CHICAGO – Ameer Abdullah is a history major at Nebraska for generally practical purposes. He reads a lot and writes a lot of papers about what he reads, which is suitable preparation for a person aspiring to go to law school, where he would read a lot more and write a lot more papers. But he does find it interesting how history can repeat itself in different forms.
Which brings us to a Denny's in Myrtle Beach, S.C., in the week leading up to the 2011 Offense-Defense All-American Bowl.
Abdullah, an Alabama native, was a late addition to the game and set to play for the Cornhuskers. Melvin Gordon was a four-star running back who signed with home-state Wisconsin. They were, understandably, strangers. To Abdullah's recollection, neither wanted to socialize much, although Gordon remembers fraternizing with many other players. In any case, Abdullah and Gordon gravitated to each other. And they talked.
Every morning over an event-sponsored breakfast at that Denny's, they talked. They continued to talk as they ventured to play running back at different Big Ten schools. They talked through prolific 2013 seasons and decisions to put off the NFL for one more year. And now here they were at league media days in the Hilton Chicago earlier this week, talking to – and now about – each other. They were good friends repeating a tiny parcel of history while attempting to occupy more of it as the best running backs in the Big Ten, and maybe beyond.
“We don't want to let each other down, really,” Abdullah said. “I have high expectations for Melvin, and I'm sure he has the same thing for me. He doesn't want to see my game fall off a little bit, and I don't want to see his game fall off at all. That's why I stay in close contact with him. We just don't want to let each other down.”
Few expect that. Gordon detonated for 1,609 yards at an 7.8 yards per carry clip for Wisconsin last year, and the Badgers return four offensive line starters this season. The 6-foot-1, 213-pound junior has darted into the preseason Heisman Trophy hubbub as a result.
It just happens that the nation's leading returning rusher actually totes the ball for Nebraska.
Abdullah amassed 1,690 yards on the ground for the Cornhuskers in 2013 and added 26 receptions for 230 yards, enough to earn first-team All-Big Ten honors from coaches and media. Along with Ohio State's Carlos Hyde, Abdullah nudged Gordon to all-league second team status. All of this stokes a friendly fire under both players. They are a pair of dynamic ballcarriers sort of infinitely exchanging handoffs: Whatever one achieves catalyzes the other to pursue something greater, and so on.
“It's competitive nature,” Gordon said. “He wants to be the best at it, I want to be the best at it. He sees all the accolades I'm getting. And regardless of what people say, he ran for more (yards) last year. He was first-team, and I wasn't. That's motivation for me, regardless of people saying you're the best. It was stated that he was better than me last year, so that's my motivation, to be the best in the conference.”
Both are engaging characters. Abdullah delivered an inspired keynote address at the Big Ten Kickoff Luncheon about the “essence of the student-athlete” not long after detailing his desire to pursue a law career down the line, while Gordon delivered smiles, one-liners and knuckle-crushing handshakes through two days of appearances.
They also share an explosiveness that can rupture defenses in an instant.
Gordon last year was the only player in the country to record three runs of at least 70 yards. “You don't have to make too big a hole, if you feel yourself losing a bit on a battle,” Badgers tackle Rob Havenstein said. “All you have to do is dig in for an inch, and he's going to break it.”
Abdullah amassed eight runs of 30 yards or more, though his success also derives from a brew of consistency (11 of 13 games in 2013 with more than 100 yards), elusiveness and willfulness.
“You just have to make a decision,” Nebraska safety Corey Cooper said of attempting to subdue Abdullah. “You can't try to sit there and dance with him, because it won't happen. You just have to attack him, and hope you grab something until the team gets there.”
Gordon and Abdullah exchange text messages regularly, often seeking intelligence on opposing defenses and their tendencies. During Wisconsin-Nebraska game weeks, the conversation didn't wane, though there might have been a spike in good-natured trash talk. The line of communication got substantially weightier last winter, though, when both players considered early entry to the NFL Draft.
It was the most impactful football conversation they'd shared, far from debating the merits of a fast-food breakfast as recently graduated high schoolers. What are you thinking? Do you feel it's your time? “And that was that,” Abdullah said. “It was never we had to sit down and have coffee and say, 'Hey, you leaving?' Really, I just asked him what he thought was most important for him right now. And he asked me the same thing. It really helped.”
Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska
281 carries, 1,690 yards, 9 TDs
Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin
206 carries, 1,609 yards, 12 TDs
Jeremy Langford, Michigan State
292 carries, 1,422 yards, 18 TDs
David Cobb, Minnesota
237 carries, 1,202 yards, 7 TDs
Both decided there was more to do. A self-described NFL Network devotee, Gordon couldn't avoid watching the May draft to see how his friends fared. He insists he didn't wish he could trade places. His clearest vision is not of a front-row seat at the Heisman Trophy ceremony but of the number that would earn it: 2,000 yards.
“You know, man, it's out there,” Gordon says. “It's definitely a goal I want to reach.”
Likewise, Abdullah grew up an Auburn fan, watching Ronnie Brown and Cadillac Williams rip up defenses. He realized that another year in school was precisely where he's always wanted to be. Now he'll have a chance to become the first Nebraska player to post three 1,000-yard seasons.
“A lot of kids say, 'I want to play in the NFL,'” Abdullah said. “For me, it was college football. I'm just living the dream right now.”
Three years after an all-star game and breakfasts brought them together, Abdullah and Gordon find themselves talking about the same things, toiling for programs fighting for a breakthrough in the same Big Ten West division. Nebraska will push to vanquish its good-but-not-quite-great stigma, established by losing four games in every season of the Bo Pelini era. Wisconsin will attempt to crash into the national elite.
Abdullah and Gordon carry large portions of their teams' respective burdens. They won't stop talking to each other because they can't let the other stumble. Both want to be the best running back anywhere. Maybe the optimal result is to make it impossible, or pointless, to try to find a difference.
“We just want to prove from a national standpoint that we're good running backs,” Abdullah said. “Not just in the Big Ten.”