Published Friday, January 17, 2014 at 12:00 am / Updated at 9:22 am
FOOTBALL
Shatel: Huskers fortunate to tug on Ameer Abdullah's cape

LINCOLN — The face of Nebraska football wears glasses.

Clark Kent glasses, to be exact. The kind that make Ameer Abdullah look like Cliff Paul, the fictional studious twin of NBA star Chris Paul in those State Farm commercials. All he needs is the argyle sweater vest.

The face of Nebraska speaks in a soft, yet firm voice. He talks about family, becoming a leader, being humble, holding onto the ball and the real reason he chose to come back in 2014 for his senior year.

“I want to be the ninth in my family to get their degree,” Abdullah said.

With 1,804 yards next year, he could sit in the king's chair of Nebraska's all-time leading rushers. With a little over half that, 904 yards, he would be the all-time No. 2. Not exactly chopped Astro-Turf.

But the list that counts the most for No. 8 is being No. 9 in his family to earn a college degree. Both of Abdullah's parents, Kareem and Aisha, have degrees. So do his six older siblings.

Forget chasing Mike Rozier and Ahman Green. This is pressure.

“I have a sister who works at CNN,” Abdullah said. “A brother who is an attorney, a sister who is an attorney. A brother who is an accountant, a sister who is graduating from pharmacy school and a sister who has a high-paying job at a bank.”

Someone mentioned to him that he could have always returned from the NFL to get his degree.

“Who wants to come back to school after you leave school?'' Abdullah said, with a soft laugh.

Meet the new face of Nebraska football.

It's a good look.

This is not a new face, of course. Abdullah has been around for three years, has rushed for almost 3,000 yards, was a third-team All-American and first-team All-Big Ten last year, earned praise and respect as a tough and clutch runner, and is a Husker Student-Athlete Hero off the field.

But the junior elevated his stature and expectations and everything around him by coming back for his senior year.

And that's what I was looking for on Thursday, as Abdullah held a media gathering to accommodate the requests since his announcement. He's been to these little shindigs before, usually after the heavy hitters, the seniors and captains show up.

But this time it was the Ameer Abdullah Show, starring the senior, soon-to-be-captain, leader, Heisman Trophy candidate and No. 1 magnet for all eyes in this crazy little fish bowl state.

It's going to be a great fit.

Abdullah looks like he has the presence, patience and the demeanor to handle all the intense blitzing and fronts that will be thrown at him next season. And that's just in the interview room.

This classy young man is his own Heisman Trophy campaign. Nebraska officials just need to make sure Abdullah makes a weekly appearance in front of the cameras. He'll do the rest. Oh, and bring the Cliff Paul glasses. Media types are suckers for kids who can move the chains on the field or in the library.

Bring Abdullah to Chicago in July for the annual Big Ten Football Kickoff. Start working on Jim Delany's peeps to get Abdullah to make the annual student-athlete speech to the huge luncheon crowd.

He sure won't need a speech writer. When Abdullah told the world he was heading back to Lincoln, he did so in a statement that was, in a word, eloquent. It's hard to know if Abdullah is coming back to win the Big Ten or the Nobel Peace Prize.

Abdullah said it didn't take him long to knock out the statement. He even made everyone read the entire statement, saving the punch line for last. Thank goodness this cat is too busy on game day to write a sports column.

“It came right from my heart,” Abdullah said. 'My heart was really into my statement. It felt like what I was doing was right.”

He said it was important for him to write that statement. I asked why.

“A lot of people think, 'Well, he came back just because these (other running backs) declared, his draft report wasn't very high' or whatever,” Abdullah said. “But I assure you, my draft report was high. A lot of guys probably would have taken what I was projected.

“I wasn't really worried about the other backs around the country because I am confident in my abilities. I just really wanted to finish my education.”

There are other goals. Abdullah says he wants to be the “voice of the team,” the captain and mentor to lift up the young players. He warns against “complacency” and “ceiling” and says he has something to prove.

These will keep Abdullah Watchers busy. You can't just decide to be a leader. You either are or you aren't. Abdullah's commitment, work ethic, intelligence and humility point him in the right direction. So does the credibility that comes with coming back for another at-bat. But it's never as easy as saying you're going to be the leader.

Can a running back be a team leader? I haven't seen many over the years. I'm sure there have been some at NU (Rex Burkhead comes to mind). But many of the great running backs I've covered weren't guys who fired up the huddle or gave pregame speeches. Great running backs often just do their thing.

And what about that ceiling? Running backs play as freshmen for a reason: They're ready. Ndamukong Suh transformed before our eyes when he came back in 2009. But that was defensive tackle. How can Abdullah get better? Hang onto that ball a little tighter? Well, there is that.

If Abdullah can be that leader, if he can push that ceiling (get Tim Beck to draw him up some pass patterns), then it may be time to admit it: He really is Clark Kent.

Then again, Superman's alter ego was a newspaper guy. Abdullah says he'd like to be a tax lawyer, like his older brother, Muhammad, who he leaned on for advice for this decision.

Ameer Abdullah, senior, leader, Heisman candidate and tax attorney, looks like he can do whatever the heck he wants. For Nebraska, it's a good look.

* * *

Video: Ameer Abdullah press conference

Contact the writer: Tom Shatel

tom.shatel@owh.com    |   402-444-1025    |  

Tom Shatel is a sports columnist who covers the city, regional and state scene.

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