He rode into town four years ago, from Texas. He tipped his hat. He called everyone “sir” or “ma'am.” He became the kid Husker fans most wanted to carry the football or marry their daughter.
Rex Burkhead. Husker Hero. Easy legend. The cowboy has worn it well.
I'll never forget after the 2009 Holiday Bowl win over Arizona, back at the Nebraska team hotel. There was a large clump of Nebraska fans, circling around a player. It was King Rex, the freshman, who had run for 89 yards and a touchdown in the bowl game. He had missed five games to injury that year, rushed for all of 346 yards.
But this was a kid people wanted to be around, someone they gravitated toward like a magnet.
Times flies when you're a legend. Four years later, Rex rides out of Memorial Stadium for the last time today.
He hasn't had the senior year he wanted. But he's had the career that every fan dreams about.
Has there ever been a more popular player in Nebraska history? You can't go 10 feet around Memorial Stadium without seeing a No. 22 jersey.
Burkhead is adored and respected by fans, media, teammates and coaches. He's the gamer, the warrior, the Husker Seal. He will be remembered not necessarily for what he did, but for how he did it.
Which makes for an interesting “game-time” decision today for Burkhead, who will decide how to write the ending of his Nebraska fairy tale.
Burkhead's senior year has been rudely interrupted by an MCL knee sprain that won't go away. Burkhead first suffered the injury right out of the blocks in the season opener. Then he reinjured it as he was having a magnificent game at Ohio State. Then, again on his first carry at Northwestern, back on Oct. 20.
Now he's back, or very close to back. He practiced this week. He could play today, Senior Day, his last game at Memorial Stadium.
That is, unless he decides to hold off, not risk a fourth injury, a potential season-ending injury, and come back in two weeks for the Big Ten championship game. Assuming the Huskers beat Minnesota and Iowa, games they will be favored to win, without him.
Nebraska coach Bo Pelini called Burkhead's status a “game-time decision.” But the coaching staff is going to lean heavily on Burkhead's opinion today. If he wants to go, he's going to go. If not, he won't.
What's a legend to do?
It's in Burkhead's DNA to strap it on and play today. Throw caution to the late-season wind. He's the definition of a competitor. Competitors compete, regardless of the risk.
It's been suggested that Burkhead would take a ceremonial carry, just to say he did, one last time, for old times. But that's not Rex. He's nobody's ceremonial player. If he plays, it's all out.
If he plays, Burkhead's legacy remains intact, even if his knee doesn't. If he did go down, he'd be going out his way, the only way the cowboy knows how.
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That's not saying Burkhead will definitely reinjure the knee. There's a good chance it's rested enough that he would survive it. But given the history of this season, the risk is evident.
So wouldn't Rex, the ultimate team guy, be doing the team a favor by waiting until that potential Big Ten battle with Wisconsin? Wouldn't two more weeks of rest and recuperation make for a better Burkhead? And when Rex comes back, it's bound to be a jolt of adrenaline for the entire team. Isn't that better used against Wisconsin in Indy than Minnesota in Lincoln?
Given what's at stake down the road, Nebraska coaches should hold him out until Indy. And maybe they would do that with any other player. But this isn't any other player. Pelini and Co. have so much respect for Burkhead and what he's accomplished, what he's meant. They're going to listen to what Rex's body tells him.
But will he listen to his knee? Or his heart?
You'd think this would be a slam dunk that Rex plays. But earlier this week, Burkhead hinted that he might sit, acknowledging that it might be smarter to wait for the big stuff down the road. Burkhead leading the Huskers to the Rose Bowl? That's the stuff of legends.
Those who know Rex wouldn't be surprised if he decided to wait.
“I think he's started to look at himself more objectively and say, 'you know, I'm not ready yet this week,'” said NU running backs coach Ron Brown. “I think he would have tried to force it before.”
That could be maturity. That could be the cowboy saying that the tangible stuff, the brass ring, does matter. He's said bringing home a championship is what drives him.
Now that he's this close, who could blame him for wanting to make sure he was able to make the ride?
A Rose Bowl can't make or break Burkhead's career. But a crown on his head would add definition and make up for some hard luck on the field.
Question: In 10 years, what will we remember about Burkhead? We'll recall a true gentleman of the game. The best friend to a kid with a brain tumor. A role model deluxe.
The man of constant motion on the field. The wildcat. The competitor furiously rushing to beat Ohio State.
We don't remember records. We remember photo albums. Burkhead's highlight reel has seemed incomplete, but man, it looked like he was going to add the greatest chapter this year in Columbus, with a signature long run and two touchdowns with him playing quarterback.
Fate had a different idea, and we've all been waiting for Rex to get back into everybody's favorite jersey, and back onto the field to finish the storybook.
“What will we remember about him? That he was one of the best football players ever to play here, in terms of do it all,” Brown said. “He's a hero because he maximized about everything that God has given him. He hasn't let his things go to waste.”
nobody will be surprised if Burkhead bounds off the sideline and into the backfield today. He won't let one moment of his career, of his life, go to waste.
Whatever he does, it won't change how he's remembered around the program. Brown was telling Rex stories the other day. His favorite: Burkhead forgot his playbook earlier this year, left it in Brown's office. Brown instructed him to do a paper on responsibility. Brown said some of his former players still owe him a paper.
Burkhead turned it in the next day, with quotes from Thomas Jefferson and other historical figures he looked up.
Brown said Burkhead has been leading in the team room the past month, putting his arm around the young running backs, encouraging the team from his spot on the sideline. That's the thing you expect from the Rex you know.
I asked Brown if Burkhead reminded him of anyone, in sports, entertainment or politics. A famous figure. He thought about it for a minute.
“A little bit of a Kevin Costner,” Brown said. “He doesn't seem to be over-intense, just kind of a smooth, soft voice. But when he's out on the field, he's a ball of energy and explosion.
“Of all the time I've been here, 22 years, I'm trying to think: Who is he like? I don't think he's really like anybody else. He's Rex.”
He's a Nebraska original. His own man. And that's the thing about wanting Burkhead to do this or that with his comeback. If the cowboy has shown us anything in four years, it's this: a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do.
Contact the writer:
402-444-1025, firstname.lastname@example.org, twitter.com/tomshatelOWH
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