware Award, presented for the 35th time by The World-Herald.

The Ware Award is given annually to the four-year college athlete in Nebraska who, in the judgment of the newspaper’s editors, made the most significant achievement in sports while representing the best traditions of his or her institution. The late Fred Ware organized The World-Herald sports department and served as sports editor from 1924 to 1942, and later was the newspaper’s managing editor and a member of its board of directors.

Now that Abdullah is an NFL player, his first order of business is to make an impact on the field as the second-round draft pick of the Detroit Lions. Abdullah said he is pumped about his potential role in the Lions’ high-powered offense and playing for head coach Jim Caldwell. His second priority, once he gets settled, is to reach out and get involved in the Detroit community, with the Lions and the NFL providing the kind of platform that NU had in Lincoln.

“Right now my timeline is all football, “Abdullah said. “I understand certain things need to be taken care of. But when I cross that road, there is a lot that I want to do as far as giving back to the community, and a lot of things I want to do independently.”

Starting with Galen Duncan, the Lions’ senior director of player development, Abdullah said he feels he has the right people around him to help him make an impact. At Nebraska, his support came from a staff led by Zimmer, a senior associate athletic director.

Zimmer said all his crew had to do was point Abdullah in a particular direction and he would handle the rest.

“I think he has just high standards for himself and he has broad shoulders,” Zimmer said. “It was always important for Ameer to not just be identified as an athlete, but also as a scholar and a citizen. He worked hard to emulate the mantra that we preach every day here — success in athletics, academics and life — and he bought into all three at the highest level.”

Zimmer said Abdullah was especially good with an Omaha child fighting brain cancer. The contact with the family was regular and unforced. Former NU assistant Ron Brown remembers the hurt Abdullah showed when the child suffered a setback.

“He wasn’t seeking any recognition for it,” Zimmer said. “He just knew it was the right thing to do. He didn’t do anything with any hidden agendas. He did things because he cared.”

Abdullah said the family probably made a bigger impact on him than he did on them. He was moved by how positive they remained. It reinforced to him the capability that people have of rubbing off on others.

“I can’t change everyone, but maybe if I can impact somebody, change their mindset for a day, or maybe for life ... nothing means more than somebody saying, ‘Ameer maybe changed me because of my contact with him,’ ” Abdullah said. “And, to me, that’s better than saying, ‘Ameer’s the best football player I’ve ever seen.’ What’s better than an everlasting legacy you leave on someone that maybe changes their life?”

“Nothing means more than somebody saying, ‘Ameer maybe changed me because of my contact with him.’ And, to me, that’s better than saying, ‘Ameer’s the best football player I’ve ever seen.’ What’s better than an everlasting legacy you leave on someone that maybe changes their life?”
— Ameer Abdullah

That said, his Husker football legacy will be significant.

If not for a knee injury that slowed him last season, Abdullah might have challenged the NU all-time rushing record (4,780 yards) that Mike Rozier has held since 1983. With a third straight 1,000-yard season, Abdullah was still able to climb to No. 2 at 4,588.

The 5-foot-9, 195-pounder from Homewood, Alabama, was a Doak Walker Award finalist last season, when he also received Associated Press and Walter Camp second-team All-America honors. As a junior, he was first-team All-Big Ten and an AP third-team All-American.

His size never wowed anyone — but Brown was among those who always found far more in Abdullah than measurables and statistics.

Responsive to coaching and mentorship. Humble and respectful of those around him. Never about himself.

“His priorities set him above so many athletes because it was always about a bigger picture than just football, and that’s what I loved about him,” said Brown, now at Liberty University. “You saw that with Rex (Burkhead) and certainly saw that with Ameer. It wasn’t about, ‘Am I going to get my carries? Am I going to get my yards? Am I going to get the recognition?’ He just wanted to be a great football player.”

Brown has no doubts that Abdullah can leave his mark in Detroit, a city trying to rebound from hard economic times and negative perceptions. He knows the young back can be a spokesman, and even represent a football team and an entire city.

Some of it will happen just by how he carries himself. Brown said Abdullah had a way of running off the field with authority, showing up to meetings with a presence, practicing every day with a purpose.

“When you have high standards like that in your life, and you’re very serious about your mission in life, then there are no details that are too small,” Brown said.

Abdullah said the NFL evaluation he received after his junior season was good enough for him to declare for the draft. By staying, however, he was able to graduate last December after 3½ years at NU, majoring in history with an education minor.

Dennis Leblanc, NU’s senior associate athletic director for academics, said it would have been easy for Abdullah to coast last fall, with his Heisman Trophy candidacy coming to life and the majority of his academic work behind him. But Leblanc never saw any signs of Abdullah losing his focus. Leblanc wanted to be sure Husker teammates took notice.

“Where I could use it most was maybe with a freshman coming in and maybe struggling with effort or motivation, and you bring up Ameer,” Leblanc said. “You could say, ‘Look, you got the guy who is the most visible guy on the team and he lays it on the line every day.’ You go find him and follow him around for the day and see what he’s doing, and he’s trying to get better.”

Abdullah was picked to speak at the Big Ten media days luncheon last July in Chicago. It was there that he spoke, to no one’s surprise, about the “essence of the student-athlete.”

At NU, he lived it.

“So accountable, so dependable,” Zimmer said. “You see his sense of purpose every day. He maximized every moment, whether it be an athletic commitment or academic commitment or in the community.”

If Abdullah had one regret, it had nothing to do with finishing 192 yards behind Rozier. It was that he didn’t get out into the community more, where he preached respect, listening, education and caring for others.

“I had a pretty heavy workload, doing 17 credit hours every semester, so I didn’t always have the time,” he said. “But I’ve always been a big believer in the saying, ‘If there’s a will, there’s a way,’ and maybe I found some excuses sometimes for maybe why I couldn’t do something.

“People might say, ‘You don’t owe anybody anything.’ Yes, I do.”

Abdullah returns to the Lions when training camp starts July 28, and said he already feels a “great vibe” with the franchise, which last season made the NFC playoffs for the second time in four years.

“So far I’m really enjoying it,” he said. “I feel like they have a lot of things they want to do with me, a lot of high hopes and different ways they want to use me. So I’m definitely excited.”

Contact the writer:

402-444-1042, rich.kaipust@owh.com, twitter.com/RKaipustOWH


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