• Video Below: NU coach Bo Pelini speaks to the media (Sept. 15)
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Last spring, Ron Brown met with the Nebraska running backs inside the Osborne Complex.
He wanted to talk about the four recruits joining them in the summer. One by one, Brown went down the list, detailing each newcomer's skills, personalities and roots.
When Brown described Ameer Abdullah, he included this nugget of biographical detail:
Ameer practices Islam.
Brown, 54, has coached players from all over the world, from Australia to Germany. Big-city kids, small-town kids. White and black. Religious and non-religious.
But in 25 years, Brown doesn't remember coaching a Muslim.
Brown is a Christian. He has a reputation, he says, for "suffocating kids and banging them over the head with a Bible." He regularly references Scripture in casual conversation and in the locker room. Almost every day, just before they take the practice field, Brown reads to his players from the Bible.
So when Brown said that Ameer Abdullah practices Islam, one of the running backs posed a question:
"Coach, when Ameer comes, what do we do?"
Choosing a path
Ameer Abdullah likes to tell a story about the first time he saw Nebraska. He shares it because the winter wind feels the same to everyone.
On Jan. 14, he flew to Lincoln with a high school friend. Recruiting trip. His plane landed, he stepped outside in a jacket and, for the first time in his life, he saw snow.
"It was like 17 degrees. I'm not used to the cold. Cold in Alabama's like 45 degrees."
Abdullah's Alabama roots run deep.
In Mobile, his grandfather started an insurance company. Not easy for a black man in Alabama in the 1940s. W.J. Lovett became one of the most successful black businessmen in the South.
Lovett passed down the lessons of high achievement to his son, Kareem Abdullah.
Abdullah played small-college football before SEC schools recruited blacks. He joined the insurance industry, started a family with his wife. They named the ninth child Ameer.
They raised him in a highly competitive household in a suburb of Birmingham. They preached hard work, putting God first, treating everybody the same. Don't be meek, but don't boast.
Seven of Ameer's eight siblings have graduated from college (one is still a senior at Auburn). Now they're lawyers, bankers, pharmacists, accountants.
Ameer will join them one day. But first he plays football.
His dad used to record his games in the park league. Then he'd sit Ameer in front of the TV and make him analyze himself. Be your own critic, he said.
Birmingham may be the epicenter of SEC passion. Everybody cheers Alabama or Auburn. Since he was 6, Abdullah attended almost every Auburn home game — a friend's family had tickets. Last year, he met Cam Newton.
Auburn recruited Abdullah. So did schools like Southern Cal and LSU. He preferred Bo Pelini.
"He didn't try to sugarcoat anything," Abdullah said. "He didn't say, 'Oh, we promise you this, we promise you that' like some other schools."
After Auburn won the national title, it put the recruiting blitz on Abdullah. It even promised him he'd play running back (after originally recruiting him as a safety). How could Ameer possibly say no?
He boarded the plane, braved the snow and got acquainted with a place that felt even closer to home than Auburn.
His dad made sure to ask twice. You sure this is where you want to go? Yes, Ameer replied.
"It is what it is."
Kareem Abdullah likes that story. He shares it because he remembers his son's exact words. The kid chose a path and didn't look back.
'We're all just human'
In July, Ameer Abdullah returned home to visit his parents. One last break before the marathon season begins.
Ameer had something on his mind: Ramadan.
The Muslim holy month started the week before fall camp, extending to the week of the season opener. Ramadan calls for Muslims to fast during daylight hours. No food. No water.
Ameer had always observed Ramadan. Even during high school, when football drained his energy.
At the family home, his father opened a Koran.
"There's an exemption if the fast is going to make you sick," Kareem said. "I pointed that out to him in Scripture."
Could Ameer's body handle fasting while practicing against elite competition in the August heat? His dad didn't think so. Ameer vowed to make up the fasting days later in the year.
Kareem Abdullah describes the scene reluctantly. He doesn't like to talk about religious differences, nor is he interested in explaining how he came to Islam.
Maybe another time, he says. Those conversations promote division. People should get to know each other first.
Kareem reads the papers. He watches TV. He knows the American stereotypes of Islam.
He also looks around his hometown — and at his own family — and sees Christians living next to Jews living next to Muslims. They don't think about differences. They respect each other.
"This is the way things should be. I think what has been exposed to most of us has been abnormal and brings about a lot of strife. This is normal ...
"We're all just human. We belong to one race. We breathe the same air. Same sun, same rain, same fresh air."
When babies cry, Kareem says, they don't cry in French or English or Arabic.
"They cry a baby cry."
Developing a bond
In April, Ron Brown traveled to Alabama to see one of his new running backs. April 27, to be exact.
That's the day tornadoes ravaged much of the state. En route to Abdullah's high school, Brown took shelter at a hotel. The power went out and Brown crouched in a second-story bathtub, a mattress over his head.
The storm passed. Birmingham was damaged. Parts of Alabama were in ruins. But Brown had somebody sending him texts, checking on him: Ameer.
"He was concerned about me!" Brown said.
Come summer, they got to know each other better. Ameer stopped by Brown's office at the Osborne Complex to chat and to watch film.
They didn't discuss differences in Christianity and Islam. (They still haven't.) But they developed a bond. They shared a value system.
In Brown, Ameer saw a man who doesn't compromise beliefs. Demanding but compassionate.
Ameer may break a 90-yard run in practice, he says, but Brown tells him he didn't tuck the ball correctly.
"He reminds me so much of my father."
In Ameer, Brown saw a kid firm in his convictions. Confident but humble.
"Sometimes I like to go to freshmen and put my arm around them, just to touch them. Let them know there's power in touch," Brown said. "He does that to me. He's always coming up and putting his arm around me.
"There's a warmth and love about him."
A few weeks ago, a friend of Ameer's died. Brown knew something was wrong. He didn't know what. Did he say something wrong?
Finally, Ameer stopped by his office and revealed his pain. Brown consoled him. Told him God had a plan. After that, Ameer said, he felt better.
"I knew I could just come to him and everything's going to be OK."
Wednesday afternoon, at the conclusion of a running back meeting, Brown opened his Bible to Proverbs 23:12.
"Commit yourself to instruction," he said. "Listen carefully to words of knowledge."
Brown drew a parallel to the football field. If you think you know everything, you're being foolish, he said. You'll be held accountable for all the details you're taught in practice. Greatness, he said, is made in empty stadiums. It's revealed in full stadiums.
As Brown told the running backs six months ago, he won't stop reading Bible passages at meetings. But he won't try to force Christianity down any player's throat.
"We're not proselytizing," Brown said. "We're not trying to jack kids over the head with stuff. We're just saying, 'Hey, this is who we are.'
"They go to school here. They're hearing from professors all kinds of philosophies. Those professors aren't apologizing for who they are. They're saying, 'There's no God,' some of them. 'There is no right from wrong.'
I'm saying, 'Yes, there is God. There is Jesus Christ. And there is right from wrong.'
"You guys do what you want with it. You don't have to believe me if you don't want to. It ain't gonna cost you a down of playing time. It ain't costing Ameer any playing time."
Brown has coached "tons of kids," he said, who didn't share his beliefs. No player has ever complained about his messages.
"I don't need to change Ameer. I just need to love up on him and let God do what he wants with him."
Ameer doesn't know of any other Muslims on the team. But he says he doesn't feel left out in the locker room, or in the running backs room.
When Brown opens his Bible, "I always tune in. I always want to enlighten myself on something new," Ameer says. "I've always said I wanted to explore the world of Christianity just to better familiarize myself with it. I always take his stories and they always mean something.
"He really comes at it with a universal message. It's not just for Christianity. He always tells me keep God first. I feel the exact same way."
Saturday night, Kareem was home in Alabama. He watched Fresno State kick to his son over and over. He kept telling his wife, "Ameer is gonna break one."
It takes good hands and great quickness to be a returner, Brown says. More than that: it takes poise. Guts.
Fourth quarter. Twelve minutes left. Fresno State had just cut the lead to 28-26. The crowd was nervous when Ameer fielded the kickoff in the end zone ...
The kid chose a path and didn't look back.
He dodged the first wave, juked a Bulldog at the 25-yard line, raced down the sideline and dragged a tackler across the goal line.
Brown watched from the sideline as Ameer lay on the ground, enduring a leg cramp.
Brown heard the crowd. He knew people would be patting Abdullah on the back all week. But Brown decided to worry about humility in the morning.
He walked out to the field and made sure Ameer was OK.
Then he said: "That was one of the greatest runs I've ever seen."
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