Zahir Abdus-Salaam, the two-time Hudson Reporter All-Area running back from Union City High School, looked down at the piece of paper in front of him early last Wednesday morning and shook his head.
Salaam then took a pen, put his autograph on the dotted line, and with that, he became a big-time college football player.
Salaam signed his National Letter of Intent to attend Western Michigan University in the fall and play college football there.
“Once I signed, I said to myself, ‘This is really happening,’” Salaam said. “It’s a little more real and a little more different. I always wanted to be a [NCAA] Division I athlete. I saw my brother [Muadh] do it [as a linebacker at Delaware State] and realized it’s what I wanted to be.”
Salaam had two sensational seasons carrying the load for the Soaring Eagles, collecting 1,251 yards and scoring 12 touchdowns in 2019 and adding 715 yards and 12 more TDs this past season as a senior. He was selected as The Hudson Reporter Athlete of the Week in each of his two seasons with the Soaring Eagles.
It was such an important day for Abdus-Salaam that he had two signing day celebrations – one at Union City High and the other for family and friends in Passaic.
Western Michigan head coach Tim Lester was happy to have Abdus-Salaam sign on with the Broncos.
“Zahir showed everything that you are looking for in a running back,” Lester said on the school’s website. “He has vision, ability to stick his foot in the ground, twitch, and an edge to him.”
Lester liked the fact that Abdus-Salaam, for some reason nicknamed “Oldie” by his family since he was a toddler, is also a highly respected amateur boxer.
“He is a Gold Glove boxer with a supportive family that pushed him,” Lester said. “I am excited to have Zahir join our program and look forward to what he will bring to the running back room.”
Union City head coach Wilber Valdez has had a number of his players sign NLIs in recent years, the most notably being Josue Matias with NCAA national champion Florida State and recently Stephen Gonzalez with Penn State.
“It’s extremely rewarding,” Valdez said of Abdus-Salaam’s signing. “A kid starts off with a dream and then he turns that dream into an action plan. If he puts the time in, he can make the dream become a reality and that’s what Zahir did. He’s all work, all business. And that’s also in the classroom. He’s just a high character kid, a great student and an all-around great person. Part of your job as a coach is to see your kids get to the next level. He’s a great fit for Western Michigan and it was a great opportunity for him to jump at this offer.”
Valdez was asked about Abdus-Salaam keeping the tradition alive for Union City kids playing at the next level.
“It’s a nice reputation to have,” Valdez said. “Coaches want to make sure to visit us because we have had players in the past. I take a lot of pride in that. I’m definitely happy for Zahir, because he worked so hard for this opportunity.”
Abdus-Salaam knows that it’s all business from here on.
“This is for real now,” Abdus-Salaam said after signing his NLI. “It puts a different battery in my pack. I’m getting the chance to play Division I football and play as a true freshman. That’s my goal right now. It’s what I’m striving for.”
It was all about the dream for Abdus-Salaam.
“It’s really a dream come true,” Abdus-Salaam said. “Not a lot of guys get the chance to go D-I. For me to be a D-I player means everything to me. The coaches at Western Michigan believe in me. They know I have a chance to be a great running back and perhaps play in the NFL some day.”
At St. Peter’s Prep, the premier grid program in Hudson County, two standouts signed NLIs to attend the same school.
Ethan Rodriguez, a two-time Hudson Reporter All-Area honoree at defensive end, and Jordan Campbell, who earned Hudson Reporter All-Area honors this season as a defensive back, both signed on to attend Sacred Heart University in Connecticut in the fall.
Rodriguez, who transferred to St. Peter’s Prep from St. Joseph of Montvale after his family moved to Jersey City two years ago, also had hopes and aspirations of being a big-time college football player.
“It’s a surreal feeling,” Rodriguez said. “It was always a dream of mine and I finally made it happen.”
Rodriguez said that he loved the campus at Sacred Heart, the football coaches, the program, everything.
“It’s everything I want in my future,” Rodriguez said. “I knew it was my place to call home. I’m comfortable there.”
Rodriguez plays on majoring in business administration with the hope of attaining an MBA (Master’s in Business Administration).
“But someday, I’d really want to play on Sundays,” Rodriguez said.
He plans on being either a defensive end or an outside linebacker at Sacred Heart.
“Someone who could cover a running back out of the backfield or rush the passer,” Rodriguez said.
Campbell said that he liked Sacred Heart because he has two older cousins, namely Justin Beckett from Union and Lamar Evans of Watchung Hills, who went to Sacred Heart.
“I watched them since I was a little kid and played football a little with them,” Campbell said of Beckett and Evans. “I followed them on Twitter.”
So when it came time to look at possible colleges, Campbell reached out to the Sacred Heart coaching staff.
“I sent them an e-mail,” Rodriguez said. “I got on their radar before I had a chance to play here. When they contacted me, it was the most exciting offer I got.”
And both said that they wanted to head to Sacred Heart together as teammates and now roommates.
“It may sound crazy, but Jordan was a big factor,” Rodriguez said. “We’re really good friends. Now I get to spend at least another four years with him. I see the program at Sacred Heart improving every year.”
“It really meant a lot to me to have Ethan with me,” Campbell said. “He’s helped me a lot and I’m glad we’re going to be together for the next four years. I really didn’t want to go far away from home, so this is far enough for me.”
Campbell hopes to major in sports management or sports medicine.
“I want to start my own football facility someday,” Campbell said. “It’s most definitely a feeling of joy. When I first went to Prep, this was something I hoped for. When I signed this letter, I felt I reached my first goal and it’s on to the next new chapter of my life.”
“This makes me feel so grateful to everyone who helped me along the way,” Rodriguez said. “I’m thankful for the people who really pushed me on and off the field.”
St. Peter’s Prep will have more players to sign letters at the next signing period in February, most notably George Rooks, the Hudson Reporter Defensive Player of the Year this year, who has offers from Michigan, Rutgers and Penn State. Tajhamell Bullock, the Prep quarterback and two-time Hudson Reporter Offensive Player of the Year, has already signed his letter of intent to head to Virginia Tech in the fall. – Jim Hague