Ameer Abdullah: The Renaissance Running Back the NFL Needs Right Now

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterApril 21, 2015

Nati Harnik/AP Images

Compare Ameer Abdullah to Warrick Dunn, and Abdullah is likely to give you an earful. 

"I appreciate them," Abdullah said of the Dunn comparisons which he has heard since his junior year at Nebraska. "But any time you try to compare any [rookie] back to another back right now, it's just premature. I see a lot of backs in this draft class compared to Beast Mode or to Adrian Peterson. That's not fair.

"I don't want to prop myself up for failure like that, because if I don't pan out to be a Warrick Dunn then those comparisons would be definitely, outrageously unfair."

Abdullah isn't quite finished.

"We're two different people. I don't think I'm as good as Warrick Dunn yet. I'm nowhere near the level of a Warrick Dunn yet. I obviously have confidence in myself and think I'm a great player right now, but there are definitely a lot of things I can get better at. To have Warrick Dunn comparisons right now is a little bit premature. I feel like I'm just Ameer Abdullah."

Fair enough. Let Ameer Abdullah be Ameer Abdullah. That's pressure enough for a young man, because the NFL needs Abdullah, perhaps more than Abdullah needs the NFL.

Video Play Button
Videos you might like

Good guy

Abdullah is a worthy subject for one of those boilerplate "good guy" football player profiles. You have read hundreds of them in your life: Here is one of the good guys, brainy guys, guys with *CHARACTER.* This is not one of those profiles, though Abdullah is all of those things.

Abdullah is the youngest of nine children, born and raised in Birmingham, Alabama. He was in elementary school on Sept. 11, 2001, and he endured persecution because of his family's Islamic faith. But the Abdullahs were educated professionals who stood fast in their faith and their values. The nine children excelled in school, went to college and embarked on professional careers. Ameer never put athletics above academics or community involvement.

NCAA Senior CLASS Award Winners for Football
2008James LaurinaitisOhio State
2009Tim TebowFlorida
2010Ricky DobbsNavy
2011Kirk CousinsMichigan State
2012Manti Te'oNotre Dame
2013John UrschelPenn State
2014Ameer AbdullahNebraska

He starred as a speedy all-purpose back, first at Homewood High School in Birmingham and then at Nebraska, where he was a starter and a 1,000-yard rusher by his sophomore year. He also starred off the field: a two-time Academic All-Big Ten student-athlete, a two-time winner of the Nebraska HERO award for leadership in the community, a member of just about every scholar-athlete-citizen team recognized by the University of Nebraska. The NCAA honored him with the Senior CLASS award as the most well-rounded senior football player in the nation after the 2014 season.

Abdullah rushed for 1,690 yards as a junior, but he never even thought about renouncing his eligibility. He stayed in school and earned his degree. He plans to continue his studies and become a lawyer after his football career.

So yes: good guy, guy with *CHARACTER,* lawyer jokes aside.

But the boilerplate profile doesn't do Abdullah justice. First of all, Abdullah doesn't need a sportswriter to tell his story. He tells it just fine in a weekly USA Today draft diary. Secondly, plenty of those profiles have been written, and many more will be written by the local press when Abdullah is drafted, so there is no need for one more. But most importantly, Abdullah is too unique and interesting to form-fit into our overcame adversity/reads to preschoolers/actually attends classes story template. Abdullah is almost too unique to be summed up in a profile about how unique he is.

Smart guy

Abdullah did not take the LSAT this winter. He had a minor scheduling conflict.

"I had set it up with my academic adviser, and we had settled on a date," he said of the law school examination. "Just a month later, I was looking up things about the combine. I looked at the date and thought, 'Why does that date look familiar?' Then it hit me."

Yes, Abdullah nearly signed up to take the LSAT on the same weekend as the most important job interview of any college football player's life.

"I went to my academic adviser and told her," Abdullah said of the conflict. "She said, 'Well, what are you gonna do?' I said 'What do you mean what am I gonna to do? I gotta go to the combine!'"

Yes, Abdullah's academic adviser thought he might actually consider blowing off the NFL and sharpening up his No. 2 pencils instead.

Abdullah doesn't want to be just any kind of lawyer. He is interested in medical law. He may bristle at Warrick Dunn comparisons, but Abdullah has no problems at all with being called a potential health care reformer.

David J. Phillip/Associated Press

"There are a lot of things going on with Obamacare and medical insurance, a lot of revisions that need to be made," he said. "Being a part of that and representing that will mean a lot to history."

Abdullah also talks about dabbling in sports agency; his brother Muhammad is both his agent and a licensed tax attorney. Abdullah doesn't just want to be a lawyer the way so many NFL prospects speak vaguely about having something to do after football, almost the way a six-year-old wants to be an astronaut. Abdullah has tangible goals that transcend the Super Bowl.

Those goals come from the lessons of his huge, highly educated family. He has called himself "the failure of the family," both in his USA Today diary and in many interviews. "Obviously, I don't mean that so literally," he told me. But his siblings are writers, lawyers, bankers and soon-to-be pharmacists. "Everyone's made their mark in the professional world at the highest ranks of their jobs," he said.

"My family set a high standard. I feel like I have a long way to go to cement my name in the Abdullah legacy."

Tough guy

The crotchety old coach who lives in the back of your brain is probably whispering to you right now. Medical law? Forgetting the date of the combine? Maybe this kid is one of those mamby-pamby smarty-pants types who won't fit in when he gets to an NFL locker room.

Abdullah calls himself a "nerd." He reads books about classical Greek and Roman civilizations. He told me that the only television show he watches regularly is House of Cards and that he hasn't played a video game since high school.

But before you call him Poindexter and kick sand in his face, be warned that Abdullah is also the two-time Nebraska Lifter of the Year. On a team with sack monsters Randy Gregory and Zaire Anderson, with major-conference scholarship-earning 300-pounders three deep on the offensive line, the 5'9" Abdullah was the king of the weight room. "It's a dimension of my game that I take really seriously," he said.

Abdullah is a football lifer. He loved the sport even when his childhood friends preferred baseball or basketball. Older brother Kareem took him to the sandlot when Ameer was six years old and Kareem and the other kids were about 10. Kareem picked his baby brother first when the kids chose sides. "Everyone was laughing at him," Abdullah recalled. "But when we got on the field, we killed everybody."

Abdullah could already out-juke sandlot players four years older than him. He jokes that his playground exploits would probably have made a heck of a viral video if such things existed 15 years ago. "After that, they knew to pick me and him first."

Kareem played high school football. Ameer's sister Madinah was a three-sport star who earned a volleyball scholarship at Alabama A&M. For the Abdullah siblings, scholar-athlete was never an either-or scenario, and Abdullah absorbed different lessons from each of his brothers and sisters. Muhammad taught perseverance, Madinah (six years older) helped his confidence and self-esteem, Kareem taught him football and so on. "They were babysitters. They were bullies. They were influences on athletics and academics," he said.

Legal aspirations and brainy interests aside, Abdullah has football goals. He says he will shed his not-so-literal "failure" label when he reaches his second NFL contract: a standard of career success for an NFL running back that roughly matches up with his siblings' achievements in banking or tax law. He knows Chris Borland's early retirement set a precedent for bright, medically aware prospects that could make some teams nervous.

"I haven't gotten to that point where the risk of football deters my aspiration for this game," he wrote in his diary. "I have so much more I want to accomplish out there. I love this game so much."

Questioning Abdullah's resolve as an athlete gets you the same pushback you receive when comparing him to Warrick Dunn. "You can come step in the weight room with me, and you'll see."

Regular guy

This is the point in the "good guy" profile when the author begins connecting dots between all the NFL's problems, linking Adrian Peterson, Jameis Winston, Aaron Hernandez and other convicted and accused malefactors into a headline-friendly daisy chain, then ranting vaguely and nervously about *CHARACTER* until you feel dumber and less informed than you felt before reading the profile. Finally, offered as the solution to all of the NFL's and society's problems: Ameer Abdullah, running back, role model and savior.

I don't want to write that rant. You don't want to read it. And a young man acutely aware of the baggage that comes with a Warrick Dunn comparison sure as heck doesn't deserve to be burdened with the task of curing the NFL of violence or the human condition.

What makes Abdullah unique off the field is not that he's such a solid citizen, but that the emphasis is on the citizen. Abdullah is a member of the community. All football players are, of course, but many don't sound that way when they speak or act that way when their helmets are off. They seem like gladiator princes, separated from the public at large by their gifts since young adulthood, their lifestyles and values different from ours.

Even those who donate time and money to charities and causes—the other good guys—can be difficult to relate to. Yes, they'll donate to a children's hospital or tell inner-city kids to stay in school. Do they think about health care reform solutions? Do they read history books? Do they have any idea what writers, pharmacists and tax attorneys actually do? Or have they seen the world through a football-colored lens since puberty?

Abdullah took extra initiative to visit schools and day cares and read to children throughout his college career. He chose a degree in history over early entry to the NFL, despite playing a position where injuries are frequent and years below age 26 are precious. He has always been a little different. Yet he said that he was surprised when the NCAA gave him the Senior CLASS award.

"A lot of stuff that I did didn't register as worthy of winning an award," he said. "I thought it was just stuff you were supposed to do."

Abdullah is not the antidote to "all the NFL's problems." He just does the things we are supposed to do. Not the things football players are supposed to do, but the things people are supposed to do. The NFL needs him, and more young men like him: Not necessarily saints or philanthropists, but young men who didn't learn everything they know about life from within the insular world of our football factories.

High-impact guy

Abdullah knows all about Warrick Dunn. He models himself after Warrick Dunn. "I feel like I can connect with Warrick Dunn because he was a guy who stayed the same throughout his whole career," Abdullah said. "He didn't let the limelight or glamor affect who he was as a person. On the field, he was a tremendous player. He was one of the more underrated running backs to play this game."

There's a difference between choosing a role model and welcoming comparisons to that role model. Dunn rushed for over 10,000 yards and won a Walter Payton Man of the Year award. He was a leader on a Super Bowl team and one of the most respected individuals in football off the field. Dunn is now a minority owner of the Atlanta Falcons and remains outspoken on a variety of topics.

The Dunn-Abdullah similarities are obvious: Size, rushing and receiving style, social awareness, Renaissance Man tendencies. But Abdullah is right: The direct comparison between a former Pro Bowler and a kid who has not even been drafted yet is definitely, outrageously unfair.

Lenny Ignelzi/Associated Press

But the off-field comparison is another matter.

"I'm honored to have that comparison, because to suggest that I carry myself as well as someone like Warrick Dunn, and that's something I want in life," Abdullah said.

"Football is obviously my ultimate goal. But how I affect people through my game, or how I carry myself off the field is definitely the impact I want to leave."

That's the impact the NFL wants to have as well. That's why the NFL needs Ameer Abdullah, and a few hundred others just like him.

Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.


The latest in the sports world, emailed daily.