In 10 years, Judy Burnfield wants Lincoln to be the national leader in human performance.
Photo by Scott Bruhn/Nebraska Communications

Can UNL Be Capital of Human Performance?

By NU Athletic Communications

Randy York's N-Sider

On Oct. 2, 2004, Judy Burnfield saw Nebraska for the first time, and she admits being a bit puzzled. After driving from California through the Rocky Mountains, she headed straight to downtown Lincoln when she pulled off the Interstate. “I couldn’t figure out why no one was in any of the stores,” she recalled Tuesday. “Then I went down the aisle and into the electronics section and every TV in the store was tuned into the Nebraska football game. I realized very quickly what life is like in Lincoln.”

Nearly nine years later, Burnfield may be one the most important recommended hires that Tom Osborne ever made as a Hall-of-Fame football coach or Nebraska’s athletic director. Meet the new director of the Nebraska Athletic Performance Lab (NAPL). She holds a Ph.D. in biokinesiology from the University of Southern California and, for the first time since arriving in Lincoln to direct the Institute for Rehabilitation Science and Engineering at Lincoln’s Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital, she may have her first real chance to get football tickets inside stadium that’s been sold out for 50 consecutive years.

“I must say I became a Nebraska football fan the first day I got here. I’ve been to some games, and I’m very excited to see more,” she said, admitting her hands are quite full right now. “It’s going to be an awesome opportunity to bring folks together across the campus and throughout the athletic department to help not just football players, but student-athletes from every sport. I’m thrilled to help a broad range of athletes, plus their coaches. We’ll focus on safety and performance and will always have their best interests at heart.”

Her Vision: Be the Capital of Human Performance

If you think that’s a well-thrown pitch to Nebraska recruits across the board, you should hear the ultimate goal burned into the mind of the performance lab’s new director. “A decade from now, our vision is that Lincoln will be the human performance capital of the nation, if not the world,” Burnfield said before appearing on Nebraska AD Shawn Eichorst’s radio program Tuesday night, along with UNL Chancellor Harvey Perman and Dr. Dennis Molfese, who will direct the academic research lab down the hall from Burnfield’s athletic-side office.

That bold vision has its roots in what Burnfield already does. “At Madonna,” she said, “we really focus on the human performance and safety needs of individuals with physical disabilities and chronic conditions.”

At Nebraska, the focus is on academics, athletics and blending the two across environments. When Burnfield agreed to serve on the search committee for the job she was later offered, she was “very excited” to explore the unlimited opportunities to collaborate between two separate facilities – the 20,000 square-foot research lab dedicated to the Center for Brain, Biology and Behavior (CB3) and another 20,000 square-foot facility dedicated to study and improve competitive athletic performance.

She Suggested the Model, Then Accepted the Job

Prem Paul, UNL vice chancellor for research and economic development, asked the search committee he co-chaired with Osborne for ideas that might go “outside the box” to define the director’s responsibilities at the performance lab. “I suggested a potential model that would be cross-organizational, so we could pull together the strengths of both organizations – in terms of both people and the technology side to address the human performance issues across all the environments,” Burnfield said.

Once that model was endorsed, Osborne and Paul knew which hire could galvanize both organizations and capitalize on the inherent strength of each one ... the imminently qualified woman who suggested it.

“It made sense to me,” Osborne said. “Judy has been at Madonna for a number of years and directed research physical therapy at a lab in California before coming here. She has considerable research experience and all the skills we thought were important to run the Nebraska performance lab. She’s very hard-working, and we feel there will be some synergies between Madonna and the 3B research area run by Dr. Molfese. We see a lot of collaboration between our academic and our athletic research areas.”

Innovative Solutions Improve Safety, Performance

The main purpose for the performance lab is to “come up with some innovative solutions that will benefit our student-athletes in terms of their safety and their athletic performance,” Osborne said. “There will be many different things going on – from concussion studies to biomarkers that measure saliva and recovery time to athletic and nutrition supplements to cardiovascular research to athletic equipment issues such as helmet design.

Osborne pointed out that Bryan Heart Institute will be involved in cardiac research and Nebraska Global, a Lincoln-based high-tech software company, will occupy research space in the East Stadium. “There will be many research opportunities, and Judy will be making decisions on which projects we pursue and which ones we turn down,” Osborne said. “Our goal is to make certain that everything benefits our student-athletes.”

According to Osborne, the research area also needs to generate revenue, so the performance lab will not become “a drain” for the Athletic Department. In his third month as AD, Eichorst has given Osborne responsibility to lead the athletic side of the collaborative research relationship.

“I’ll be in a consultative and advisory capacity until the decisions have been made and Judy’s staff is on board,” Osborne said. “When everything’s in place, Judy’s staffers can take it and run with it and I’ll go do something else.”

Burnfield Will ‘Always Have Something Tom Can Do’

Tuesday, Burnfield smiled when Osborne’s quote was repeated.

“I will always have something that Tom can do,” she said. “I have such great respect for him and for everything he does.”

Osborne plans to accelerate his role to help recruit about 3,500 new mentors for the TeamMates organization that he and wife Nancy founded. He also plans to be as accommodating as possible to the University of Nebraska, where he earned a Ph.D. “Any time anybody there wants me to do something, I’ll do it,” he said.

“Even recruiting?” I ask Osborne.

“Even recruiting,” he replied.

Sounds to me like a lifetime opportunity, even if it will have to fit somewhere in between a dinner, a luncheon, a clinic, a seminar or that one “assignment” he probably would cherish most – a fishing hole.

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