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.’ ”
“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?”
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.”
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