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Ameer Abdullah Football Camp

Former Husker and current Detroit Lions running back Ameer Abdullah pitches the ball to kids while teaching them how to run routes during his football camp last year at Lincoln Pius X.

Ameer Abdullah was driving to his workout last week. It was early morning, before most begin their day of work.

Yet the former Husker running back and current member of the Detroit Lions sounded a couple cups of coffee into his day already. He was telling a camping story.

It was from when he was 13. He attended this football camp at Hoover High School in Abdullah's home state of Alabama. The camp was led by Bruce Arians, a renowned offensive mind in the game of football who is now the head coach of the Arizona Cardinals.

Abdullah had been playing tackle football since he was 7, but he marks this summer camp as a point when he began to carry bigger aspirations. Because when the camp was over, he was named MVP. The award was nice and all, but the accompanying words from Arians were maybe more significant.

"He told me, 'You're going to be a special player one day. Keep believing in yourself,'" Abdullah remembered. "Of course he didn't know how I'd mature or how far I'd end up coming as a football player, but that meant the world to me."

Fast forward to the 2015 NFL Draft. Arians was now coaching the Cardinals and they wanted Abdullah. The running back spent good parts of the second round on the phone with the Cardinals, thinking that's where he was headed.

Then Detroit threw the Cards a curve, jumping in to draft Abdullah one spot before Arizona was about to pick. Still that camp connection with Arians is fresh in Abdullah's mind as he thinks about his own camp he's going to hold at Lincoln High on July 15.

"It's just crazy to think about this guy remembered me when I was 13 years old at a camp," Abdullah said. "And now look at this, he's about to draft me in the NFL."

As it worked out, he is happy to be a Lion. Coaches have already publicly tabbed him as the starting running back for 2017 after a fluke foot injury sidelined him after just 18 carries and 101 yards a season ago.

While driving to his training session last week, Abdullah said that injury "was actually needed" for him.

"I'm working on specific deficiencies that I had that I probably would have ignored for a long time if I would have stayed healthy. Since I was hurt, I had time to evaluate every portion of my game, every portion of my body, every portion of my weaknesses and really attack them."

A religious person, Abdullah believes God makes everything happen for a reason.

He also thinks the foot injury like the one he had provided one of those test-your-mettle moments for him. As he remembers, he'd never missed a football game due to injury in 17 years of playing. (At Nebraska, Abdullah suffered a sprained knee after a fumbled snap against Purdue in the first quarter his senior year. But after a bye week, he played in the next game against Wisconsin.)

So sitting out last year was a whole new deal — something he is quick to remind anyone who wants to paint last year's situation as being part of some pattern to his career.

"You have to ask yourself, 'Am I going to let this injury take my mood over, give up in a sense? Or am I going to choose the other side of the fork of the road? And say, 'What happened, happened.'" Abdullah said.

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"You can't rewind time. You got to take it for what it is, train to the best of your ability and every single day will yourself to get better.'"

The running back feels sharper for the game mentally than he was last year, before the injury.

"But physically, too, man. I feel faster," Abdullah said. "Anytime you get hurt, you always think you're going to have to take step a step back. ... But now it's all going forward."

One place he will gladly step back into, though, is Nebraska.

He's eager to host a camp here again in July. The camp partners up and gives proceeds to the Boys and Girls Clubs of Lincoln. That's significant to Abdullah since he comes from a home in which he saw his mother work daily with underprivileged kids with the Head Start educational program.

Among other things, Abdullah hopes his camp "gives opportunity to kids who don't always have the best upbringing, don't always have the most money, don't always have the best stuff."

He also knows, from his own past football summer experience, what a word of encouragement from an influential person can mean. "So if I can ever be that for someone else, I feel like it'd be worth my while."

Maybe at some point he'll hold camps in other places. But he sees himself always wanting to hold one in Nebraska. He didn't grow up here, but he is appreciative of how the people still treat him.

The current Husker coaching staff didn't coach him yet they welcome him like they did when he shows up.

"It's going to sound crazy, but Lincoln feels more like home to me than Birmingham, (Alabama), sometimes. Because in Birmingham, I was always the underdog," Abdullah said.

"I was always the underdog in the sense that if you're not going to the University of Alabama or the University of Auburn, they think, 'Ah, man, this dude must not be good enough.' So I never got the respect or love that was kind of warranted that I got at Nebraska."

So he'll keep coming back to Lincoln, just as he has on various other occasions since his senior year in 2014. He came back for the Spring Game this April to try his hand at announcing on the Big Ten Network.

He might even like to intern in broadcasting some offseason, he said, in case it's something he might wish to do after his playing days. He wants to keep his options open since he figures football will always be a close part of his life in some manner.

So will Nebraska.

"I feel like it's my duty in a sense to go back and give back to those people and just continue to stay around in that state," he said. "Because that's the state that really helped me to grow into manhood and get to the level I am at now."

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

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