LINCOLN — When Imani Cross picked up his phone to trade stories with his brother one night after football practice, it was almost 10 p.m. And Cross hadn't left the Nebraska facility yet.
This wasn't an aberration, either, as Izaan Cross soon found out.
Most of this season, Imani's been the last Husker to leave the practice field, often doing footwork drills by himself. He'd eat dinner after that, and attend study hall. Then he'd find some game tape to review.
“We're talking one night and he's like, 'Yeah, I'm sitting in the meeting room watching film,'” said Izaan, a senior defensive lineman for Georgia Tech.
“But that's Imani.”
Always pushing himself to work a little harder, and a little longer.
Imani is a 19-year-old true freshman running back, but you wouldn't know it by the way he looks — a chiseled 225-pounder who belongs on a Bowflex commercial. NU assistant Ron Brown says Cross can do 41 pullups or 200 pushups in one sitting, while also benching 360 pounds.
And the way he talks — soft and measured, and unfailingly humble — doesn't fit the profile of the typical first-year college football player.
When Cross is met with attempts at praise, he counters with self-criticism. Minutes after rumbling for 100 yards on 12 carries against Idaho State in his fourth game as a Husker on Sept. 22, Cross was already talking about the things he needed to work on.
Becoming more decisive. Lowering the pad level. Carrying the ball more securely.
The self-criticism, he said, is “something that I've realized that you're going to have to do in order to be where you want to be.”
“I've always been like this.”
He credits his parents, Tim and Sharon, for his approach. Older brothers Izaan and Isaiah helped instill that attitude, too.
Growing up, the kids' idea of fun was going outside to play basketball or football against one another. They had a hill in the backyard for training. Occasionally, Dad designed pool workouts.
By the time Imani was in high school, he was a “prototype” running back, Izaan said. And he never quit working to improve, either. Isaiah once told Izaan that one night, Imani — sporting a hoodie with shin-high socks pulled up over the tucked-in ends of his sweatpants — worked out in the garage for an hour-and-a-half. With only a medicine ball.
A sweaty Imani emerged, and wondered if Isaiah was up next. “(Isaiah) was like, 'Imani. It's 2 a.m. I don't feel like working out,'” Izaan said.
Despite all Imani's effort and dedication, his junior season at North Hall High School in Gainesville, Ga., didn't go as planned. Early in spring workouts, he ruptured his Achilles tendon during a backpedaling drill.
The expected recovery time was one year.
Imani was sprinting again after 3Ĺ months.
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He was playing in pads with full contact after five.
“God healed me,” Cross said with certainty. He tries to rely on his faith to help avoid certain human-natured tendencies — like an unhealthy feeding of his ego.
“That's the way I was raised,” he said.
He's always searching for his flaws while still reminding himself that the more of life's obstacles he overcomes, the less daunting they'll seem.
For instance, his 100-yard day against Idaho State could have been his breakout moment.
But he carried the ball four times during the next five games.
His demeanor and work ethic were unchanged, though. And he was ready when the coaches asked him to take over short-yardage duties against Penn State, scoring two key touchdowns in a 32-23 win. Cross added two more scores against Minnesota a week later.
He knows he'll face more adversity. He plans to push through it.
He'll be playing with his family in the stands for the first time this season at the Capital One Bowl. Georgia, Nebraska's opponent, didn't recruit him.
But Cross doesn't plan to alter his routine. He hopes his teammates will continue to keep setting a positive example for him, too.
“I try to put myself around people who are humble,” Cross said. “So that they can rub off on me and I can remember who I am — and that's just a guy trying to get better every day.”
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