Senior Rex Burkhead netted 69 yards rushing in the second half at Iowa.
By Randy York
Less than an hour after Nebraska outlasted Iowa, 13-7, to clinch its spot in Saturday’s Big Ten Conference Championship game against Wisconsin in Indianapolis, a close friend, who admits he’s emotional by nature, sent me an email from his iPhone. “I had tears in my eyes when (Rex) Burkhead scored his touchdown,” he wrote. “It had nothing to do with Nebraska and everything to do with Rex being such an amazing individual. I’m not sure where he ranks all-time as far as inspirational leaders for the Huskers, but he’s No. 1 in my book.”
My friend’s brother received the same email and agreed with the statement, and after analyzing the comment from inside out, I have come to the same conclusion. In all my years of covering and following the Huskers, I am hard-pressed to name any Husker who could be considered more inspirational than Rex Burkhead.
I decide to call Mike Babcock, another close friend who is without question the foremost historian of modern-day Nebraska football. We discuss Burkhead’s status in the grand scheme of inspirational leaders, and after a few minutes, Babcock comes up with a parallel that makes immediate sense to both of us.
“Rex reminds me of Roger Craig,” Babcock said, explaining how both compete for one simple reason – the team – and both practice and play every down in one gear and one gear only – all out.
Craig and Burkhead Selfless Superstars
Mike and I agree that Craig and Burkhead are gifted athletes, but even greater people. They are intensely determined yet totally selfless superstars in the way they prepare, the way they see the big picture, the way they compete on game day and the way they respond to adversity.
We discuss how Craig rushes for more than 1,000 yards as a junior, but moves to fullback so a junior college transfer can assume the No. 1 I-back role 30 years ago. Everyone remembers the smooth transition Mike Rozier made into a Nebraska system that hand-delivered him a Heisman Trophy a year later.
Craig finished his Husker career three yards shy of Rick Berns for No. 3 on the NU career rushing list. Craig’s injury-riddled senior season had to have been personally frustrating, but his mindset and his attitude never wavered, paving the road for an 11-year career in the NFL and three Super Bowl championship rings in which he not only was a starter, but a star.
Like Roger Craig, Rex Burkhead is a versatile performer who knows how to fight through injury, wait his turn and do his job whenever asked. Bo Pelini asked Burkhead, who had not played in the four previous games because of a knee injury, to carry the Huskers on his shoulder pads Saturday in Iowa City. On a freezing day with blustery winds up to 40 miles an hour, Nebraska’s fifth-year head coach needed a catalyst, a spark, or as he called it, “a boost” that could help Nebraska triumph in a sixth consecutive conference game.
Special Delivery When the Crunch Was On
At halftime, Pelini needed someone who could help Nebraska transform a 7-3 deficit into situational superiority against a Hawkeye team playing for pride, respect and each other. Burkhead rose to the occasion, rushing for a team-leading 69 yards, scoring a game-winning 3-yard third-quarter touchdown and bulling his way for a pivotal mid-fourth-quarter first down from the shadows of his own 2-yard line to keep the heat on and create critical field position.
Nebraska running backs coach Ron Brown appreciates Burkhead’s multi-dimensional value. “He’s a great inside power runner,” Brown said. “He’s a relentless competitor. He’s a great pass-pro guy, receiver. He does everything well, Wildcat quarterback … he does it all.” As a junior, Burkhead played some fullback, some wide receiver, even returned punts.
It’s been difficult for Burkhead to push through an injury-plagued senior season. “But I love his attitude,” Brown said. “He’s been coaching Imani (Cross) and Braylon (Heard) and Ameer (Abdullah). He’s had his arms around those guys. He talks to the fullbacks all the time. I mean, he’s been an extra coach for us because of who he is. A lot of guys would have been sulking and pouting around, and ‘Why me?’ I think he understands that God has this set up for him this way.”
Brown has maintained all season that Burkhead would benefit from the experience. “It’s going to sharpen him,” Brown said a couple of weeks ago. “When he comes out of this thing, he’ll be better than ever. I believe that.”
Next Two Rounds in Indianapolis, Pasadena
Well maybe Saturday was Round One in the Rex Burkhead Trifecta to finish a senior season that could deliver Nebraska’s first conference championship in 13 years and result in the Huskers’ first victory ever in the Rose Bowl, the Granddaddy of all bowl games.
Burkhead missed being a part of every game and contributing on the field. He probably had some personal objectives as well. “But that all changed, and he had to realize, ‘Who am I really playing for?’” and “What is this thing really all about?’” Brown said. “I think Rex has learned a lot about leadership. And there were some things in his life that … I mean, as great of a kid as he is, you almost think of him as there are no flaws in him. But there are some areas of growth that he needed.”
One was just “how to express his leadership and how to really maximize his leadership,” Brown said. “He’s a leader by example, but he had to learn how to talk to people, too, and to speak up and to say: ‘You know what? This is what has to happen!’ Great leaders have to do both. They have to lead by example but they have to articulate themselves as well.”
Brown said Burkhead “has learned a lot about the articulation facet of leadership this year, and also about his own perseverance and the ability to just kind of hang in there.”
Burkhead Authentic in Excitement for Others
Make no mistake. Brown said Burkhead has been authentic in his excitement while watching the younger running backs develop and succeed. “If there’s anything inside of him that isn’t kind of right or he’s feeling kind of jealous or pouting around or anything, I honestly didn’t see it,” Brown said. “I think his only disappointment is, ‘Oh, I want to be out there contributing.’”
Well, guess what? Burkhead got back on the field Saturday, unexpectedly, but deservedly and definitely productively. After countless hours of watching practice, studying film and trusting his faith, he got inside a huddle, dug his cleats into the turf and powered his way through some physical defenders. Coaches wanted to give him a chance to shake off the rust, and he went well beyond that in Saturday’s second half.
If there’s one thing Rex has sharpened while missing practice after practice and game day after game day, “I think it’s his faith in the Lord,” Brown said. “I think he understands that. ‘Man, left up to me, I would be pouting around.’ But he understands that there’s something bigger than him, and this isn’t about him. Rex had been building momentum. He was on fire. He was a Heisman candidate and all this and that, and then all of a sudden, the injury. When you really think about it, he’s played well. He averaged like 9 yards a carry and had more long runs than he’s ever had. I mean, he’s gone against some good people and had good games even against Wisconsin and Ohio State. He was on the verge of having another great year.”
The knee injury changed Burkhead’s world, and sitting out has not been easy for him. But Brown believes it has helped Burkhead understand “that God has a bigger picture,” he said. “I think it’s helped him keep his poise, keep calm, grow, learn, keep improving in certain things and be as ready as he can” when opportunity intersected with availability.
What’s in the Stars for This Superstar?
For Burkhead, last Saturday in Iowa City was Proof Point One. This Saturday in Indianapolis will be Proof Point Two. The Rose Bowl, of course, would be the capstone, and don’t be surprised if the Huskers’ next two games provide overwhelming evidence that Rex Burkhead not only is one of Nebraska’s most inspirational leaders ever, but just might lead such a list after the sun goes down on Pasadena come New Year’s Night, 2013.
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