What do you give the king who has almost everything?
Give him a 150-yard, three-touchdown game in a beat-down of Bucky Badger on the national tube. Sweet revenge served on a platter, courtesy of No. 22.
Put the ball in his hands in the fourth quarter against Michigan. Final drive. Down by three. Third-and-goal. He slams into the line, pulling, kicking, dragging two defenders over the goal line.
Now let's fast-forward to the first weekend in December. Roses on the line at Lucas Oil Stadium. The legacy game. The king takes a screen pass and darts 65 yards to the end zone. He clocks out with 25 carries, 200 yards. Teammates carry him off the field, all the way to Pasadena.
Corny, sure. But that's the legacy Rex Burkhead deserves.
It's the one that's missing, the only thing that's missing.
Burkhead's reputation is etched in Nebraska limestone. He's Jack Armstrong (no relation to Tommy). The Husker most likely to become president. The young man who has every father in Nebraska lined up, offering the keys to the family car and a date with the daughter.
But Burkhead's legacy at Nebraska has been written mostly off the field.
What do you remember about him on the field?
It's a timely question. Because here he comes, back for his senior year, and looking to break into the open field and up the storied charts of Nebraska running back lore.
Mr. Dependable was a role player until last season, when he started all 13 games. In three seasons (15 starts), he has 2,654 career rushing yards — 12th in school history.
Burkhead rushed for 1,357 yards in 2011. Give him a conservative 2012 season with 1,200 yards, that puts him at 3,854 for a career.
And look who he jumps over in the history pages.
Derek Brown. Cory Ross. Dahrran Diedrick. Lawrence Phillips. I.M. Hipp. Ken Clark. Calvin Jones. Roy Helu. Eric Crouch.
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If King Rex can get to 1,227 yards, he'll vault over Ahman Green and into the No. 2 spot all time, behind the uncatchable Mike Rozier (4,780).
That would be a pretty lofty residence. But now go to the unofficial rankings in your mind, your memory. Would King Rex be among your top five Husker running backs?
Everyone has their favorites. But many Husker fans' lists would not be complete without Phillips, Rozier, Green, Roger Craig or Jeff Kinney near the top.
It's the images as much as the numbers. People can close their eyes and see Phillips barreling through or around defenders like a locomotive. Putting the team on his back on a desperate, blustery day at Kansas State.
They remember Rozier wiggling, sprinting and bulling for yards. The signature UCLA run. The high-powered motor in the “Scoring Explosion.” The Heisman, too.
Green's touchdown at Colorado. Craig against Florida State. Kinney in Norman, perhaps the most famous performance in Nebraska history.
These men have highlights and championships associated with their names. Burkhead doesn't break ankles or big runs. He'll turn a loss into a 4-yard gain. He's fun to watch and root for.
King Rex is one of the most popular players in modern NU history. But the man needs some serious bling.
What's that signature Rex moment? The comeback against Ohio State? Good one. But instead of a bridge to a title, it kept a season from splitting apart.
The workout against Iowa? Great effort. But it came in an anticlimactic game.
The football romantic in me would like to see Burkhead go out in style, with a farewell tour worthy of Rex's boyhood idol, Barry Sanders. In 1988, Sanders burst out of nowhere to win the Heisman Trophy with the greatest season ever by a college running back (2,628 yards, 39 touchdowns, NCAA records).
Burkhead doesn't have Sanders' jets or moves. He's a guy who reminds you of Kinney or Rick Berns, slashing through the line. Or maybe a kindred spirit nicknamed “Tough Tony.”
Tough Tony would take that as a compliment.
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“I'm really proud of this kid,” said Tony Davis, a bronco of a back for NU from 1973 to 1975. “We all know what he does off the field. But on the field, he's a guy who comes prepared to play, every game. He always shows up. And I think he might be the best third-down, short-yardage back we've ever had. Give him the ball and you know what you're going to get.”
Tough Tony said that no matter what Burkhead does this year, he's already earned a spot at the legacy table.
“His contribution to Nebraska is he's played above and beyond what people at his position have played,” Davis said. “Is he as physical as Lawrence Phillips? No. Does he have the individual performances of Mike Rozier? No. Is he one of the top backs to ever play at Nebraska? Yes.
“He reminds me of a Jeff Kinney in a lot of ways. In the big games, Jeff was the focal point. It was all going through him. I think Rex is that way, too. No matter the situation, he will find a way to get it done.
“I know this: In the fraternity of Nebraska football players, Rex Burkhead is certainly a member of that group. If he walked into that room, everyone would know he belonged.”
That's some mighty high praise. And, for men like Davis and Burkhead, that's the kind of legacy you want, the one that matters.
Burkhead will never be forgotten. I'd still like to see a senior year by which to remember him.
Contact the writer:
402-444-1025, email@example.com; twitter.com/tomshatelOWH