Friday to Saturday, A Legend Grows
By Paul Myerberg // Nov 1, 2011
Nebraska’s Rex Burkhead is a Friday night legend, a walking, talking character from “Friday Night Lights” come to life minus the soap opera twists. At powerhouse Plano High School in Texas, Burkhead was nicknamed “Superman” not just for his on-field exploits, which were otherworldly, but also for his leadership qualities, which were nearly as legendary. Any number of kids in Plano — say, anywhere from age 1o to 16, 17, 18 — have pictures of Burkhead on their bedroom wall, emulating not just his record-setting rushing output but also the way he seemed to embody the all-American qualities born and bred in the boys in that football-crazed state. He’s a legend on Fridays, a TV character come to life, and his legend is growing on Saturdays.
As the backup to the since-graduated Roy Helu, Burkhead made his mark in several different way as a freshman and sophomore: as a return man, on third down, in the Wildcat and so on. As a freshman, Burkhead rushed for 346 yards despite missing five games with a broken foot; when he returned to full health, Burkhead helped lead Nebraska to its first 10-win season since 2003.
He took on a larger role last fall, helping form one part of Nebraska’s gifted running threesome — joining Helu and quarterback Taylor Martinez. Despite again battling midseason dings and bruises, Burkhead rushed for 951 yards with three 100-yard games, adding another 148 yards receiving.
Not overwhelming numbers. But the totals belie how each yard is gained: with toughness, for starters, but also with a blue-collar, old-school style that fits Nebraska like a glove.
And no matter what, Burkhead is always, always falling forward. He never stops moving. His legs churn like pistons, making coaches across the country grin in admiration — there, that’s how it’s done. Burkhead twists, spins and jukes like Bronco Nagurski — not Barry Sanders-like, but old-school. He just keeps moving.
And he’s putting Nebraska on his back. Nebraska played an adult game of football on Saturday, when it imposed its will on Michigan State and kept adding weight and weight and more weight until the Spartans, tired and demoralized, spent most of the fourth quarter eyeballing the comfort of a whirlpool bath and a few weeks in the training room.
Burkhead was the driving force behind Nebraska’s physical, fashion-free manhandling of the Spartans. After three quarters, Burkhead had 30 carries for 111 yards. Only one other running back, true freshman Aaron Green, has carried the football. Green had one carry.
After four quarters — and yes, he was taken out of the game eventually — Burkhead had 35 carries for 130 yards and 2 scores; not eye-popping numbers, but it’s easy to miss the forest for the trees. It’s hard to calculate how many times Burkhead turned potential losses into three-yard gains. It’s hard to tabulate how many times he turned no gain into two yards and a key first down.
These are plays that kill an opponent’s will. These plays, along with a quick-pace no-huddle offense, are what led several Michigan State defenders to feign injury in the fourth quarter — that’s college football’s version of no mas, I give up, warm up the bus.
Burkhead’s is a legend that’s being written in real time. Case in point: Burkhead needed to be helped off the field by a pair of Nebraska medical staffers after his 31st carry on Saturday. Memorial Stadium, as expected, held its breath; after all, Burkhead had put this offense on his back all afternoon.
Done? Over? Sidelined? For a play or two, yes. But to cap the drive, there was Burkhead, running a swing pass to the left, who caught a 27-yard scoring pass from Taylor Martinez to seal Nebraska’s win.
These are legendary moments, especially for a fan base hungry for a next-level team — and players — worthy of national publicity. And yes, there are schools where doing what Burkhead did on Saturday takes on an added meaning; Nebraska’s one of schools.
Nebraska is Plano North, in short — or Plano is Nebraska South, rather. It’s a big-time program with a small-time feel, where fans still wake up to alarm clocks blaring Lyell Bremser’s call of Johnny Rodgers’ punt return in 1971 and memories, when they’re made, last not just a lifetime but lifetimes.
It’s a perfect place for a no-frills, no-flash, old-school running back to continue writing his legend. We probably should have expected nothing else: the day may have changed, with Saturday replacing Friday, but the results — on the field, in the locker room, within the program and in Lincoln — are more 1971 than 2011. I think that’s how Nebraska likes it.
You can also follow Paul Myerberg and Pre-Snap Read on Twitter.
Tags: Nebraska, Rex Burkhead
Leave a Comment