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Friday to Saturday, A Legend Grows

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.

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  1. bfahey says:

    I want that alarm clock. Do you sell them in the Pre-Snap Read gift shop?

    Paul: I’ve seen them with my own two eyes. Though I never actually heard the alarm go off, any Nebraska clock that plays highlights of past glory clearly has Rodgers’ punt return on it. But I am guessing.

  2. Burnt Orange says:

    Great article about a fine player. One of your best.

  3. WYHusk says:

    Damn right that’s how we like it. Great article.

  4. Josh says:

    Fantastic article. Us folks in Nebraska couldn’t be happier to have him as our “Superman”. Thank You for the good read.

  5. UltimaRatioRegum says:

    “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.”

    Let’s call it “The Rex Effect”

  6. otis of moab says:

    Burkhead was awesome against MSU last Saturday. Handoff after handoff to Burkhead and MSU was incapable of stopping him. He is a superman on the football field

  7. Nick says:

    Gave me the chills. You nailed one of the things that Husker fans love and showed why we are so lucky to have Rex on our team. Great post!

  8. Dana says:

    I think Clark Kent, somewhere, is wearing a Rex Burkhead jersey!

  9. John says:

    Nice article, although I’m wondering about your allegation that Michigan State players feigned injury late in the game. How did you find this out?

  10. Leon in Denver says:

    Great Article! Rex finally seems to be getting the publicity he deserves.

    This has been building for a while – I can now say Burkhead is my Favorite Husker of All Time. I’m not claiming he’s the best (yet), but he is my Favorite for the way he plays the game. His 2 and 3 yard carries are often more skillful and determined than most of the 50 yard runs we saw in the 80′s and 90′s.
    I’ll be dissapointed if he is not at least on the Heisman Watch List in 2012. He’ll never win because the people who vote on that are more enamoured with Stats than actual play.

  11. Rockyred says:

    One of the best, and truest, articles I have ever read.

  12. Husker Big Guy says:

    We old-timers see a lot of Jeff Kinney in Rex.

  13. Teebonius Rex says:

    Taylor Martinez is quoted somewhere saying that several MSU players were faking injury in the 4th quarter to try and slow the game down. Take this as you will, but i bet that’s where the author got this info.

  14. Joel D says:

    Great piece, Paul. You know, when he was a freshman, an media person asked him during a press conference about being from Plano. “Didn’t you think about going to school down in Austin?” the journalist asked. “Do your friends give you a hard time about not going to Texas?” Rex said, “Yeah. But I visited up here in Lincoln, and I just felt more comfortable here.” That’s all Rex said.

    Burkhead and Nebraska are a perfect fit. [I really that fullback Legate, too ... it's the Nebraska way.]

  15. Ron C says:

    Awesome to see a guy like Rex get his due! We who’ve followed the Huskers since the early 70′s can’t help but see the throwback style that signifies the toughness of Nebraska. From Jeff Kinney to Tony Davis to Rick Berns to Tom Rathman to Corey Schlesinger to the Mackovicka’s to Rex Burkhead! Go Big Red

  16. David says:

    Rex makes NU football fun to watch like nobody I can remember.

  17. Michael Snow says:

    Great story, summed up him better than anyone else’s articles I have read. Im a journalist at UNL right now and hope to be able to write like this one day. Favorite article I have read.

  18. Bryan says:

    @Dana, that was the funniest thing I have read in a long time, I love it. And I do believe that it is true. I love reading articles like this, very nice, and well written Paul. Go Superman, Go Big Red!!!!

  19. Tyler says:

    @John, Brandon Kinnie was also quoted as saying MSU players (multiple) were feigning injuries. There may have been another player at the post game or Monday press conference who mentioned it as well but I dont recall.

  20. Michael says:

    Excellent Article.

  21. Patrick says:

    I don’t doubt that Burkhead is a quality young man. But I’m pretty sure that Nebraska’s defense holding MSU to 86 yards passing and 3 points was a much bigger factor in the game than Burkhead’s 3.7 ypc.

  22. Paul H says:

    @Patrick – not to minimize what the defense did (they played fantastic), but a major reason why they were able to hold MSU to so few yards was because Nebraska was able to control the clock and the tempo with Burkhead. There were at least 5 times that I counted when MSU had Nebraska stopped and Rex somehow broke a tackle or juked a guy or made a spin move to get the last yard needed for a first down. Without his effort, MSU’s offense would have been getting the ball back a lot sooner and they would have had a lot more possesions, which would have likely lead to more yards and perhaps points. Our D was spectactular, but some of that was due to not having to play much in the 2nd half.

  23. Frank Curran says:

    Thanks for a great article. We love Rex in Nebraska because of his play. We love him even more because of the young man he is–principled and caring about others.

  24. Craig says:

    I went to my first Nebraska game in 1958 and sat in the north end knothole section for fifty cents. “It’s a big-time program with a small-time feel.” Perfect…You nailed it exactly. Great read. Thanks

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