Isaiah (left) and Jack get personal Tunnel Walk escorts for the Wisconsin game.
Photo by Scott Bruhn/Nebraska Communications

Rex Highpoint: Tunnel Walk with His Buddies

By NU Athletic Communications

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.

Cross 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 class.”

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

Andy 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 State Comeback

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 rewarding.”

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.

Uplifting 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 remember.”

Rex: 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 next. Bo 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 fans.”

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.

Superman 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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