LINCOLN — A couple of Husker fans I know were debating Ameer Abdullah’s place in history the other day. And maybe you’ve done this, too.
The discussion was whether Superman belonged on a Mount Rushmore of great Nebraska I-backs.
The two agreed that Mike Rozier and Ahman Green were in. Both have the numbers and championships, and there’s a Heisman Trophy on Rozier’s résumé.
One guy argued that Lawrence Phillips belongs, and anyone who saw LP run through defenses like a locomotive should agree. The other guy said, yeah, but his career is incomplete, he’s not in the top 10 in rushing and there were off-field issues.
One fan said Abdullah has the yards (he’s No. 3 all-time) but doesn’t have the rings and hasn’t been part of a championship team — important for a special player’s legacy. The other said Abdullah should get credit for not playing with a great offensive line or an offense and culture built around the running game, like all those other legends did.
You can go round and round on this, and throw in names like Calvin Jones and Rick Berns and Jeff Kinney and keep going round and round.
Finally, I interrupted the debate with a special bulletin: It’s all beside the point.
Simply labeling him as one of the all-time great I-backs at Nebraska doesn’t do him justice.
For the record, the Nebraska senior I-back has 3,602 career rushing yards. That’s 278 behind Green at No. 2 and 1,178 behind Rozier on top of Mount Running Back. With at least eight games left, he could take the elevator to the top.
For the record, Abdullah doesn’t want that list to define him or what he leaves behind. He doesn’t want to be remembered for a number.
“People forget numbers,” Abdullah said. “What they don’t forget is personalities, what kind of impact that person had on the program, the school and the community.
“I want to be remembered as someone who catapulted this program to where we are now and above, being an influence on the guys who are going to lead this program into the future.
“I don’t have all the answers, but I do try to act as appropriately as possible, to be a strong leader for them and let them know that this is going to be the new tradition of the program, make sure we are doing all the right things in all areas of our life.
“That’s something I’d much rather be remembered for than a number.”
Nobody puts Ameer in the corner. Especially not this year, when he has blossomed into this larger-than-life character before our eyes.
He’s a young man on fire, coming of age on his way to the end zone. Whether he’s giving the keynote speech to a packed Big Ten ballroom or lecturing his teammates about respecting the game or running like a one-man gang against Miami, he’s become appointment TV every Saturday.
Who knew? A year ago, Abdullah was a very good I-back but the quiet guy in the back of the room. He came back for his senior year, but nobody knew it would be like this.
It started in the heat of Chicago, in July, when he walked on stage wearing the James Bond jacket in front of more than 1,000 folks. He started with humility, talking about his nerves, and then proceeded to knock everyone dead with a speech filled with all sorts of substance and messages.
For those of us who knew him, or thought we did, it was a moment that made you say, “I didn’t know he had THAT in him.” The transformation has been like Al Pacino’s character in “The Godfather,” where a guy in the back of the room emerges into this presence.
That’s the thing about Abdullah the senior. He’s not so much an I-back as he is a presence.
“One thing I’ve always appreciated about Ameer is he understands timing,” said Ron Brown, NU’s running backs coach. “Sometimes leaders say the right thing, but it’s said at the wrong time or they make a move at the wrong time.
“He’s got a great sense of timing. To try and do what he’s doing now a year ago would not have been right. Now, he realizes it’s in his hands. He knows he’s got it in his hands.
“And he’s seizing it.”
Abdullah is chasing his legacy as furiously as he ran at the Hurricanes last Saturday night.
Yes, he desperately craves a championship. But the material things in college football — the championships and rings and major bowl games and the Heisman Trophy — aren’t always in a young man’s control.
To win a national championship or a Heisman, even a special player needs help. Offensive line. Defense. Quarterback play. Coaching. To win the Heisman, Abdullah would have to win a lot, if not go undefeated.
But if you listen to the message in that speech, if you watch No. 8 pour out his passion week after week, you know that he can’t and won’t be defined by the material things.
He talks endlessly about impacting young people, whether it be the teammates coming up behind him or the kids in schools, kids without a mentor or direction. Kids who look up to celebrity football players like him.
Back in Chicago, Abdullah opened up about the friends he had in Alabama who took the wrong path. He spoke this week about his old friend Jameis Winston and how he’s let himself go.
The more Abdullah talks about these things, the more determined he seems to be to stay on that righteous path.
The fact that he’s willing and able to carry his football team on his back as he goes down that path is something else entirely. The path will go through important mileposts like East Lansing, Michigan, and Madison, Wisconsin, in the next two months.
Where does Abdullah rank? You tell me. Name the Huskers over the years who could make that speech in Chicago, carry themselves as a team leader every day, make clutch plays to win games and rank in the top three of a big-time category in Nebraska history.
It’s probably a short list. But again, that’s beside the point. What Abdullah is showing us is not about rankings or lists. It’s about being the absolute best Ameer Abdullah he can be, each and every week.
Mount Rushmore? By the time he’s done, he might need his own mountain.
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