When the family of Zahir Abdus-Salaam decided to move from Irvington to Union City last summer, Zahir was saddened with the decision to leave his native Irvington.
“Yeah, I was a little disappointed with it,” said Abdus-Salaam, who was a major player of impact for Irvington for two seasons. “My father was the one who chose to move. My friends were all in Irvington. It was hard to leave my friends. I was upset by it.”
But then Abdus-Salaam started to see the light.
“My father knew Coach [Wilber] Valdez,” Abdus-Salaam said. “Once I had to move, I knew I was going to be with Coach Valdez, a man who I respected. So I had to get over it [the move].”
Abdus-Salaam knew that he had to earn his spot on the Soaring Eagles’ roster. After all, Union City advanced all the way to the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 1, Group V championship game last year at MetLife Stadium. This was an already established program that Abdus-Salaam was joining. He had to prove himself all over.
“I knew I had to work hard,” Abdus-Salaam said. “I knew that I had talent, but nothing is given. I had to work hard and earn my spot. I had a little confidence, so moving forward, I thought I had a good shot. My father told me to go in and just be myself.”
Abdus-Salaam was encouraged by the reception he received from the Soaring Eagles.
“They welcomed me in as a member of the family,” Abdus-Salaam said. “That comforted me. From that point, I knew we were brothers.”
Valdez never doubted Abdus-Salaam fitting in well with his team.
“I’ve known Zahir since he was a little kid,” Valdez said. “I also coached against him. I knew he was a talented kid, coming from a good background. He was also involved in amateur boxing since he was 10 years old, so I knew he was a tough kid. He had a tremendous work ethic.”
Added Valdez, “I thought he had a good combination of speed, balance and strength. We’re not good when we’re running sideways. We needed someone to run straight. I thought Zahir was good compared to the backs we had. He has good size [5-foot-10, 205 pounds]. He runs hard. He does look bigger than he is. I thought he was a good addition.”
Abdus-Salaam was the lone shining star in the Soaring Eagles’ loss to St. Peter’s Prep two weeks ago.
“He did have some good runs against the best team in New Jersey,” Valdez said of Abdus-Salaam’s performance against the Marauders. “I thought what he did was a positive. He made some of those Prep defenders miss him.”
Abdus-Salaam was the game’s leading rusher, carrying the ball 21 times for 117 yards.
But that game set Abdus-Salaam for his biggest game to date, one of the best performances by a Soaring Eagle running back ever.
As the Soaring Eagles prepared to face undefeated Bayonne last Friday night, Abdus-Salaam knew that he had to establish himself as a premier back.
“I had to help my teammates gain their confidence back,” Abdus-Salaam said. “I knew that they were undefeated, but I felt we could have a good game.”
“It absolutely was a big game for us,” Valdez said. “Our backs were against the wall. We were not in a great situation. We knew Bayonne was a good team, an undefeated team, a very athletic team. We knew we had our hands full. We had to prepare with a sense of urgency. We went after it pretty hard. We felt pretty good about our game plan. We were going to run right at them.”
And with that in mind, Abdus-Salaam was going to get his chances to carry the ball.
“I went into the game with a little chip on my shoulder,” Abdus-Salaam said. “I knew what I had to do to help my team. I just felt that it was going to be more than just another game. If my team played along with me, we could win.”
And that’s what happened. The Soaring Eagles knocked the Bees from the ranks of the undefeated.
“We came out and executed,” Abdus-Salaam said. “We kept running our power offense. Every passion came out. I had a personal goal of 150 yards.”
Abdus-Salaam carried the ball 16 times for 187 yards and three touchdowns. He also caught a pass for a 40-yard touchdown. For good measure, he returned a kickoff 60 yards for another touchdown, giving him five scores in all. All totaled, Abdus-Salaam had almost 300 yards of total offense and five TDs.
For his efforts, Abdus-Salaam has been selected as The Hudson Reporter Athlete of the Week for the last week.
Valdez said that he used Abdus-Salaam several different ways during the course of the game.
“We knew that his strength was running north and south,” Valdez said. “We used him in diverse ways, like a Wildcat quarterback to the Wing-T formation and the fullback and then a tailback in the pro set. He’s a real smart kid and a good student of the game to handle all of those things.”
Abdus-Salaam is only a junior, but he’s fitting in as a good student as well.
“He’s a high achiever in everything he does,” Valdez said. “He’s very competitive. He wants to win at all cost.”
Abdus-Salaam has a 3.7 grade point average.
“I do what I have to do to focus on my grades,” Abdus-Salaam said. “I think a game like this gives me an extra boost of confidence. When it’s game time, I’m ready.”
Abdus-Salaam has about “10 to 12 offers” from NCAA Division 1 on the table, so his efforts are already being appreciated.
Abdus-Salaam also has a very unique nickname. Since he was a little boy, Abdus-Salaam has been known as “Oldie.” Yes, like in Oldie but Goodie.
“When I was young, my father [Muhammad] said that I had an old man’s mentality,” Abdus-Salaam said. “He said that I walked and acted like an old man. I was about four years old. I really didn’t care. It stuck. I didn’t care. I kind of like it now. My teammates can call me ‘Oldie.’”
Yes, this Oldie is certainly a goodie. – Jim Hague
Jim Hague can be reached via e-mail at OGSMAR@aol.com