Randy York’s N-Sider
Saturday is Senior
Day at Nebraska, and Rex
Burkhead isn’t sure if he’ll be able to play because of that nagging
knee injury that’s kept him on the sidelines for most of the season. If he can’t
play, another Nebraska sellout crowd will be disappointed. Rex is, after
all, one of the most popular players in Husker history.
He’s so popular, in fact, that Nebraska built a classy
website called RexBurkhead22 to
promote name recognition for possible postseason honors. Nowhere were the words
Heisman Trophy mentioned, but let’s be honest. With the likely possibility that
Rex would become the No. 2 rusher in Nebraska football history, that was the
implication. Why else would the website’s tagline become “The most complete
player in college football”?
Please go back and read that phrase again. Rex’s coaches,
teammates and Nebraska fans saw no hype in that statement. Waiting for it to
all unfold was like waiting for a new bottle of ketchup to break loose at a
family cookout. We were all ready to add 22 exclamation points to that phrase
and emulate the way Greg Sharpe would have articulated it with his usual vigor,
verve and vitality.
That’s the bad news. The best-laid plans went awry more
than once. The good news is he’s been able to lead his teammates throughout the
season whenever he's been forced to help coach Nebraska's younger running backs from the sideline. Their development has been pivotal in keeping Nebraska in contention for the Big Ten Championship.
Has a Place for Rex in his Notebook
Count freshman I-back Imani
Cross as one who’s been a sponge soaking up all the wisdom he can from
Burkhead. “I keep a notebook,” Cross told me earlier this week. “I have a
category in my mind called ‘Whenever I get injured’ and when that happens, I
want to deal with it exactly like Rex has. He’s done everything possible to get
back on the field, and we all want him back there. We know how frustrating it
has to be, yet he’s always handled it like he handles everything else – with total
We all know which Husker will draw the loudest cheer when
29 seniors are introduced before the game ... Rex Burkhead, who arrived in
Lincoln with the reputation of being Superman because there wasn’t anything he
couldn’t do in high school. This fall, his teammates brought back that title
for a much different reason. A quiet, humble Christian, Burkhead never liked
that title in high school, but he considers it a high honor when it resurfaced.
Superman, you must understand, is the label that Jack
Hoffman, the 6-year-old brain cancer patient that Burkhead befriended 14
months ago, used to describe his big buddy while he went through a series of
tests to prepare for surgery at Boston Children’s Hospital in October of 2011.
“We’ve never shared this story before because it’s always
been private between Rex and Jack, but Jack is asleep here now (in Omaha) after a full-day of
chemotherapy,” Andy Hoffman said late Friday afternoon. “As much as Jack is
looking forward to cheering Rex when he comes out of the Tunnel tomorrow, I don’t
think he would mind me explaining why we call Rex Superman.”
Badge of Courage: A
Simple Coloring Book
Hoffman, Jack’s dad, puts his mind in reverse and
backs us up to a Wednesday in Boston, six days before Jack was scheduled for
brain cancer surgery. “He had his coloring book, and he came across a picture
of Superman, so he colored it,” Andy recalled. “He asked me to come over and
look at it, and I told him ‘nice job.’ Then I noticed what he put at the bottom
in red crayon ... Rex! He told me Superman reminded him of Rex and he wanted to
send the picture he colored to Rex before the Ohio State game. So we got an
envelope and some stamps and sent it to Rex at Memorial Stadium.”
You can probably guess the rest of the story. Nebraska “came
all the way back” from a 27-6 second-half deficit to beat the Buckeyes, 34-27.
It was the largest comeback in Nebraska history, and Rex Burkhead was the
Huskers’ version of Superman, so much so that the game’s announcers on national
television referred to the motivation Rex used to put some extra jets in shoes.
On the Saturday night before Jack’s Monday morning surgery
in Boston, countless fans across the country, whether they were Nebraska fans
or not, put a kid they didn’t know in their Saturday night prayers.
“There’s something else we didn’t know until he called us
on the day after Jack’s surgery,” Andy Hoffman related late Friday afternoon. “When
I held up the cell phone so Rex could talk to him in his hospital bed, he thanked
Jack for sending the Superman picture and said he got it in the mail at the
Stadium on that Saturday (the same day of
the Ohio State game).”
Favorite Highlight: Ohio
On the eve of Burkhead’s final regular-season game in
Memorial Stadium, the pride of Plano confirms that the comeback win against the
Buckeyes was his most memorable moment at Nebraska for a couple reasons.
First, “Just the excitement in the stands and the locker
room after coming back to win was unbelievable,” Rex said. “We knew the game
meant a lot to the coaches and to go out there and get a win for them was very
Secondly, well, this reason goes way beyond football and right
into the heart, mind, eyes and ears of a then 6-year-old boy who needed his own
version of “Superman” to help him get through a grueling surgery and everything
that came after it.
Yes, it will be a shame if Burkhead can’t play again
Saturday on a day that honors not only 29 seniors, but also Tom Osborne’s last
regular season home game – Milestone Game No. 500 overall as an employee of the
Nebraska Athletic Department.
Athletes Uplifts Rex’s Spirits
Superman may not be able to handle all the physical
requirements to get back in a huddle and onto the field, but Burkhead continues
to embrace Uplifting
Athletes, a Nebraska football chapter that continues to raise money to
help fight pediatric brain cancer.
And understand this. No matter how emotional it gets for
Burkhead when he walks out of the Nebraska Tunnel for one final grand entrance
on Saturday, it will not match the intensity or the deep-rooted spirituality of
the Tunnel Walk he experienced before this year’s Wisconsin game.
For that game, Burkhead put his arm on Jack’s back while
teammate Quincy Enunwa escorted Isaiah Cassias, another pediatric brain cancer
patient, to lead theTunnel Walk. Nebraska Head Coach Bo Pelini greeted both cancer
fighters, and the Huskers pulled off another one of their 2012 miracle
comebacks against the Badgers.
“That game against Wisconsin to start off Big Ten play
was not only great because we came back from 17 points behind, but because of
everything else surrounding it,” Burkhead said. “We had new uniforms. It was
the first Big Ten game of my senior year, and we walked through the tunnel
before the game with two courageous kids fighting cancer. It was a very
emotional setting walking with Jack and Isaiah – something I will always
Bo Took Accountability to New Level
Burkhead takes pride in playing a leadership role to
change the culture at Nebraska “by lifting the level of accountability to a new
level,” he said. “We all learned that you can’t just arrive one day and not the
Pelini let us know that our preparation and the process that goes into
being successful is an ‘all-the-time thing’.
“It’s a privilege to play at Nebraska because this is
such an historic program,” Burkhead said. “The tradition has passed from the
teams of the past, and it’s something that you can feel every time you strap on
the helmet. Those expectations are what motivate us to give everything we have
day in and day out. Where else do you find a whole state that virtually shuts
down on game days? Nebraska football means to much to the people of Nebraska,
it’s unbelievable. There is no question we feel that love and support from our
And that brings us to the bottom line of Bo Pelini’s
fifth-year class of seniors bent on becoming Nebraska’s first conference
championship team since 2009. “Having the opportunity to put Nebraska back on
the championship map is a huge deal for all of us,” Burkead said. “When we got
here, that was the goal we set out to achieve. We’ve gotten close, but haven’t
finished yet. We want to finish it off this year and play in th Rose Bowl.”
Burkhead still almost has to pinch himself when he thinks
about spending four years in the same program with Tom
Osborne and Bo
Pelini. “Coach Osborne is a great role model for anybody,” Burkhead said.
“He’s done so much not just for the football team, but the university and the state
as well. The character that he conducts himself with is something I look up to,
and I know many other student-athletes feel the same way.
Wants to Win One for Bo
“Coach Pelini,” Burkhead added, “has meant a lot to me
and to my development as a person and a player. He would do anything for his
players, and I love playing for him. He loves to compete, and he’s very passionate
about the game. That’s what I want in my head coach, and why I want to do my
part to help us all win a championship.”
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