IOWA CITY — Five years ago Friday, on a bitterly cold afternoon in the mountains, Bill Callahan coached his last Nebraska game.
Playing for bowl eligibility, his team blew an 11-point lead to Colorado, giving up 41 points in the second half.
The 65-51 final score was an embarrassment, but worse, the Huskers didn't seem to fight. This was a listless football program, devoid of the intangible qualities that separated Nebraska from its peers, year after year, decade after decade.
Three months later, Callahan's successor offered a scholarship to Rex Burkhead.
Bo Pelini has made hundreds of decisions over the past five years, some good, some bad, some memorable, some meaningless. Targeting Burkhead may have been his best.
But Friday afternoon, on a bitterly cold afternoon on the plains, the reward for five years of painstaking reconstruction was in jeopardy. Lose to Iowa and suddenly Nebraska might not even make Indianapolis, let alone win its first conference championship since 1999.
Trailing 7-3 at halftime, Pelini needed a strong finish. To whom would he turn?
He emerged from the locker room and found No. 22. This was supposed to be Rex's season. He was supposed to add to his legacy. Get another 1,000 yards, earn all-Big Ten honors, maybe even mount a Heisman run.
Instead Burkhead has spent most of the past three months waiting for his left knee to heal. He sprained it in the first quarter of the season opener. He hurt it again at Ohio State — and again at Northwestern. That's the last time he played.
Five weeks he watched from the sideline as Nebraska streaked toward a Legends Division crown. Did NU even need him anymore?
Pelini planned to use him Friday only in an emergency. He wanted to give Burkhead's knee, supported by a brace, one more week. But the cold and wind had rendered Nebraska's offense futile in the first half.
“I thought we needed him,” Bo said. “I thought it was something that would give us an emotional boost.”
Moments before the second-half kickoff, Bo asked a question Rex had waited weeks to hear: Are you ready?
“Absolutely,” Burkhead said. “Let's do this.”
Teammates didn't know he was going into the game, not even the quarterback.
“I had no clue,” Taylor Martinez said. “I just looked back and I saw him. I was like, 'Awesome.'”
Burkhead took Nebraska's first offensive snap for four yards. He gained five on fourth-and-1. Two drives later, he scored from three yards out, giving NU the lead.
Burkhead still didn't feel comfortable, he said. Not until Nebraska took over a foot from its goal line, facing the north wind, with 12 minutes left.
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“I was a little nervous,” Bo said. “I told them, just give me one first down.”
On second down from the 2, Burkhead took an inside handoff and powered into the line. The play looked like it would gain a few yards. But with seven Hawkeyes on his back, Burkhead leaned on that left knee and dragged the pile forward, crossing the 7, the 8, the 9, the 10, the first-down marker.
The next play, he did it again. He got hit at the 14 and pushed another cluster of nine Hawkeyes to the 19.
It was classic Burkhead, the type of runs that made him a cult hero in 2009 and '10, the type of runs that made him a star in 2011. The kind of plays that prompted Ben Cotton after the game to call him a “stallion,” the kind of plays that moved Ron Brown to the brink of tears.
“He's got a willingness to win and a great desire that's undeniable,” Brown told me. “It's a spirit — it's a heart and soul that goes beyond just his power and his strength.”
Five years after that miserable day in Boulder, the Huskers are not a national title contender. They aren't even in the Top 10. But dangit, they fight. With a stiff wind in their face, they entered this Big Ten scrum and pushed the pile all the way to Indy.
Now their leader is back.
After Burkhead sealed the game with a third-and-3 conversion — he gained 60 yards on 10 carries in the fourth quarter — the regular-season clock expired. Teammates strutted toward the locker room, pumping their fists to the Husker crowd. Eric Martin raised the Heroes Game trophy.
Back at midfield, Burkhead was the last one on the turf, waiting for the ABC sideline reporter to get her cue and ask him questions. A few hundred fans huddled near the tunnel, waiting to release one more roar. Finally, when the interview was over, Burkhead turned toward them and ran.
This time he had the wind at his back.
Contact the writer:
402-649-1461, firstname.lastname@example.org; twitter.com/dirkchatelain
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>> Video: Nebraska-Iowa postgame analysis with Rich Kaipust:
>> Video: NU's Rex Burkhead after the Iowa game: