CHICAGO — Ameer Abdullah placed his white suit jacket on the back of a chair and sat down to begin a two-hour interview session Tuesday morning during the Big Ten’s annual media days gathering. The Nebraska running back, an engaging and eloquent speaker, was prepared to face a list of questions — about team expectations, unionizing in college football and even the speech he would later deliver as player representative for the conference’s season kickoff luncheon.
But the topic that drew the biggest smile to his face was about the relationship he’d developed with Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon, who has quickly become among Abdullah’s most trusted confidants.
"That’s one of my best friends," Abdullah said. "I don’t mind talking about him. I’ll brag on him all day."
The duo will enter the 2014 season as faces of the Big Ten, two of the top returning running backs in the entire country. They share a mutual respect and are fueled by the successes of each other. Yet their friendship dates back to a time in which neither player was a college star.
Abdullah and Gordon first met in December 2010 during high school at the annual Offense-Defense All-American Bowl in Myrtle Beach, S.C. Gordon was a running back for one team, while Abdullah was a cornerback on the other side. Neither claimed to be the most social and outgoing individual, but their personalities clicked — particularly over breakfast at a local Denny’s during the camp.
"We built a really good relationship from that bowl game," Abdullah said. "Afterwards, we just said, ‘Let’s stay in contact.’ Ironically, we went to the same conference and ironically we play the same position now and we’re in pretty similar predicaments. It’s just funny how things work out."
Things certainly have worked out well for both players.
Abdullah, a 5-foot-9, 195-pounder from Homewood, Ala., ran for 1,690 yards with nine touchdowns last season and was named first-team all-conference in the Big Ten. Gordon, a 6-1, 213-pounder from Kenosha, Wis., ran for 1,609 yards with 12 touchdowns and was a second-team all-league selection. Both players ranked in the top 10 nationally in rushing yards. And this season, there isn’t a single running back returning in the FBS that ran for more yards than Abdullah and Gordon did a year ago.
Gordon said he and Abdullah spoke at least once a week during the season, sharing information about upcoming opponents or talking about issues that didn’t pertain to football at all.
"I think probably my redshirt freshman year, it really started to take off," Gordon said of their friendship. "From freshman year, though, I saw him out there. He was just destroying the kick return game, the special teams game. And he obviously had to wait his time, too, just like I did. I know it was just as hard for him as it was for me. But I think understanding the struggle and being able to understand we both had to sit out, we kind of share some things in that area. I think that’s what really got us tight."
The players were so tight, in fact, that they even consulted each other before deciding to bypass the NFL this offseason and return to school for another year.
"I picked his brain a little bit on what he thought was the smart thing to do," Abdullah said, "what he thought would be the best opportunity for us to come out and what was his take on finishing his degree and how did his parents feel and stuff like that. We share a lot of things like that. That’s what makes our relationship so great."
Of course, there remains a fair amount of competition between the two players on Saturdays in the fall. And because Abdullah and Gordon are such good friends and competitors, each player wants to perform better than the other.
"I compete, man," Gordon said. "I’m watching all the guys at the running back position. I’m watching everyone, including Ameer. That’s the first person I go to. I’m looking at his things and seeing how he’s doing in his game."
Added Abdullah: "I don’t like to say it, but I do check the stat lines of the Wisconsin game after every Saturday. Just to see what he rushed for, see if I out-rushed him that week. It’s just little friendly competition. It keeps us motivated to be better."
And does Abdullah call Gordon to boast about a better performance?
"Yeah," Abdullah said. "I block his number if he beats me that weekend."
Abdullah said he was most impressed by Gordon’s quickness, balance and anticipation as a running back. Specifically, he cited a play he watched from last season in which Gordon scored a 70-yard touchdown against UMass out of seemingly nothing.
"He made a cut before anything even happened," Abdullah said. "I was like, ‘What is he doing?’ He came out the other end and his timing was just great and he took it for a touchdown. I was just like, ‘Wow.’ He anticipates really well. His vision, his anticipation is top notch."
Each player has had his moments against the other during recent Wisconsin-Nebraska matchups. During the 2012 regular season, Abdullah produced one of the most prolific games in school history, totaling 252 all-purpose yards. He rushed for 70 yards and added an 83-yard kick return during Nebraska’s 30-27 victory. Only a few months later, however, Gordon burst onto the national scene with nine rushes for 216 yards with a touchdown during Wisconsin’s 70-31 annihilation of Nebraska in the Big Ten championship game.
The two teams will meet again this season on Nov. 15 at Camp Randall Stadium in a game that could go a long way toward determining the Big Ten West champion. It also will be the final time Gordon, a redshirt junior, and Abdullah, a senior, square off on the same college field.
So, which player will get the best over the other and earn bragging rights in their evolving friendship?
"Hopefully, he has a terrible game against us," Abdullah said. "Hopefully he just plays terrible. But I’m excited to see what he’s going to do this year."