All-Big Ten running back Rex Burkhead says he wants to be a more vocal leader as a senior..
Photo by BreAnna Haessler/NU Media Relations

Rex Q&A: The Player, The Leader, The Man

By NU Athletic Communications

Randy York's N-Sider

The day before he caught a private plane to Chicago, where he became a featured attraction at the Big Ten Conference's annual media event, Rex Burkhead sat in a conference room inside Nebraska's Student-Life Complex. Wearing a Team Jack Pray wristband on one hand and a wristband on the other, Burkhead was sharing ideas to support the newest student-athlete organization on Nebraska's campus. In the room with him were teammates C.J. Zimmerer and Ron Kellogg III, along with, among others, Keith Zimmer, Nebraska's associate athletic director for Life Skills; Jamie Vaughn, NU's new associate AD for Compliance, Chris Anderson, associate AD for Community Relations and Jeff Jamrog, assistant athletic director for Football Operations. The N-Sider interviewed Burkhead immediately after that meeting, so the "Uplifting Athletes" session was the natural place to start.

Q: That was a productive meeting on a topic near and dear to your heart but it is outside the bounds of football. What does starting a chapter of Uplifting Athletes at Nebraska mean to you?

A: Seeing the support my teammates have given Jack and what he's going through has been awesome. When I see all these guys wearing the wristbands like I wear, I know why. It inspires them like it inspires me. Every week they ask how Jack's doing, and that just shows the heart this team has. Coach Bo has instilled lot of that in all of us, but we started this charitable foundation to support Jack on our own, and I think it shows where our players are coming from and what we believe in. We're more than just football players. We have strong hearts and strong feelings for people out there who aren't as privileged as us. Yes, we are college football players, but we can use our platform to promote other things and give back to the community. That comes from Coach Osborne and Coach Bo on down, and it does mean a lot to me.

Q: Speaking of Coach Bo, this is his first true senior class at Nebraska. What does that mean to you and all the other seniors?

A: The conference championship is our goal every season, and since we haven't won one yet, this is our last chance, and we want to go out with a bang. Our class feels like we were the ones that started the rebuilding job. We have high expectations. That's what this program is about and what this university is about and what Coach Bo is about. He preaches that as long as we focus on that process day in and day out, the results will take care of themselves. We're taking care of ourselves and our teammates and doing the best we can do and feel good about taking on the challenge of winning a championship.

Q: What influence did that military experience with the Navy Seals have last spring?

A: It helped me recognize that leading by example isn't enough. It helped me realize not only when to say something, but to look for those opportunities to say something. It's made me more aware of what's going on and how to sense the emotions of those around me. We can't be up one game and then down the next. We need an even-keel approach so we can make sure we're all on the right track. And that means I have to be more vocal about different things. Just working hard and hoping everyone else follows that example isn't enough. I need to bring a passion and a fire vocally when needed.

Q: Talking to several players, it's my understanding the team has resolved to be more consistent. Is that true?

A: We have a lot of seniors, and consistency is a huge thing with all of us. Last year, we'd be up one week and down the next and then back up again and down again. That's what it felt like, and we all realized that can't happen anymore. We have to be consistent in everything we do, and that comes from holding each other accountable. First, we set high standards for ourselves and then we hold our teammates to those same high standards. That's something we really focused on this off-season. I mean, we did many, many drills where if we didn't do them perfect, we re-started and made sure we did. We had to make sure everyone was on the same page all the time, not just some of the time.

Q: Rumor has it that James Dobson has implemented some creative ways to train. Can you elaborate?

A: I'm very excited because we have changed up some things in the off-season. If you do the same things you've always done, you're going to get the same results, and we don't want those same results. We weren't just changing up how people go about their business in one or two positions. Every position was changing. We had leaders at those positions, holding everyone accountable and bringing the younger guys together and making sure they were on the right page, too. It was critical and you could tell the difference. The younger guys took it seriously and were competitive every day. That attitude carried on, and I think we found a way to turn that into a habit as the off-season wore on. We continued to do those things every day throughout the summer. It's instilled in our blood stream that much more.

Q: What are some of the things you've done differently in the off-season?

A: One example was what we would do after conditioning. We'd have to get in our stretch lines and get all lined up in under a minute. Then we'd go through push-ups or a mountain-climber routine. We all had to be on the same page foot by foot, hands on the line and everyone lined up right next to each other. We all had to be on the same page and that was after conditioning. If we did well in conditioning and then screwed up at the end, then it wasn't good enough. Coach Dobson pretty much told us that every day. In essence, it won't ever be good enough until we win. That was our mindset. Perfection is what we strive for. I mean, it's unattainable, but you can always strive for it and go that extra mile. The closer you are to perfection, the higher percentage you'll have for success.

Q: Why are you so excited about the way this team has come together after losing the Capital One Bowl?

A: After seeing our potential and knowing what we're capable of and then realizing what we didn't obtain has been a huge driving force for us all year. I feel like we have a great bond. I felt that way last year, too, but this year, that bond is on and off the field. And that love for each other is huge. When you love going to work every day with the guys next to you and love hanging out with them, that's when you get the best results because you have that energy every day in practice. Whenever you sacrifice for your teammates and do everything you can, you help your team win.

Q: What's behind the tighter bond? Where's it coming from?

A: We'd get the team together more than we ever have. We've had barbecues, paint bullets, slip'n'slides ... oh man, we've done a lot of things together. We went to Branched Oak Lake and had a lot of fun there. It's good when you bring everyone together, especially the younger kids. A lot of them haven't seen much of Lincoln and don't really know what's out here. It's been a great summer for the young guys to connect with the older guys.

Q: Who are the leaders that keep emerging on this team besides you?  

A: Will (Compton) has done a tremendous job. Kyler (Reed) and Ben Cotton. Quincy Enunwa, Kenny Bell, Tim Marlowe. They've done a great job leading the receivers. You got Taylor (Martinez). Ron Kellogg has done a tremendous job. Spencer Long, (Jeremiah) Sirles are bringing guys along. Justin Jackson- is a tough kid and really pushes guys in workouts. Andrew Green has done a great job leading the DBs. (Alon)Zo Whaley has been really good. You got Baker (Steinkuhler) leading those guys on the D-line. There are so many leaders; you can't name 'em all.

Q: What's the one thing about Rex Burkhead that your family and your closest friends know about you but others don't?

A: That's a good question but hard to answer. I'm really close to my parents and my brother. When people see you play on TV, they don't know all the work that goes into it and how important it is to have a supportive family. My parents let me compete in everything and always made sure I got to practices. I even did travel baseball games when I was younger. They knew I had a strong passion for football, basketball and baseball and they did everything in their power to make sure I was able to have the opportunity to reach my goals. They knew I was very driven, and they were willing to do whatever it took to help me.

Q: How much influence did your older brother, Ryan, have on you?

A: He had a big influence on me, especially when it came to the way he worked. He would stay up all night studying. That's why he got the opportunity to go to Harvard and play football there (as a defensive end) and graduate there. He was a big inspiration to me. I got to play with him when I was freshman and he was a senior in high school. Every day, he would go straight to the weight room right after practice while other guys were going home. He kind of showed me the way to go about my business. That's something he instilled in me. He showed me what it really took to be successful.

Q: Who's your role model besides your dad, your mom and your brother?

A: God has the biggest influence on me in everything I do, spiritually and morally. He lays that foundation, and everything is built on having that relationship with Him. He's that voice in your head, encouraging you to help others. He has a path for you, and He's going to take care of you. Just understanding that gives me peace. As far as other role models, I'd have to say Barry Sanders. He was my guy growing up. I loved the way he played the game of football and the way he would hand the ball to the referee after he scored. I've never had the chance to meet him, but he seems like a great guy. In his interviews, he always seems very humble, and he always thanks his teammates and his offensive line because they were the ones who opened the holes for him. Coach (Ron) Brown has been a big influence as well in the way he goes about his business. I hope someday I'm in as good a shape as he is at that age. He is very disciplined in every way he goes about his life. Discipline is something I really take from him. He's the same person every day. He stands up for what he believes in, and he just seems fearless in everything he does. His attitude is passion for football and for his spiritual life as well, and that's something I have the utmost respect for.

Q:  What lesson did Nebraska learn most in Year One in the Big Ten?

A: That football is just football. It doesn't matter what conference you're in or who you're playing. If you're playing a younger team or an older team or a team from another country, it doesn't matter. Football always comes down to those little details. It's not what formation you're in or the calls you make. It all comes down to execution, and execution is all about doing the little things right and doing them better than the team across from you. Winning depends on how you prepare in the off-season and how you train your mind for the upcoming season. If you do that, you can handle any situation that will come your way.  

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