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Back on track

The Jaguars surround coach Abdul Muhammad earlier this month at the North Omaha Boys and Girls Club.

OMAHA — Still 25 minutes before the Jaguars begin stretching. Time enough for the former Husker with a national championship ring to tell how he got here, to the place he really always wanted to be.

The story, as stories often do, works its way back home. Back to Compton, California. Abdul Muhammad is thinking about a childhood friend. He thinks about him a lot, and all he might have been.

“We were just playing football at the park,” Muhammad remembers. “Everybody started walking home. We heard gunshots on the other side of the park. One of our buddies, we were in the sixth grade, but he was a big kid, he was one of those physical specimens. At sixth grade, he looked like he could’ve been a ninth-grader. … ”

That friend was killed in a drive-by shooting on the other side of the park that day. “I know he could have done something big,” Muhammad says.

That memory never leaves him. And even if it wasn’t a straight line to this place for the former Nebraska wingback, and it wasn’t, there was a seed planted in his mind growing up in that tough neighborhood: Wouldn’t it be something to one day help kids find their way to the right path, maybe even a free college education like he received at Nebraska? Wouldn’t it be something to see those kids turn into success stories that feed the belief of other kids?

Now 42, Muhammad sees those stories happening as the teen director of the Boys and Girls Club in North Omaha. He’s been doing it full time since 2010, after starting at the club four years before that. More than 300 kids walk through the doors each day. So much potential.

It was a trip to the barber shop that got him here. Terrence Mackey, who's been involved in the Boys and Girls Club for about 35 years now, goes to the same place — Quik Stop Barber Shop.

He knew Muhammad had been doing some coaching of a semi-pro team on the side. Mackey always ribbed him about it. “Get over there and help the kids,” Mackey told him. “Quit messing with those adults. They are past their prime. Come help some kids who will really appreciate it.”

Muhammad listened. He began as a volunteer. He knew quickly he wasn't about to stop showing up.

“I just gravitated to them from when I first saw them,” Muhammad says. “I know why (Mackey's) been here so long now. Because there’s so much talent here that if you consider yourself a coach, a mentor, and somebody that wants to give back to the kids in a community that need it, this is the best place to do it, without a doubt, right here, the Boys and Girls Club, the North Club.”

He puts emphasis on it: The NORTH CLUB. On 26th and Hamilton streets. The kind of place where a kid can go to study for a test or shoot a basketball or run sprints inside a mini football stadium with a track surrounding it.

You know, 16 members of Omaha North’s dominating Class A state championship football team last fall grew up coming to this Boys and Girls Club. Many of those 16 were starters. Omaha Central’s state football championship team in 2007 had its share of kids who played for the club’s youth team, too. And, oh, yeah, at least 30 regular club attendees received scholarships of some sort this past year.

"They don’t understand it right now," Muhammad says. "They’re looking more toward sports, but they’ll figure it out as they get older and get into school, and getting their bachelor’s and master’s degree, hopefully. They’ll start to understand that free education means a lot.”

On Signing Day at North High School, Muhammad was there.

He’d watched the journey up close for many of those boys. He had to see that moment.

“I see some of the kids that remind me of me growing up,” he says. “They might be on the fence of doing this and that, or going in the wrong direction, and we stay talking to the kids. We know them, because we deal with them almost on an everyday basis, so it’s easy for us to identify those kids that need us the most.”

More scholarship recipients are on the way.

Of the current club attendees, 28 will be competing at a regional track and field meet in Ames, Iowa. (“Tough place to win,” Muhammad says. Remember, he was on the 1992 Husker team that lost in Ames and the ’94 team that had to scrap for a 28-12 victory against a winless Iowa State team.) Muhammad estimates about 15 of the athletes will make it to nationals. Six are returning All-Americans at the U.S. Junior level. No club in the country has matched those numbers.

Then there are the Jaguars, the name of the club’s football teams for kids ages 8-12. There are actually four teams, and if one goes undefeated, they usually get a trip to Kansas City for a tournament. Last year, three teams went undefeated. The year before that, Muhammad’s team won every game in K.C. and finished the year 13-0.

He smiles about that.

On this Thursday night in July, it’s a practice in T-shirts and shorts. About 25 to 30 kids are there. Muhammad explains that one of the players, Traeh Haynes, can’t be there because she’s working on her track and field events. She’s a star in the shot put and javelin. She’s also a middle linebacker.

Muhammad comes down to the field and players go through some ladder drills. The linemen are in on the act, too. One of those linemen, Mike, is amused as he tries to get his feet to cooperate with what's required.

“I can’t do that,” he says. Looking over his shoulder, Muhammad produces a two-word response: “Keep trying.”

Mike keeps trying. He doesn’t nail it. Sometimes his left foot wants to step when it’s the right foot’s turn. But he gets through it. As he does, he’s laughing like all kids should laugh.

If you wanted a picture of why Muhammad spends his days like this, there you go.

* * *

He was 9 when he discovered Nebraska football.

His mother — Ms. Henrietta Muhammad — loves sports as much as anyone, so there was never any bickering about what to watch on TV. The game. Any game.

When the Huskers came on TV in 1982, they had Muhammad's attention. Turner Gill, Mike Rozier, Irving Fryar. OK, that's cool. “And then in ’83, it was over. I was sold. I wanted to be a Husker. I wanted to be a part of that.”

His house was a hangout for many kids because of his mom’s cooking. They call her “Cakey” because she’s so sweet. Attempts are still made to duplicate her chicken and rice at the Muhammad house in Omaha.

Home is home, but the obstacles were plenty.

“It was hard to totally avoid them, because you live in that neighborhood and you go to school and people associate you with living in certain neighborhoods in California,” Muhammad says. “You don’t have to be out acting up, but people still know you’re from a certain neighborhood. That’s why, as I was growing up in Compton, you always had to be aware of your surroundings and where you were, because you weren’t allowed in certain places.”

In the summer of 1992, while Muhammad was part of the Husker program, he was shot while back home. He was standing in front of a house when hit by a bullet in a drive-by shooting.

Whenever he made a catch, announcers would rarely fail to mention that he had been hit in the buttocks by that bullet. That wasn’t entirely accurate. The bullet actually hit him in his back, just below his heart, and worked its way down. It was inches from being way worse. (Muhammad had it removed four or five years ago.)

He’d left Compton for college after receiving letters from Tom Osborne and some visits from George Darlington. He’d long wanted to be a Husker and now the Huskers wanted him, too. He was only listed at 5-foot-9 and 155 pounds on Signing Day, but NU coaches saw how he could fit into the puzzle.

And they were right. He became a key figure, with a knack for making timely catches. Like late in the 1993 season, with the Huskers marching toward No. 1. He caught a 12-yard touchdown pass against Oklahoma that pushed Nebraska in front in the fourth quarter on a bone-chilling day in Lincoln.

Unfortunately, Muhammad spent much of that year's national championship game against Florida State just trying to breathe. The Huskers ran a halfback pass in the first half, Calvin Jones floated it and a Seminole decked Muhammad as the ball arrived. The result was a lacerated kidney for Muhammad. The injury was severe enough he considered redshirting the 1994 season to recover.

Muhammad decided to play. The team got even tougher. Scrimmages were often way rougher than games.

“We would get into it,” he says. “There’d be 10-12 people doing stadium stairs. … Coaches did a good job where it didn’t get out of hand. But we knew anytime we had 1s against 1s it was going to be intense.”

By the time Nebraska arrived at the 1995 Orange Bowl to face a Miami team that had so long thrived on intimidation, the Huskers had a far different mentality than they had when Muhammad started in the program in 1991.

There is a favorite play he still remembers from the 24-17 Orange Bowl win that represents the Huskers' change in mindset. He wasn’t involved in it, but loves it all the same.

“I think it was a punt return where Kareem Moss kind of muffed the ball, and a guy made a pretty big hit and stood over him. And Clinton Childs came and hit him off him, just sending that message that we’re not tolerating that kind of stuff,” Muhammad says. “That play right there kind of signified the toughness our team had. We’re not just going to sit around and let you push around one of our players. We’re going to take up for each other. That play always sticks out to me.”

The Huskers climbed the mountain that night, and Muhammad was right in the middle of it, a downfield blocker on both Cory Schlesinger touchdown runs. There’s photos of No. 27 jumping into the arms of the fullback after both scores.

A national champion for Nebraska. That carries some weight at the club even if, as Muhammad says, “a lot of kids are wearing that Oregon stuff right now.”

One of the young men who helps coach along with Muhammad is Kyler Childs, who graduated from Omaha North in 2011 and played some junior college ball at Arkansas Baptist College before returning home. He works during the day, then volunteers his time at night to coach the same football program he played in as a kid.

“I think my first trophy from here might say 2001 on it,” Childs says proudly.

His mother used to take him to Salem Baptist Church for Sunday services, then football for the Jaguars in the afternoon.

Childs watches how the kids respond to Muhammad. They respect what he's done.

“Anytime you can go ahead and actually refer to having a championship pedigree, to have those types of credentials," Childs says, "it’s something for other people to stamp you and say you’re pretty good guy at what you do then."

* * *

Time for practice. Ladder drills and sprints to cones. Where can your feet take you?

The Jaguars watch as Muhammad and volunteers show what they expect.

There was a time after his college career when he faced his own legal troubles, but Muhammad says he never doubted he could end up doing the type of stuff he's doing now. "I got in trouble, but there was never a point where I was just down-and-out."

There are plenty of pitfalls out there, but also plenty of good people ready to help get a person on track.

One of those people, the late Omaha police officer Kerrie Orozco, whose death from a gunshot while on duty shook a community, was a good friend of Muhammad's and regular at the Boys and Girls Club.

It is an emotional thing for him to talk about her. She was someone who gave.

“We have so many people that want to give back and want to volunteer and help, but a lot of people don’t know where to go and who to talk to," Muhammad says. "With Kerrie and people seeing that she gave back — Special Olympics, Boys and Girls Club, baseball — just all the stuff that she was doing, it kind of opened up a lot of people’s eyes. And maybe it got people going in the right direction of stuff they can do to help out in the community and in the state."

It all helps. Even a one-hour football practice on an evening in July. A little learning, a little laughter, a huddle break that finishes with a "JAGUARS" and some exiting dance steps.

Some of these boys are the same age as Muhammad's lost friend in Compton.

As the practice winds down, one of the kids is struggling with one of the footwork drills. He’s frustrated because he was doing it right a minute ago. Now he’s off.

Keep trying.

Muhammad points out another boy taking the right steps. And then he says, “You gotta watch people that know how to do it. That’s what you have to do.”

Reach the writer at 402-473-7439 or bchristopherson@journalstar.com. On Twitter @HuskerExtraBC.

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