LINCOLN — Nebraska I-back Rex Burkhead began this week with a purpose, the same one he's had since he re-injured a twice-sprained knee ligament last month.
Suit up and play Saturday.
That was his goal right after Nebraska's 29-28 win at Northwestern on Oct. 20, when Burkhead's left knee got twisted in a pile on his fourth carry and he was forced to the sideline for the third time this year in less than nine quarters of game action.
And that was the goal Burkhead shared with reporters Monday morning before participating in a limited practice session later that afternoon.
This isn't the senior year Burkhead had hoped for, but the injuries haven't drained the drive or the passion from Nebraska's star I-back. He plans to be on the field for Senior Day against Minnesota on Saturday.
“It's tough at times. I'm not going to sit here and lie and say I'm always good,” Burkhead said Monday in an interview with The World-Herald. “But you've got to realize there's more to life than your knee injury. It's not as bad as it could be.”
The 2012 season was supposed to be great, though.
Burkhead, revered for his reliability, was set to be Nebraska's do-everything workhorse. He was a fringe Heisman candidate looking to stamp his legacy as one of the Huskers' all-time greats — he began the year needing 1,227 yards to take over the No. 2 spot on the career rushing chart.
He has 405.
Burkhead went down on his third carry in the season opener against Southern Miss, then sat out two games before returning for action against Idaho State and Wisconsin.
He fell awkwardly on his first third-quarter run at Ohio State and sat out the bye week. Burkhead said he felt healthy enough to play at Northwestern two weeks later, but on an inside handoff, a defender grabbed his left leg as he crashed toward the turf.
“Right away, I kind of knew: It happened again,” Burkhead said.
Cue the frustration. Especially considering that this recurring MCL sprain is the first nagging injury that Burkhead's not been able to play through. He doesn't recall being hurt in high school. He fractured a foot his true freshman year at NU, but the healing timetable was pretty definitive for that.
Now, he's truly day-to-day. The injury doesn't require surgery. Just rest. Or luck, maybe.
“It could be good one day or bad the next day,” said Burkhead, who's currently trying out his third knee brace.
Nebraska medical staffers have the final say, though they rely heavily on Burkhead's honest input. Coach Bo Pelini said Monday that he's never been involved in the decision-making process.
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Burkhead was optimistic Monday.
“(My) last home game here, being a senior — it'd mean the world to be able to get out there on the field,” he said. “But at the same time, got to be smart about it.”
Burkhead said potential trips to the Big Ten title game and the Rose Bowl are more important to him.
Nebraska, in first place in the Legends Division, has Minnesota and Iowa left on its regular-season schedule, but those teams are a combined 4-8 in conference play. Plus, with the recent performance of Ameer Abdullah, who's recorded four consecutive 100-yard rushing efforts, there may be some temptation to keep Burkhead shelved as long as necessary.
“You have to get comfortable with it, have to be confident in it,” Burkhead said of his knee. “You don't want to go out there and be hesitant, because that's when you're going to get hurt.”
Burkhead's teammates want him out there, though. Several Huskers raved about his playmaking ability Monday, while also complimenting his character.
Actually, the way teammates talk about Burkhead, they sometimes make you forget the topic of conversation is one of their peers.
“You don't have to think about what he's going to bring to the table — because you know,” linebacker Alonzo Whaley said.
Said safety P.J. Smith: “He's a man among boys.”
A blend of humility and heroism, senior Eric Martin said. “I want to be like him. But it's hard. He's different than all of us. He has that special thing that everybody wants, but you can't have — because he has it.”
During his recruiting process, true freshman Imani Cross heard so much about Burkhead that he made it a point during a campus visit last January to meet the Husker I-back face-to-face. The two spent the second half of a Nebraska men's basketball game talking about football, coaches, school, goals, life, everything. “He's a tremendous person,” Cross said.
Burkhead's teammates and coaches say the knee sprains haven't changed that about him, perhaps only sharpening his best traits.
He's watching film as often as he normally does, said running backs coach Ron Brown. He's going out of his way to coach the fullbacks and I-backs, too.
Burkhead speaks on the little things, Cross said. Like running more decisively or using hands correctly as a blocker. If Cross misses an element of a play call, Burkhead's there to help him recall it. Abdullah added that Burkhead's advice is usually preceded by encouraging words.
Said Brown: “He's a leader by example, but he had to learn to talk to people, too. To speak up and say, 'You know what? This is what has to happen.' Because great leaders have to do both.”
Burkhead said he knew he had some growing to do. The injuries didn't stall that process.
That's why there's no time for self pity, Burkhead said. The guys he sees everyday — coaches, teammates, trainers — don't hesitate to hammer that home. His faith also helps to remove doubts — “God has a plan,” Burkhead says.
Burkhead will be back soon. Better than ever.
“I think it's made me stronger,” he said. “When I get another time of adversity in my life, (I will) just learn from it and be able to move forward.”
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