Abdul Muhammad beat the odds to become a DI athlete. Read his story as he helps the kids of North Omaha do the same.

Abdul Muhammad is an early-riser, usually starting his day before sunrise. His wife puts him in charge of making the coffee. He drinks four or five cups to complement an energy level that never stops—he works seven days a week, commuting 30 minutes each way to the North Omaha Boys and Girls Club, and bouncing around the city wherever he’s needed.

“[Muhammad’s] one of Omaha’s hidden gems,” said area coach Araf Evans at a recent Tuesday night scrimmage. “What he does for these kids is unbelievable.”

Here at 26th and Hamilton, he’s coaching the U14 Battle Warriors 7v7 football team. It’s a neighborhood rife with talent that’s produced professional legends such as Gale Sayers (football), Bob Boozer (basketball) and Bob Gibson (baseball). Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Rodgers grew up here, too, and frequently loans the bronze statue to the club. They place it in a case near the entryway to serve as inspiration to the kids, whom Muhammad has been inspiring himself since joining the club in 2006.

“I’ve known since my junior year of college working with kids is what I wanted to do,” said Muhammad, who earned All-Big Eight honors at Nebraska. “I’ve been approached with different opportunities to go elsewhere, but this is where I’m needed.”

The kids are aware of the local lore and relish leaders like Muhammad. He may be the guiding force to overcome odds in an impoverished area where high school graduation rates are annually lower among minority students. Many families have lived here since the mid-1900s and battle the same socioeconomic challenges seen in other inner cities across the country.

Simply put, kids are often born into a culture that doesn’t foster success.

“I take pride in mentoring,” Muhammad said, noting the high crime rates in the area. “We’re kind of surrounded by drugs, gangs—all that stuff. For the parents and guardians of these kids, this club is a safe haven.”

Ironically, the “safe haven” club sits adjacent to an old wound: Highway 75. According to “24th and Glory,” in 1968, the controversial road project displaced thousands of residents, including homes of promising young athletes. Add it to the list of factors that led to a rebuild still in progress, but one that Muhammad is improving every day.

Life before Nebraska 

In south central Los Angeles, Muhammad was nicknamed “Little Rocket.” He grew up in Compton, notorious as one of the most violent cities in America. He spent time developing his skills at nearby Rosecrans Park.

“We didn’t have any community centers or Boys & Girls Clubs so you just learned on the go,” Muhammad recalled. “Most of us had single-parent families. Moms were always working to make sure the family was taken care of, so we were outside a lot. Some of my buddies from home have seen our Boys & Girls Club in Omaha and said ‘Man, can you imagine if we had had something like this?’”

It was the east side of the park where a friend was gunned down in the 6th grade after a game of football. Lucky for Muhammad, his family lived on the west side and he had departed in the opposite direction.

“Emotionally, we were all messed up. We were just being kids playing in the park.”

But around the same time, he was already following Nebraska football on television, a world and 1,500 miles away. With the support of his mother Henrietta, combined with a personal desire to see snow, he moved away in the fall of 1991.

What he didn’t expect to find were parallels between the bright lights of home and the cornfields of the Midwest. Muhammad was among the first group of Husker football players to mentor at local schools, an effort started by legendary coach Tom Osborne. He gravitated to North Omaha on weekend trips with his new college teammates Tony Veland and Clinton Childs.

For better or worse, it reminded him of home.

“It was more like L.A.,” Muhammad said. “The older guys joked and warned me about going, but I felt comfortable.”

“When I go home, I see kids in the neighborhood with so much talent, but that environment and what they go through is difficult. That was a drive for me [to mentor].”

“Eight Days a Week”

In the spring, Muhammad is all in on 7v7 football, coaching many players who didn’t have a chance to play the fall season due to COVID-19. It’s just one of several programs the club offers: “Power Hour” brings in local college students to help kids with homework. “Smart Moves” educates how to make the right decisions. “Money Matters" teaches how to budget. The list goes on.

“Kids need your undivided attention, especially in the inner city,” Muhammad says. “When I go home, I see kids in the neighborhood with so much talent, but that environment and what they go through is difficult. That was a drive for me [to mentor].”

This past Easter Sunday, Muhammad took a boy to Lake Zorinsky. He’s one of 12 kids involved in the fishing club. They all have matching shirts and hats. Another time, Muhammad took his best ping pong player—14-year old Damarion Davis—up the road to the B&B Sports Academy. It’s home to another local legend: world champion boxer Bud Crawford. Davis bested “the champ” on the table and Muhammad still laughs with pride as he retells the story.

Every day, Muhammad devotes his time to area youth—answering text messages, phone calls and emails, regardless if they belong to the club or not.

“It’s more like eight days a week,” jokes Omaha Benson head coach Terrence Mackey, who also mentors with Muhammad. “We care about the kids. You gotta be genuine. You can’t be there one minute and gone the next.”

Muhammad has now teamed up with Mackey to lead the Benson Bunnies, a team that hasn’t won a game since 2017. It’s a big shift for a former collegiate national champion who’s only played and coached in winning cultures.

“I want to be part of turning something around,” Muhammad said. “I can bring them up through the youth program and then coach them at a higher level. We’re going to change the mentality and attitude. They’ll become winners.”

The inspirational duo already has a share of success stories through numerous Division I players, including current Denver Broncos’ tight end Noah Fant. And when former club member Brandin Bryant of the Cleveland Browns had the choice of inviting two former coaches to bring to a recent NFL game, he chose Muhammad and Mackey.

“That one hit me,” Muhammad firmly states. “It was emotional. He’s had so many different coaches at all levels, but he chose T-Mack and I.”

But Muhammad couldn’t make the trip. He had a prior obligation: youth football.

“I didn’t want to let the kids down.”

An Early Impact

Back at the Tuesday night scrimmage, first-grader Ashton hangs around the team. He’ll probably join the bigger kids in a few years, but for now, he follows Abdul like a shadow as he coaches the team through 5-yard out patterns. In between snaps, Muhammad lightly tosses the 6 year old a football at the 17-yard line, and like countless others, points him in the right direction.

15, 10, 5...touchdown.

Muhammad nods in approval and turns his attention back to the drill. In that brief moment, he’s already making an impact on another life.

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