Bucknuts Mag Excerpts: "Making It Big" (Oct. '04)

Nader Abdallah

In this week's free sample of Bucknuts the Magazine, we have a special reprint of a story on OSU defensive tackle Nader Abdallah that ran in the October 2004 edition of the magazine. Charles Babb brought us the story of Abdallah and his family, and why Nader's career is so important to both his family and others around the country. Click the link to read more.

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In each issue of Bucknuts The Magazine, we have in-depth features on Ohio State football players, coaches and prospects. We also have analysis pieces on the Buckeyes as well as their opponents, the Big Ten and college football world in general. Plus, we have features on OSU athletes in a variety of sports, including men's and women's basketball, hockey, wrestling, baseball and other sports.

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This week's excerpt is actually a reprint of an entire story from the October 2004 issue. This story is on OSU defensive tackle Nader Abdallah and the importance of his OSU career. The story was written by Charles Babb:

Headline: Making It Big

By Charles Babb

Nader Abdallah is not your average college football player. It's not simply his opportunity to play Division I-A football at The Ohio State University. While the vast majority can only dream of such a chance, there are hundreds and even thousands who will suit up on fall Saturdays this year, 105 on the Buckeyes' roster alone.

The story for Abdallah, a freshman defensive tackle for the Buckeyes, is much more interesting and in some ways, perhaps even unique.

The journey starts in Israel, in the Palestinian refugee camp Balata just outside of Nablus. Displaced from his home and business near Tel Aviv by Israel in 1948, Abdallah's grandfather moved his family to Jordan. There, Abdallah's father, Younes, was born and raised. Life was not easy for Younes and his ten siblings.

"Really (I lived) all of my life in refugee camps," he remembers. "At first, we were living in tents … for some years … and then they made little small rooms for refugees, and that was it."

The same year Younes graduated from high school, 1967, Israel wrested control of the West Bank from Jordan. He became a physical education teacher and married his wife, Izzieh. The couple rented a home beside the camp at Balata for the next 11 years. Yet Younes recognized raising his Palestinian family in Israel would be difficult, especially given limited job and education opportunities.

"I was looking for a better life, a better future - to take care of my children," he stated.

Like all parents, he wanted a place where his children could work hard and be given a fair shot at life. In March 1980, Younes, his pregnant wife, and their two sons left their families and their homeland and came to the U.S.

After a "cup of coffee stop" in Chicago (where Younes discovered it was too cold for his tastes), the family moved to New Orleans. Toiling for several years working for others, Younes started his own store, LaSalle Grocery, in 1983. Along the way, the family of four blossomed into a family of seven with four boys and one girl. The youngest, Nader, was born Oct. 25, 1985.

Younes and Izzieh wanted to make sure the opportunities of America were not lost on their children. They raised them with a strict focus on education - such a focus that Nader was the only child ever allowed to play organized sports. His older brother Mazem commented, "I always wanted him to play football, but the way we were raised it was books first and nothing else. Nothing else second."

That diligence paid off for Mazem, a recent graduate from Tulane Law School. But he recognized Nader had a bright future in sports if he could only convince his father.

"All the males in our family are built big," Mazem said. "I'm the smallest male in our family and am 6-2, 205 pounds. I constantly asked my father to let him play football."

Why was he so sure? As older brothers are often wont to do, they compete with their younger siblings. They stopped wrestling when Nader was 13, after he playfully picked up Mazem and planted his body into the wall, leaving quite the impression - on both the wall and his brother. A few years ago, they stopped racing as well.

"I would always egg him on and say 'You can't beat me in a race,' " Mazem said. "At that particular time, he was about 285 pounds. We're running and about 60 yards into it, he turned on the afterburners. The last 10 yards he turned around and started waving goodbye to me and saying, 'Nah, nah, nah, nah...' I couldn't believe that. I could not believe someone that big could be that fast at that weight and age. I was like, 'Look, you're made to play football. It's a done deal - you know?' "

Half the battle was his family simply did not know what football was about.

Younes grew up playing soccer and basketball but was unfamiliar with American football. Watching it for the first time, he recalled, "I started looking at - it looked to me like a kind of fight - pushing each other and jumping on top of each other. American football needs a lot of strength and is mostly physical - mostly physical and not technical is the way I looked at it. If you look at soccer or volleyball or tennis, most of these games were technical and didn't have physical contact."

Finally, Mazem persuaded his father to allow the still growing Nader to play. Jay Roth, Nader's high school coach, remembers Mazem walking up to the football coaches at Rummel High School and basically saying, "Hey coaches! This is my big brother, although he's my little brother. I want you to teach him how to play football. He's never played before. He's always been too big to play at the playground and for recreation."

According to Roth, "He just brought him to our front step and said, 'Here you go, Coach!'"

For two years, Nader Abdallah worked. He practiced. He focused on getting better.

"He was raw, but he had never played before and so had no bad habits," said Roth. "He was willing to learn, eager to learn, a hard worker, and took to the weights real hard. He took off."

Did he ever.

When his junior year rolled around, the discipline and effort paid dividends as large as his man-child frame. He was a force to be reckoned with, notching 96 tackles and six sacks. His play earned him nicknames like the "Termi-Nader" and "Darth-Nader." His tapes drew rave reviews, and after he gained an additional 40-50 pounds between his junior and senior seasons, his dominance increased.

According to Duane Long of Ohio High, "Nader Abdallah is one of the best defensive tackles I've ever seen. He dominated. Talk about a great body. If you were building a defensive tackle, he would look like Nader Abdallah. This is a kid who was 240 as a junior. I don't know how he weighed 240 pounds. He's so big. He must have been rail thin. I would almost like to see a picture of this kid (from that time)."

Along the way, his entire family warmed to the game and cheered him onward.

"His brother Mazem called me and told me to come watch Nader play and encourage him," said his father. "I did go, and since then I haven't missed one game. Every game - even out of town. I saw the attention coaches and fans were giving him. That encouraged me to support him more and more."

To Younes, football became a game that was not just a gigantic scrum but a "very interesting game - a technical and physical game. You need power and strength and speed."

Nader possessed the rarest of combinations. He had the power, strength, speed and technical prowess to excel, and college coaches began to take notice. Knowing he had a chance at a college scholarship, he steadily raised his grades, and the recruiters began not just making a path but beating a path to his front door, so many in fact that it shocked Nader.

"Before my senior year started, I had like two or three scholarships," he said. "I thought maybe LSU and the surrounding colleges were going to be it, but once I started playing football, all the colleges came at me right at the beginning of my senior year with letters and scholarships. I was very surprised."

All told, he ended the season with nearly 60 offers from all over the nation. Tennessee, Florida State, LSU, Ohio State - the list literally goes on and on.

The phone calls and visits were constant. "I remember one night we had three head coaches come - Gary Barnett, Bobby Bowden and Phillip Fulmer," said Mazem. "They all came in one night. It was from 6-8 p.m., 8-10 and 10-12."

The steady stream was almost more than Nader's mother could bear. "After that day, my mom was like, 'I can't take this any more. We can't have any more coaches over.' "

It wasn't that she was a poor hostess. In fact, it was exactly the opposite according to Mazem.

"Whenever we [Palestinians] have guests, the custom is that you have to feed them," he said. "Feed them till they drop, and this is New Orleans - we're known for great food. I kind of told my mom that the coaches were coming here to recruit Nader but also to enjoy the culture in New Orleans and the great food. A lot of times the coaches would go out to eat and then come visit us and get double stuffed. After that, we kind of just gave them appetizers or hors d'oeuvres because we knew they were coming in and eating on their own time."

Mazem, the football fanatic of the family, continued helping his brother and parents through the process - offering advice when asked and spending hours on the Internet researching. The family narrowed the list of schools. LSU was too close, and Notre Dame and Stanford had the academic reputations, but lacked on-field performance and coaching stability. Finally, they were left with a list of five, and Nader began taking his visits.

Once again, Abdallah's uniqueness came to the fore. The family still has no idea how their address got out, but personal letters from Palestinians all over Ohio poured in encouraging him to come to Ohio State. Upon arrival in Tallahassee, Columbus, and Lansing, Palestinians met the family at their hotel, telling Nader he was not simply welcome but wanted in their community.

This wasn't a set-up but simply the reality of being a high profile Palestinian in America.

"It's quite shocking for the common person to understand, but it's kind of like the Olympics," opined Mazem. "You have a whole country behind certain players in certain events. Look at Korea - every single person of Korean descent watched the situation with Paul Hamm. They relate culturally to a person or race wise. From Nader's perspective, no other player is of Palestinian or Middle Eastern descent. Everybody is going to be encouraging him and making sure he does what he is capable of in cheering him on."

Even OSU coach Jim Tressel has been impressed with the attention. This summer, he was invited to attend a wedding of one of Nader's cousins in Youngstown. According to Mazem, "Jim Tressel told me at the wedding, 'My goodness, I did not know how many Arabic fans that we had.' There were 800 people at the wedding. They did not know he was going to be there. He gave a little speech, and he saw the support of all those people behind my brother, and he understood the magnitude of his commitment to Ohio State."

To Mazem, all of this has been to Nader's advantage.

"He is the first Palestinian to play college football," Mazem said. "He's very aware of it. One thing Palestinians know is that reputation is very, very important. The fact that he is Palestinian helped him become a college football athlete because Palestinians have to watch everything they do. You are a representative in terms of Americans' eyes. So, if you go around acting stupid or using foul language, people will associate that type of behavior with Palestinians. Everything you do bears on your reputation. The fact that he was a Palestinian helped him because now that he is at Ohio State, he is no longer a general civilian - he's a public figure. Everything he does bears on the program of Ohio State. Jim Tressel knew that, and Ohio State knew that. They knew he would be the kind of player they were looking for. He wouldn't be the type to go out and get into trouble or say the wrong things to reporters and media. That made Nader look much better to football coaches."

Finally, the family whittled the choices down to two schools - Ohio State and Tennessee. With both offering the possibility of playing time due to departing seniors, it wasn't football that made the difference but a coaching staff with a unique approach.

"Jim Tressel, let me tell you about this guy. You could distinguish him from any other coach in the country," Mazem emphatically stated. "He is the only coach that came into our house and never talked about football even for a split second. All the other coaches came in and talked about how they would use Nader, how he could play defensive end or defensive tackle, or how his physical assets would benefit their school. Tressel came in and talked about how it would be as a freshman, the different classes he would take that would be challenging, the philosophy he has about 'raising his children' - his players. You could tell he wasn't all about football. It is his job of course, but it doesn't have to be football 24/7. He understands there are other things besides football that come into play, and he showed that when he came to our house."

That approach struck a resonating chord.

The family liked it. They appreciated the opportunities after football presented by Ohio State's alumni connections and the moral emphasis of Coach Tressel. As the evening came to a close, Nader made a surprise announcement - he wanted to commit to the Buckeyes.

"It was a surprise for all of us," said his father Younes. "We were sitting here in the house and head coach Tressel and (assistant coach Bill) Conley was here, too. We all liked what the coaches said, and he felt very, very comfortable. He said he wanted to sign with Ohio State, and everybody stood and started screaming and hugging each other. I was so happy for him, so happy. It was a very good moment for me."

So who is Nader Abdallah? What are his goals and aspirations?

Quiet and fairly unassuming off the field, Nader Abdallah is once again anything but your typical football player. In fact, while most incoming freshmen were starry-eyed walking around the turf of Ohio Stadium on picture day, he was nowhere to be seen.

Finally, after a fairly lengthy search, Nader was spotted on the bleachers. He wasn't sitting taking in the sights. He was stretched out with his eyes closed. After introducing myself with him not batting an eye, it was then I realized he was taking a nap.

Once awakened, it didn't take long to confirm Nader is different. While many players are motivated simply by dreams of NFL dollars and glory, what drives him is his family - more specifically, the dream of helping his father. The grocery business is a tough road to tread. Younes Abdallah has worked nearly 70 hours every week for the last 20 years. He takes only Sundays off, and his store is located in perhaps the most dangerous neighborhood in New Orleans, the Magnolia projects.

"Right now, I'm trying to make it big so he can stop working," said Nader. "He's been working all his life. He really needs to retire. He's very happy. I'm happy that he's happy, (but) I have to keep the dreams alive."

Why does Younes do this? Why put himself through what most would consider brutal working conditions with almost no time off? Why does any father work like this?

Younes does it for the same reason he left his father and his ailing mother in Nablus nearly 25 years ago.

"Actually, I'm living for my children," he said. "I'm not living for myself. I don't remember when I had a good time for myself. Always it's for my children. All these years."

Maybe his father has never told him. In fact, he probably hasn't. Younes sounds much too upbeat and hopeful to be caught feeling sorry for himself, but Nader and his siblings know the sacrifices their parents have made. Despite living in a separate neighborhood from the store, Nader's education outside of school while working there has been an eye-opener.

"Seeing the kind of stuff that goes on every day (in the projects) makes me more convinced I have to make it big somehow to help my father and my family," Nader said. "So everyone can live a happy life."

Making it big won't come easy though. It will take hard work and dedication. It will take the willingness to learn from the coaches. It will mean long hours studying for classes, watching film and working out in the weight room. Early indications are that Nader is prepared to make those kinds of sacrifices - the kind he learned from watching his father.

Arriving at Ohio State in June, he spent the summer working out with the team in an attempt to try and improve his game. In fact, in a 15-minute conversation, he mentioned how much he wanted to learn from coaches and other players like Simon Fraser no less than six different times.

"Whatever needs to be done," he said. "I watch film, watch the other players move - whatever could help me to get the sack, the tackle, the fumble, the interception. Anything I can do. I watch for every little move. I'm going to do the best I can to help out all my teammates to win a national championship."

Nader is prepared for the intense effort required and continued, "I was raised working hard, working hard for everything I ever got. My father taught me discipline. Nothing in this world is free. I've been working all my life. I'm just used to working."
With that attitude, don't bet against Nader Abdallah accomplishing his goals. He might indeed "make it big".

But even if were to never play a down in the NFL, that won't dim the pride of his family.

"He will do as much as he can - he will do the best he can for the benefit for the school, the coaches and the fans," said his father. "I am so proud of him. Every game he plays I will be there.

"I know it's going to cost me some money," he said, laughing, "but I will be there."

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