Burkhead's Husker career down to one last game

2012-12-28T23:50:00Z 2012-12-28T23:59:05Z Burkhead's Husker career down to one last gameBy BRIAN CHRISTOPHERSON / Lincoln Journal Star JournalStar.com

ORLANDO, Fla.— The tales told by those in Plano, Texas, four years ago almost seemed too good to be true.

They called him "Superman," talked about how he could dunk a basketball in the eighth grade when he was 5-foot-7, how he always handed the ball to officials immediately after touchdowns, how all the little kids and even some of the big "kids" all wanted to be like Rex Burkhead.

Surely those stories were myths.

No one could fault Burkhead if he was not all the things people said he was.

But now, as the beloved Husker's career comes to an end Tuesday in the Capital One Bowl, wouldn't you know they're saying the same things in Nebraska.

The people of Plano were not telling fibs.

"He lived up to it, met the expectations and succeeded them," said senior tight end Ben Cotton. "What he's done for this program, not just on the field, but in school and in the community, Rex is a complete man. He's a role model for me. He's younger than me but I still look up to the guy, too."

Husker running backs coach Ron Brown has plenty of years on Burkhead.

That doesn't stop him from saying he learned a lot from his pupil.

"I tried to add to his life, tried to invest in him and remind him that the Lord gave him his talents to honor him with them, and that he should run out of that spirit," Brown said. "I don't think he needed a whole lot of training in that. That's just who he is."

Burkhead's humble nature and community involvement -- most notably his friendship with young cancer patient Jack Hoffman -- have been well documented.

He was a first-team Academic All-American, never got into off-the-field trouble, perhaps never jaywalked, for all anyone knows.

"I think people knew right away there was something special about him," Brown said. "I don't know if I've ever seen a guy more popular here. It's hard to measure."

What Brown doesn't find hard to measure is the talent Burkhead possesses on the football field.

Ask him about Burkhead's prospects at the next level and Brown finds it hard to see how the running back wouldn't find success.

"I think he can be an outstanding NFL player," Brown said. "First of all, they're going to love his work ethic. Very strong, very quick twitch. ... He can burst as well as anybody. He can spin on a dime. He has tremendous eye-hand coordination. He can really catch the ball. You can split him out wide. He can be a great pass protector. Smart, alert. All he has to do is get into a camp and people will love the guy ..."

Brown kept going.

Husker head coach Bo Pelini will go on a while too about Burkhead.

During Big Ten Media Days this summer, Pelini explained that people often seem to underestimate Burkhead's athletic ability, using words such as "a throwback" and "overachiever" to help explain his success.

Maybe he is those things. But he's also a freak athlete, a 5-11, 210-pound guy who can put on a dunking show with a basketball if asked.

"I think he gets a lot of what he does, but I don't think people realize how good of an athlete this guy is," Pelini said this summer. "It's ridiculous, really. He has almost a 40-inch vertical leap. I don't think people realize how explosive this guy is."

Getting Burkhead to talk about himself is a trying task.

Something you learn about humble guys? They're usually not the best quote.

But there's something else besides that humility, Brown says. It's something people don't always see.

"When you talk to him you think he's just kind of a nice, humble guy. And he is a humble guy," Brown said. "But he is really confident. You talk to him about his past, he doesn't brag, but he'll tell it like it is, what he can do. He feels like he can do about anything. ... He's more so that way than people think."

It was very much a compliment from Brown.

Burkhead the nice guy is also Burkhead the fierce competitor.

"He is always trying to maximize his talent and looking ahead," Brown said. "What he's done for the rest of our running backs has been invaluable. I think he's had a tremendous amount of influence on our work ethic. We'll miss him, without a doubt."

It was not the senior season Burkhead envisioned. What began with Heisman Trophy talk and a 57-yard touchdown on Nebraska's first offensive series of the season gave way to a knee injury that caused him to miss six games.

Even so, Burkhead rushed for 535 yards despite carrying the ball just 74 times. He averaged 7.2 yards per rush.

Now he'll have one more chance, against Georgia, to add to his legend.

"It's a little bittersweet," Burkhead said Friday of the final game.

Don't tell him this game doesn't mean much. The running back wants nothing more than to help wash the bad taste of that Big Ten Championship Game debacle away with a win on New Year's Day.

"I'm constantly reminding the team as a leader that we're way better than that, that we know we're way better than that," Burkhead said. "This is a great opportunity to show what we're made of."

With 3,189 yards to his name, Burkhead will finish his career among the top five Husker rushers.

His favorite memory? Hard to say. So many. That comeback against Ohio State last year, the one where he dazzled in the fourth quarter, rates up there.

But what impressed coaches and teammates as much as anything was what he did when he wasn't in the spotlight. Yes, they'll tell you Burkhead showed his value as much as ever when he was limping on the sideline this year.

"He never dropped out of his leadership role," Cotton said. "He was just as happy to see Ameer (Abdullah) and Imani (Cross) and Braylon (Heard) and everybody be successful in a spot he wished he could be in."

That's Burkhead, Brown says.

"That's always the great question: What can I contribute? Not what's in it for me? But what can I contribute? And he lived out that."

 

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