CHICAGO – The Big Ten is addicted to tradition, a stance that has at times kept the conference from keeping up with its athletic peers. But embracing tradition has its positives, and one of the best rites of the Big Ten is the annual July luncheon.
It accompanies media days and sets the table for the season. On a Tuesday morning in late July, businessmen walk the downtown streets here wearing school colors instead of suits and ties, ready to talk football.
The best tradition within the luncheon tradition is the annual athlete speech. The conference chooses one football player to represent more than 1,000 from the league.
This year's speaker was Nebraska running back Ameer Abdullah. If the idea is to showcase the league's best and brightest, then the Big Ten chose wisely.
The ninth of nine children born into a Muslim home in the Birmingham, Ala., suburb of Homewood, Ameer also will be the ninth Abdullah to graduate from college. Several of his siblings have advanced degrees as well. There are two lawyers, a CNN producer, a branch manager of a bank and several business people among the Abdullah's three boys and six girls. And athletes, too – Ameer considers himself the fourth-best athlete among his siblings.
"I'm the failure of the family," he said with a laugh.
The "failure" is on track to graduate with a bachelor's degree in history in December, and when his playing days are over he may pursue a law degree of his own. But first, there is more football to play. If Abdullah becomes the first back in Nebraska's gilded history to record a third straight 1,000-yard rushing season, he will move into the No. 2 spot on the school's career rushing charts, trailing only 1983 Heisman Trophy winner Mike Rozier.
When Abdullah addressed a crowded ballroom Tuesday, he belied his pre-speech insistence that he is a "horrible" public speaker. In a thoughtful and articulate manner, he questioned the increasingly popular notion of the Exploited Student-Athlete. Coming from a family that champions education, he described getting a college degree as "hitting the educational lottery."
"I'm kind of old school," he said before the speech. "I realize what we do have, just to have the opportunity to have a free education."
The case has been compellingly made – in the courtroom and in the court of public opinion – that college football players are entitled to some of the skyrocketing revenues associated with their efforts. But amid a summer of endless debate over dollars and economics, Ameer Abdullah wants to expand the discussion beyond money, money, money.
"I was raised in a tradition of education," he said. "It's out of the norm if you don't [achieve academically]. Before any of us could go outside and play, homework had to be done, chores had to be done."
But by the time Ameer was a teenager, that expectation was more understood than enforced. He joked that his mom and dad were "tired of parenting" by the time he came along. He described his mom, who works in a Birmingham-area Head Start program, as "laissez faire" with Ameer and his two youngest siblings, leaving it up to them to do what was expected of them.
(In 25 years of covering college sports, I'm not sure I've heard an athlete use the term "laissez faire." Ameer Abdullah is a different guy.)
There were other areas where Ameer's parents were more hands-on – namely, football and religion. Which sometimes can be confused for one another in Alabama.
When 9/11 occurred, Kareem Abdullah told his children that their Islamic faith could create some issues.
"From this point on, there's going to be a lot of ignorance, a lot of misinformed opinions," Ameer recalled him saying. "They told me to encourage others to make informed decisions. … Before you judge something, really do thorough research for your own knowledge. If you still don't like it, fine, but don't just watch Fox News."
Ameer has practiced what he preached in terms of religious tolerance. At Nebraska, he is extremely close to running backs coach Ron Brown, a devout and outspoken Christian. He referred to Brown on Tuesday as "my second father."
His first father, Kareem, videotaped young Ameer's games starting when he was 7 years old and continuing through high school. They would go home and watch them together, dissecting Ameer's performance and looking for ways he could improve.
By the time he reached high school, Ameer was considered a top-10 player in the state of Alabama and a top-20 running back nationally. But Auburn, the school he grew up cheering for after watching Cadillac Williams and Ronnie Brown star there at running back, was concerned about his 5-foot-9, 177-pound size and only wanted him as a defensive back. That wasn't going to cut it.
So Ameer visited schools that said he could play running back: first Vanderbilt and then Tennessee, and in January of his senior year, he went to Nebraska. Six days after his official visit, he committed to the Cornhuskers.
The early result was culture shock and homesickness. But Ameer now credits the process of assimilating to a different place and a group of teammates from disparate backgrounds as having a vital impact on his personal development.
"I really struggled to communicate with people," he said. "I was not a social person. It just shows you how Nebraska helped me come out of my shell."
Now he is one of Bo Pelini's most vocal leaders, a star in the classroom and on the field. And he still wants to expand his role further. Ameer is not only an All-American candidate running back, he's lobbying for work on special teams as well – and not just as a kick returner.
"I would love to block punts," he said.
Why not? For a guy who has viewed college football as a privilege to be embraced, not an indentured servitude to be endured, why not try to do it all? Why not wring every last ounce of fun from the experience?
"Coming from Homewood, Ala., very modest upbringing, never was given much, never expected much from myself … this is definitely a blessing," Ameer Abdullah said. "A lot of kids say their dream is to play in the NFL, but I always said my dream was to play Division I college football. I feel like I'm living my dream."
For more Nebraska news, visit HuskerOnline.com.