ORLANDO, Fla. — The cowboy's saddled up. The last ride is here. One more game and Rex Burkhead leaves Nebraska, starts searching for the sun.
Oh, he'll be back. Burkhead won't ever be far from Memorial Stadium on a fall Saturday.
But as what?
Five years, 10 years, 20 years from now. What will Burkhead be doing with himself?
Will he be a surgeon saving lives? Dr. Rex?
A lawyer making a passionate case to the Supreme Court, with a dash of common sense and a wink of his eye?
How about Rex Burkhead, the esteemed governor of the state of Nebraska?
“Nah,” says senior defensive end Cam Meredith. “Not a politician. Politicians are too dirty.”
“He's too good a guy for that,” said linebacker Will Compton.
“I could see him being a missionary or something,” Meredith added.
Missionary? How about spreading the gospel of Nebraska down in Texas?
“I think he wants to be a teacher,” senior tight end Ben Cotton said. “I can definitely see him being a teacher, giving kids something to hold onto the rest of their lives.”
You're getting closer, Ben. Very close.
“I'd like to play (in the NFL) as long as I can, then I'd like to coach, whether it's a high school level or whatever,” Burkhead said. “I'd like to teach, probably high school, just because of the development of kids at that time.”
Perfect. Any openings for a coach in Millard or Elkhorn?
“I feel like I'll go back to Texas,” Rex said. “I love the weather down there, love it down there. Probably the Dallas area or Houston.”
Burkhead is one of the most popular Huskers in the history of popular Huskers. Some of them pitch their tents in Nebraska, find jobs, raise families, milk that popularity, find their comfort zone, forever. It's the good life, remember?
This hombre named Rex will head back south soon, start training for his next career, a shot at the NFL, the Combine, all that jazz. It will be hard to believe that Burkhead won't be in and around Nebraska. It seems like he just got here. But he's a Texan at heart, with a heart the size of Texas.
This is the part where I bring up legacy. Typically these things are clear cut. Easy to define. Not so with Rex.
He arrived here as a superstar-in-waiting, a guy with the goods from day one. He trained as a role player, a utility guy, a handy man who could run and block and catch and occasionally throw. He was waiting his turn.
But stuff happens along the way, coordinators change, offenses flip, injuries happen. Rex is a mudder, a grinder and a cowboy who doesn't get bucked off the horse easy. He ended up with 3,189 rushing yards, good for fifth all-time on a Nebraska rushing chart made of gold.
Now I sit here, waiting for Burkhead's last hurrah, trying to put his career into perspective. Sure, he's the Boy Scout next door, the role model for a state, the jersey number most likely to be spotted in the Memorial Stadium stands. Rex Burkhead isn't Jack Armstrong. Jack Armstrong is Rex Burkhead.
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We know all that, and yet, a running back should be allowed a legacy that you can wrap your memory around, some signature run through the jungle of a defense, like Indiana Jones, barreling to the end zone. There should be a game where he put the stadium on his back and won the championship. It's the decent and proper thing for a star, a player of true stature.
I've been reminded time and again that I'm missing the point with Rex.
On Saturday, running backs coach Ron Brown offered the reminder. This is why I talk to Coach Brown.
“I could sure see that,” Brown said of Burkhead's desire to coach. “I think he would be a tribute to the profession. He would be a guy who would challenge people, his work ethic, he's the right kind of man, all those things. Whatever God has planned for him, it starts internally. And that really is what Rex Burkhead is about. It really doesn't matter what he does. What really matters is that he takes care of the stuff inside.”
The stuff inside. That's what we'll remember about Burkhead. His legacy is in the little things that win games, the invisible stuff, the things we can't see at practice and in the locker room. Burrowing for that extra four yards at Iowa. How he was already “coaching” young backs Ameer Abdullah and Imani Cross this season.
Back in October, I thought Burkhead had found his legacy game. Early in the game at Ohio State, with Nebraska sputtering deep in its end, Burkhead took a handoff, waited for an opening, cut back and went 73 yards. The play jump-started the Big Red. Then, King Rex went under center twice near the goal line and pitched the ball to Abdullah for two touchdown plays.
There it was, I thought. Nebraska's going to win this game. This will be Rex's big moment.
It wasn't meant to be. The defense collapsed. There were turnovers. And, of course, Burkhead left with that knee injury.
He never really returned. But even as some of us feel like he got cheated out of his senior year, the storybook finish, Burkhead could only see the sun shine.
“It's something God has in store for me, it's his plan,” Burkhead said. “It's been a blessing in disguise, makes me appreciate the game and the opportunity you have out there. You have to make the most of it.”
There's a reason that most legends become legends. They play on great teams, teams they help lift, but teams that are there for them, too. Their big moments hold up. Burkhead didn't have that team. He needed some better luck with injuries, too.
But some legends are bigger than the games they play. That's Rex Burkhead. His signature moment is every moment of his life.
When we see him years from now, back at a Nebraska game, we may not be able to remember a specific run. But that's it. With Burkhead, it wasn't what he did, it was always how he did it.
“I think it's always nice to have a signature type of a play,” Brown said. “But really, the signature moments for Rex Burkhead is that he's such a great all-around player. That's what makes him special.
“I would just love to see him finish it off with a signature game, vintage Rex style. We've seen all those moments of him finishing a game off, the four-minute offense, churning for more yards.
“But the fact that he's such a great all-around kid, he's already been validated.”
Call me selfish. I'd still like to see Burkhead go out in Rex style on Tuesday, go for 150, a couple touchdowns, the clincher late in the shadows. That's the writer's Hollywood script.
How would the Cowboy write his perfect ending?
“Just win,” Burkhead said.
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