A program-defining friendship
The first time Ameer Abdullah spoke with Rex Burkhead, he was a 170-pound high school senior with dreadlocks, hundreds of miles from his native Homewood, Ala., and wondering if he belonged.
It was April 16, 2011, and Abdullah was in Lincoln for the spring game. Down on the sidelines with several other recruits, he watched Burkhead, fresh off a 951-yard season and already a fixture in the Nebraska offense, warm up before the game and wondered how he would fit in with the veteran.
"I was thinking, 'I'm a running back coming in. I don't know if he's going to like me or see me as competition,'" Abdullah said. "He came up to me and he's like, 'Hey man, I'm excited that you made it up here. I can't wait for you to come in and work with me.'"
"I know he probably doesn't remember that, but that was so huge in my development. As a young guy, it was like, 'This guy is great, and this is who I want to be with.'"
Abdullah spent the next two years moonlighting as Burkhead's shadow, patterning both his game and his life after his new mentor. Since Burkhead graduated and moved on to the NFL, Abdullah has risen to heights Burkhead never did. With Saturday's 110-yard performance against Fresno State, he moved past Burkhead on Nebraska's all-time rushing chart.
Abdullah now has 3,373 career rushing yards and can advance up to third in school history with just 61 yards against Miami this weekend.
None of this is a surprise to Burkhead.
"I knew (he would be great) the summer when he came in, just because of his mindset, his work ethic and his intelligence for the game," said Burkhead, now a member of the Cincinnati Bengals. "He was a bright kid coming in, very humble and eager to learn. I knew right away that he had the potential to do great things. I'm not surprised at all at the things he's doing, because I knew he had it in him."
In the popular children's cartoon Pokemon, the main character is a teenager named Ash Ketchum, whose goal is to catch a variety of the monsters roaming the earth, battle them against others and become the world's greatest trainer. His first Pokemon is Pikachu, a small but feisty companion that never for a moment leaves Ash's side.
This is how Abdullah describes his relationship with Burkhead.
"Everywhere he went, I followed him," Abdullah said. "Ash had Pikachu, and I was Pikachu, just following him around all the time."
Abdullah was the third and arguably least-heralded running back recruit in NU's 2011 class, a late find by offensive coordinator Tim Beck who was passed up by local favorites Auburn and Alabama. He didn't have nearly the same amount of hype as Aaron Green and Braylon Heard, but when Burkhead came out of games, it was often Abdullah, not his more highly-ranked counterparts, who subbed in.
"His versatility allowed him to get on the field early," Burkhead said. "He knew what was going on, he could pass block and he could run on first down, second down or third down, as well as doing multiple things on special teams. That's kind of what separated him from the other backs. I think Ameer just developed quicker and was able to do other things that our offense and special teams could use him more."
Abdullah attained that status by simply watching what Burkhead did, then repeating it. Burkhead had one of the best work ethics on the team and was a fixture in the weight room, so Abdullah was too. Burkhead was always a strong student, so Abdullah hit the books as well (though his family also instilled the virtues of academics with him). Burkhead developed a now-famous relationship with seven-year-old cancer patient Jack Hoffman, and Abdullah had a similar connection with Donovan James Miles Jr., a two-year-old with cancer who passed away last September.
"Rex was the perfect guy to follow," Abdullah said. "He did everything the right way off the field and in the community, in the classroom and on the field obviously. He worked hard and he was selfless. He was a guy who wanted to make other guys better through his play, and that's someone I wanted to pattern my life after and my game after."
Abdullah is now one of the most confident players on the team - not at all cocky, but supremely self-assured. He wasn't always that way, though. Early on, Abdullah had his doubts. He certainly didn't see himself ever reaching the level of Burkhead, who rushed for 1,357 yards and 15 touchdowns in 2011 while becoming one of the most beloved Huskers in recent memory.
Fortunately, the mentor saw the future better than the mentee. Burkhead sensed greatness in Abdullah and made sure to remind him of it often.
"Rex always believed in me," Abdullah said. "He always told me I was going to be a great back. I came in 170 pounds, skinny guy with dreads and didn't really see myself on the level of a Rex Burkhead. He had all these accolades, and it wasn't just hype. I saw it on the field. He was working hard, and he was stronger than me, bigger than me, faster than me at the time. I was just like, 'Man, how do I get to that level?' I just dedicated myself to adopt his work habit.
"Some days, he would tell me, 'Ameer, you're going to be great. You're going to be one of the best backs in the country.' I kind of believed it, but I kind of doubted myself. Rex is someone who believed in me from the beginning. That belief is still in me, and that's why I'm so confident in my game. I'm eternally grateful for that."
Abdullah ended his freshman season with more carries, yards and touchdowns than Green and Heard. Green transferred to TCU that offseason, and Heard bolted for Kentucky a year later. Burkhead's prediction had come true - Abdullah was now the key cog of the Huskers' offense.
In the summer of 2012, Abdullah achieved a feat he rarely accomplished during his time with Burkhead. During Burkhead's final skills and drills circuit of his career, Abdullah beat him in the speed drill, and he let his elder hear about it.
"You're getting old, man," Abdullah chided. "The young guys are creeping up on you."
But Burkhead wasn't in a joking mood. He pulled Abdullah aside and delivered a passionate message - his time would soon be over. The team would then belong to Abdullah, and it was time for him to rise to the occasion.
"He said, 'I'm looking forward to the season, but you never know what's going to happen. I'm passing you the torch,'" Abdullah said. "Ironically, he got hurt that season and I had to pick up the slack. I was definitely nervous, but even though he was going through tough times, he took the time out of his day and his rehab to come to me and tell me that he believed in me. It really just gave me the confidence."
Burkhead suffered a knee injury in the 2012 season opener that forced him to miss six games and limited him in several others. The throne was now Abdullah's, and the then-sophomore capitalized with a 1,137-yard campaign. Through it all, Burkhead tried to stay positive and supportive of Abdullah, just as veterans Roy Helu, Marucs Mendoza and Austin Jones had done for him.
"They took care of their bodies and they worked on and off the field," Burkhead said. "Being (Abdullah's) older mentor for the running backs, that was something I wanted to relay off to him and set an example. I could talk about how to do it, but it was also just going out and doing it on a day-to-day basis. If they see that, hopefully they take something from that and realize it helps their game."
Burkhead recovered to finish his career with a strong performance against Georiga in the Capitol One Bowl, rushing for a season-high 140 yards. He was drafted in the sixth round by the Bengals, though injuries have severely limited his playing time.
Meanwhile, Abdullah became a first-team All-Big Ten selection while rushing for 1,690 yards, rewriting the record book as he went. He's off to another strong start this year, with 396 yards in three games, the 10th-highest total in the country. Perhaps just as importantly, he's a captain and has provided the leadership necessary to help the Huskers to a 3-0 record.
"I knew that he would be fine (after I left)," Burkhead said. "He had already proven it (in the 2012) season. He had shown what he could do. I knew the work ethic that he had and that he was just going to become more and more proven. I'm not surprised at all."
Abdullah and Burkhead's relationship isn't quite as strong as it used to be. Their calls and texts have become less frequent, and Abdullah is still miffed that he wasn't invited to Burkhead's wedding in February. When Abdullah was trying to decide whether or not to enter the NFL Draft in January, Burkhead stayed out of the picture and let him make his own decision.
But Burkhead texted Abdullah before the season and told him he thought he could win the Heisman this season, and Abdullah called a few months ago to pepper him with more questions.
Ash and Pikachu may not be inseparable as they once were, but the lessons Burkhead passed on have certainly stuck. Abdullah has become the player, the leader, and, most importantly, the man that Burkhead envisioned he could be when they first began working together four years ago.
"He was a good buddy of mine there and he's got a bright future ahead of him," Burkhead said. "He's going to continue to do good things this year and long into the NFL. I make sure to stay in touch with him and I wish him the best of luck."