The hit jarred him. A violent collision is how Mohamed Ibrahim describes it.
The Gophers standout still remembers that tackle in vivid detail six years later. Sophomore year in high school, his second game starting in place of the injured No. 1 running back, facing one of the best teams in the state of Maryland.
Ibrahim was, in his own words, timid.
A defender put a lick on him that changed his football trajectory.
Ibrahim's coach pulled him out of the game for a series to make sure he was feeling OK. In that moment, he gave his young running back a piece of advice that fuels him to this day.
It hurts more being the nail than the hammer.
"Ever since that one game," he said this week, "I became the hammer. I've never been the nail."
He keeps hammering away at defenses.
Ibrahim leads the nation in rushing at 190.3 yards per game. He has more rushing yards by himself (571) than 11 Big Ten teams. He also ranks No. 1 nationally in carries per game, 32.3. And he already has 10 rushing touchdowns, a pace that would smash the program's single-season record of 18 held by Gary Russell in 2005.
Ibrahim is a workhorse. Nothing fancy about his style. Just hand him the ball and let him pound away.
"Being able to lower his pads and deliver a blow to somebody over and over again," says quarterback Tanner Morgan, "that's what Mo's running game is all about."
In covering Gophers football for nearly two decades, I've seen running backs who were bigger, faster, more athletic, more talented and more graceful. I'm not sure any of them carried the ball with more determination or heart than Ibrahim.
He is relentless with the ball in his grip, always charging forward, always fighting for extra yards, pinballing off defenders as he pushes the pile forward.
Then he gets up and does it again.
"You look at him, and you wouldn't think he's a Big Ten tailback when you stand by him," coach P.J. Fleck said. "That's no disrespect to what he looks like in size, but there's guys that are way bigger, way faster, way stronger than he is. But he has a motor and he has a purpose and he has a mission, and he's an unbelievable person."
Ibrahim is listed at 5-10 on the roster. He's not 5-10.
I asked him to swallow a gulp of truth serum and give his height. He laughed.
"I don't even know, probably like 5-9," he said. "I don't really think about size. I have my own perks of being this short. People can't see me when you're hiding behind the offensive line."
Maybe there's something to that. Ibrahim joked that he tells his offensive linemen to "stand up straight and I can get five yards."
What he lacks in height, he makes up for with powerful legs. His thighs look as thick as sequoias, which makes him hard to tackle.
"His leg drive and lower-body balance is one of his strengths," former Gophers running back Rodney Smith said.
Smith said running backs coach Kenni Burns always credited Ibrahim with being the "thickest running back in the room."
"He wasn't the thickest," Smith said in a text, "but it shows up on him more because he's the shortest."
He included a laughing-to-tears emoji with that zinger.
Ibrahim's frame isn't prototype, but his competitive spirit is special. He gives maximum effort on every play, running as if his scholarship hinges on breaking tackles.
People inside the program marveled at Ibrahim's 22-yard reception in the first quarter at Illinois last week. Ibrahim fell down while blocking, popped up to catch a hurried dump-off by Morgan and rumbled for a first down.
Never quit. All effort.
Sometimes his bruising running style leads to compliments from defenders at the bottom of the pile.
"You get funny jokes," he said. "Guys whispering in your ears."
That's how it all started. A suggestion whispered into his ear on the sideline back in high school. Always be the hammer.
Chip Scoggins • email@example.com