More on Rex: Burkhead's tales from the backfield.
LINCOLN — It gets in your blood and you can't get rid of it, Rick Burkhead says of football. Even 20 miles from the epicenter of the college basketball universe, football crept into his heart, camped there and wouldn't leave. So he passed it to his sons, Ryan and Rex.
Eldest son Ryan was big, smart as a whip and talented. He loved to compete, loved football, but he loved school even more. He'd sometimes stay up until 3 a.m. studying.
Younger brother Rex liked school just fine, especially American history. The Revolutionary War. Colonial times. Abraham Lincoln.
But the American game? The brutal weekend ballet, 11 to a side on a 120-yard field, the intersection of violence and beauty, pain and perseverance, tackle and touchdown?
It got into Rex's blood. And he couldn't get rid of it.
“I was brought up with a football in my hand,” he said.
>> Rex as a toddler: Crawling from the arms of his mother, Robyn, to curl into Rick, who was still wearing his Miami Dolphins jersey from an NFL preseason game.
>> Rex as a teen: Perfecting Rick's “bird-dog drills” for foot quickness. Hear the step, make the step. Quick, now. If you're going to be Superman, you have to get out of a phone booth.
>> Rex as a freshman in college: Coming back from a foot injury two weeks early, and not telling Rick until the day before the Kansas State game that he'd play.
>> Rex as free safety: Rick was coaching a youth team in his hometown of Winchester, Ky. Nine- to 12-year-olds — the Falcons, as Rex recalled. Rex was young, but he wanted to put on the helmet, the pads, be a part of it.
“I'd try to sneak on the field and get in for practice,” Rex said.
So Rick would let Rex run the drills. As Rick honed his wing-T offense, he'd let Rex stand back at free safety, just to give the older kids a look. A landmark. Then Rick and his fellow coaches would turn around and watch some fourth-grader sweep around the end.
“We all saw this little blur come from behind us,” Rick said. Rex launched himself into the air at the ball carrier, who dodged the flying tackle, mostly on purpose.
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I didn't want him to get hurt, the kid told Rick. Rex got off the ground and ran back to his free safety spot. He was 4 years old.
Where does he come from, Rex Burkhead? What's the source of that work ethic, the hard-driving runs, the school-record number of carries against Iowa, the unforgettable touchdown vs. Michigan State, the second effort, the third head fake and shoulder shake? Burkhead repeatedly points to his family. Rick, Robyn and Ryan. His answer often ends there.
The origin of that response starts here: a crosswalk in Winchester, population 18,368, a half-hour from the cradle of Kentucky basketball, Rupp Arena.
Rick Burkhead attends Hannah McClure Elementary. He's a crossing guard. Pretty big. Good athlete. Spends his summer on grandpa's farm, throwing hay, tending cattle, “shedding a little blood and sweat.” He knows just about every kid in town and every kid probably knows him, since Rick's dad is a math teacher in Winchester.
But not this girl crossing the street. Who's she? A new student from Georgia one grade younger. Robyn.
“The prettiest girl I'd ever seen,” Rick said. “It was a moment of clarity.”
Rick makes sure to meet Robyn. They become fast friends. Robyn lives on Hampton Ave., and Rick's right around the corner on Hood Ave. Over the years, Rick said, they'll play “some pretty epic pingpong games.”
They get married out of high school. Rick earns a football scholarship to Eastern Kentucky in nearby Richmond. Plays fullback. Robyn is pregnant with Ryan, but she'll go to college then, too. The Burkheads put off no plans. They forge ahead.
You're a huge part of your own future, Robyn said in an interview. It's not always going to be up to other people.
Parents pitch in. So does their church. Robyn stays home while Rick goes to class during the day. After football practice, Rick sprints home so Robyn can go to class. When she gets back, he heads out to The Family Dog, a local bar where he moonlights for cash.
And when baby sitters aren't available, Ryan — and three years later, Rex — goes to class with Mom and Dad.
“People doubted them,” Rex said of his parents. “They wanted to see if they were actually going to make it together and all that. It shows the strength they had. To raise us through those times? It's unbelievable.”
Some of the best days in those years, Robyn said, were Rick's Saturday afternoon football games. After college, he's good enough to make NFL training camps with Miami and the Philadelphia Eagles. He sees men who still love the game — and men who don't. He makes a mental note: Loving it matters.
Injuries cut Rick's football career short, but he pursues a job that uses some of his athleticism: FBI agent. But he'll have to move to Plano, Texas, and Robyn will have to quit a good government job in Lexington.
“She had to sacrifice more than I did,” Rick said. Rick doesn't want Ryan and Rex having to follow his footsteps in Winchester. Plano is a fresh start.
Moving day. “I cried the whole way there,” Robyn said of leaving Winchester, the older, more genteel South, for faster, brasher Texas. “But it's probably the best thing we ever did. Our kids had opportunities that they probably wouldn't have had otherwise.”
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Rick's job with the FBI is fierce. In the early days, he works violent crimes, bank robberies, some kidnappings.
Not long after Rick became an agent, Robyn is driving on the interstate and sees Rick working a case out in the open. From thereon, she says a daily prayer: God, bring him back home tonight.
“We kicked a lot of doors in,” Rick said. “I got in some scrapes. When you get that call, you don't know what it's going to be. You have to get your game face on.”
Said Robyn: “I saw him go without sleep. Without food.”
Said Rex: “There were times you didn't know what was going on. Or why he had to go out of town or why he's out late. Or all of the sudden, he gets a phone call and has to go somewhere. You don't know what's going to happen. It was scary at times. But he tried to never let us worry.”
And because Rick was young, he could stay active with Ryan and Rex. He coached them in his code of pigskin ethics: Don't act like it's your first touchdown, keep your head up when you run, churn your legs as a runner. Ryan and Rex laughed at that.
Churn? Huh? Haven't you ever seen an ice cream churn, Rick asked? Or watched apples turn into applesauce? Churn!
Then: bird-dog drills. Rick barks out an order, and the boys have to mirror the direction. Right foot, 45 degrees! The quick moves Rex often employs at Nebraska look effortless out of endless practice.
“Sometimes I could be too harsh on them,” Rick said. “A lot of times as a dad, we try to make sure they're perfect.” Robyn was the balance.
But Rex wanted to work. He tells teacher after teacher, year after year, he wants to be a pro football player. Classmates laugh.
“When times get tough in practice, you always think about that,” Rex said. “It reminds you: Keep pushing. They think it's a dream that's unattainable. That only a few people can get it. But my mindset was always: Whatever I can do to achieve that, I will. I'm not going to listen to doubters.”
Ryan plays football at Plano High School and draws some decent football offers. Chasing his passion for academics, he instead chooses Harvard. Rex, a freshman in high school when Ryan is a senior, gets busy chasing, too.
Throughout the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, the legend of Rex Burkhead spreads. He can run, catch, throw. Starts on varsity as a freshman. Plays quarterback as a sophomore. Wears No. 20 like his football idol Barry Sanders, calmly throwing the ball to referees after a touchdown — Rick's lessons echoing within him: Act like you've been there. And Rex goes “there” more than 60 times in his last two years.
Rex plays basketball, too, helping Plano win a Class 5A state title in 2006. He dunks it however you please. He's from Kentucky, after all. Basketball is darn near a birthright.
But football is in his blood. He can't get rid of it.
All of Rick's bird-dog drills have made him cat-quick. It's hard to get a clean shot on him. And when guys do, Rex keeps churning, turning pain into perseverance, tackles into touchdowns.
Rex invites the crucible. His favorite play is an inside power run, barreling forward behind the big rear end of a pulling guard. Slamming into the scrum with his head up.
Some colleges see him as a wide receiver anyway. Nebraska recruits him as a running back. Pundits see Rex as a change-up back. Sure-handed. Deadly on third down.
Rex is that, and more. Power back. Goal-line guy. Good in a phone booth. Better in the Wildcat. Always churning.
Robyn sees what Rex's passion does to people. She teaches fourth grade at Jackson Elementary in Plano and finds her son's story converting kids from Longhorn fans to Husker fans. Rex drops by the school on breaks. Deep in the heart of Texas, tykes for Nebraska.
Rex gets hurt as a freshman in 2009, a nasty foot injury that has Rick calling coaches for updates. The recovery time is eight weeks, Rex returns in six. The next week, he's running for 100 yards at Colorado. The week after that, he's back home in the Metroplex for the Big 12 championship game.
Nebraska loses to Texas 13-12, and one year later loses to Oklahoma 23-20. Two conference crowns, slipping through NU's hands.
“It eats away at us,” Rex said. “It's definitely motivation. Every single day. When was the last time? 1999? Is that the last one? It's been awhile. Over a decade. It's time to get one.”
Spurred by the losses, Rex works even harder in the offseason of 2011. The bulk of the carries will be on his shoulders. Freshmen Ameer Abdullah, Aaron Green and Braylon Heard are young and inexperienced. NU's new league, the Big Ten, is rugged. And after the Huskers' passing game hits a rut at Wisconsin, the strategy shifts to Burkhead. He'll be the workhorse.
In the last eight games of Nebraska's season, Rex will catch, run or pass the ball 221 times. That's more than 27 touches per game. He wants every one of them, too.
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Rick and Robyn, who just celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary, worry from their Memorial Stadium seats. They can tell when he's in pain, and he tries to deny it. At Plano High School, they called him Superman.
“Sometimes,” Robyn said, “I feel like Rex believes it.”
Rick can't wait to run to the locker room after the game to see if Rex is OK. Robyn sometimes has to watch through winces.
After Rex set the school record for carries against Iowa, he hurt all over. On a scale of 1 to 10, Rex will only say “it was way up there.” It leaves Rick, the man who gave this passion to his son, with admiration. Even awe. He concedes that his journey, Robyn and Ryan's journey, helped shape who Rex is now. He sees the connections. But the kid, Rex, he takes it even further.
“He was highly motivated when he came out of the womb,” Rick said.
Rick remembered how he felt in the third quarter of Nebraska's win against Michigan State. When Rex lay in pain at midfield. Worn out. His legs barking up a bird-dog storm from exhaustion. Rick thought it was bad. A knee. A foot. Memorial Stadium grew quiet, almost in mourning. The Big Ten and the Big Red finally rode the kid too hard.
Rex left the field. Rick worried. Two plays later, he saw No. 22 sprinting onto the field, running to his spot, and stretching to loosen up just seconds before the snap. The crowd buzzed, its excitement producing something more giddy and higher-pitched than a roar. A massive squeal of anticipation.
“What the hell is he doing?” Rick thought to himself.
Rex took a fake from quarterback Taylor Martinez and dashed through the line, wide open. He waited for Martinez's floated pass, caught it, and ran, hoping his legs didn't lock up on him. They didn't until he'd scored a touchdown and leapt into teammate Ben Cotton's arms.
Rick couldn't hear a thing. His mind was wild. “I went crazy,” he said. He felt seemingly a dozen hands on him in celebration. He had just wanted Rex to finish the game. But he sucked it up. In that play is a lesson.
“You gotta love this game,” Rick says. “And Rex loves the game.”
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