More on Rex: Burkhead a driven force for Nebraska.
As Rex weighed colleges throughout his career at Plano, Nebraska didn't exactly make the short list until before his senior year. And even then, “Rex never really asked us what we thought,” Robyn said.
But Rex did lean on Ryan for help. Ryan, already at Harvard, crafted questions for Rex to ask to college coaches. And he even sat in on a few in-home visits when coaches stopped by. So did Mom and Dad, even if Rex asked his share of the questions.
Rick clicked with NU coach Bo Pelini immediately.
“One of the memories is that interview with Bo on the couch,” Rick said. “I could tell what he was. I could tell he had integrity. I knew he wouldn't promise crap. He's really the only head coach who was like that. I'm an old farmboy. You don't promise this and that. You show it.”
Rex whittled down his list. Nebraska made the cut. He liked the Huskers' running back tradition. Ahman Green. Roger Craig. Rick, the college fullback, was fond of Tom Rathman. Somewhere in there, John Papuchis, now the NU defensive coordinator, swished a half-court shot as a dare. If I make it, Papuchis told Rex, you'll come to Nebraska, right?
Not quite. Rick had a final quiz for his son. He created a questionnaire and spreadsheet for him, Robyn and Rex to take, measuring the strengths and weaknesses of each school.
“Three pages,” Robyn said, laughing. “We're very thorough.”
“We point-ranked it,” Rick said.
Rick sent Rex and Robyn into separate rooms to fill it out. He filled out his own, too.
Let's add it up, Rick told them. All three had scored Nebraska ahead of Texas A&M and Stanford.
For Rex, the final decision for NU came down to feel.
“It felt right,” Rex said. “Everything felt right. It felt like home. Loved the running back tradition they've had here. The fans. The humble, hard-working history.”
The Burkhead family was initially stunned and impressed by the sheer support by Nebraska fans of their football team. They've consistently treated Rex well, as all those No. 22 jerseys in the Memorial Stadium crowd suggest.
And the Burkheads have a handy reference point: Kentucky basketball, which has won eight national titles.
“You don't bad-mouth the Wildcats,” Rick said. Not in Winchester, just a half-hour east of Lexington.
Though Robyn moved from Georgia — and her dad graduated from Louisville — she's a giant UK fan.
The home crowd for NU football games and UK basketball games is similar, Rick said. The crowd is older, wiser and milder at Rupp Arena. Don't embarrass the Wildcats.
Rex, a basketball junkie who plays a lot of five on five at NU, liked Kentucky, too. Rex also liked Kansas; a youth coach of his was a giant Jayhawks fan and took his team to camps run by Roy Williams and Bill Self.
So, yes, Rex was a little torn by the NCAA title game last year when KU squared off against UK. But he liked the young Wildcats' exuberance, teamwork and chemistry.
“They're exciting to watch,” Rex said. “I felt like that Kentucky team, they came together. There wasn't one individual really sticking out. Yeah, you had Anthony Davis, but he wasn't scoring 30 points a game. You never really saw a guy off by himself. I thought they played really well together. That's when you know your team's at its best.”
Buddies busting tail
Asked to list the teammates he considers part of his inner-circle, Rex struggles to keep the number small. There are seniors like Will Compton and Spencer Long. Juniors Jeremiah Sirles and Brent Qvale. And redshirt freshmen like Taariq Allen. Basketball buddies. Video gamers. People of “all types,” as Rick put it.
But if there's one constant in Burkhead's closest friends, it's that he and Rick list off all the running backs in the NU program. Even guys who aren't there anymore, like Roy Helu, Tyler Legate and Ty Kildow, who now plays baseball for the Huskers instead.
In 2011, Burkhead quickly forged a bond with his top competitor for playing time: Ameer Abdullah. Before last season, running backs coach Ron Brown pulled Rex aside. Ameer has the same qualities you have, Brown told Rex. Tough. Relentless. You'll like him.
Rex did. In Abdullah, he saw a kid who'd come from an accomplished family who'd faced — and overcome — adversity. “We both want to be the best we can be,” Rex said. “We love competing. We have similar mindsets. Similar passions for the game of football and life in general. We love to have fun. We've kind of come from similar places. We have that same drive.”
Abdullah noticed it, too. That's why on warm days this spring and scorching days this summer, you could find Abdullah and Burkhead sometimes putting in extra sprint and running work.
“I really felt like if I started working with him, it'd rub off on me,” Abdullah said.
That one time
When it came to working hard, Rick almost never had to ride Rex.
But Rick recalls a single moment when Rex wasn't on his mental game. Every athlete surely has one. Rex's hour came in a Plano youth league, when he played for the Seminoles. Fifth grade, as Rick recalls.
Rick walked Rex out to a building a quarter-mile away. He didn't want to chew out his son in front of the whole team.
“And then I jumped his butt,” Rick said. “Told him, I don't care if you get beat every play. But if you're not practicing hard, forget it.”
The message stuck. If Rex was a fanatical worker before, he amped it up a notch after that. He competes at everything, Robyn said. Board and card games, too. Rex's birthday parties turned into daylong Hacky Sack and basketball contests in the July sun. Fun. Fierce.
Rex didn't like ending the party on a loss, Rick remembers. At one high school party, Rick recalled one of Rex's Plano teammates — current Stephen F. Austin wide receiver Kris Lott — coming into the Burkhead house. Smiling. But serious.
Will you get control of Rex, Kris asked Rick. He won't stop until he wins. And it's too hot outside.
Still the son
Robyn, a fourth-grade teacher at Jackson Elementary, never picks up her cell phone in a staff meeting. It's just rude, she thinks. She rarely even brings it with her when the staff gets together. But this time, Aug. 20, she heard it, and reached under her chair.
Rex had sent her a picture. He was standing in NU's locker room, smiling just like he had when he started kindergarten. He wore a backpack, and my God, Robyn noticed, his hands were positioned on the straps in the same place they'd been 16 years ago. For all his accomplishments and NFL dreams, Robyn understood again, Rex is still a boy, still her boy.
“It's so easy to forget,” she said.
My last first day of school, mother, Rex texted.
The picture and that message were too much. Robyn Burkhead lost it in front of everybody.
“I just started bawling,” she said.
Afterward, she went up to her principal. In case you're wondering what all that was about, she said, here's the picture.
The principal, who'd seen so many Longhorn fans at Jackson Elementary converted to Husker fans, wanted to make copies.
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