LINCOLN — Rex Burkhead never got knocked off course through the years, running with his dream the very way that he always ran with the football.
That's why the former Nebraska I-back almost couldn't wrap his arms around the moment Saturday when the Cincinnati Bengals gave him his first chance to play football for a living.
“Whenever a teacher asked me what I wanted to be, I always said: NFL player,” Burkhead said from Plano, Texas.
“It's definitely a dream come true and something I've been wanting to be my whole life.”
Burkhead waited until the sixth round and No. 190 overall pick of the NFL draft Saturday — the latest round for the first Husker drafted since 1970.
He and safety Daimion Stafford were the only former Huskers taken in the three-day, seven-round draft. Stafford went in the seventh to Tennessee with the No. 248 pick overall.
But Burkhead's draft position didn't faze him. Nor did it matter that the Bengals also took a running back in the second round in Giovani Bernard of North Carolina.
“They said, 'We know we got a back earlier in the draft, but we look forward to you coming in and for all you guys to compete,' ” Burkhead said. “They said they like carrying three or four backs and they like using them, and they like guys that can catch the ball and be versatile.”
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Gil Brandt of NFL.com said during the week that he projected Burkhead as a fifth-round pick. Brandt said that all the back needed was a chance, however, and then any team “would have a hard time running him off” because of his toughness, work ethic and good character.
Even after taking Bernard in the second round, Bengals assistant coach Hue Jackson said, it was too hard to pass up Burkhead in the sixth.
“We obviously as an organization thought he was the best player sitting there,” Jackson said. “We put our chips with him, and he's going to come in here and give us another playmaker on this football team.”
Burkhead, who finished his NU career as the No. 5 all-time rusher in school history, tested well at the NFL Combine in the vertical jump, broad jump and short shuttle. The 5-foot-10, 214-pounder ran only a 4.73 in the 40-yard dash, although he lowered that into the 4.5s a few weeks later at Nebraska's pro day.
“To a man, I think everyone would always want faster, but you can't measure a guy's heart and the way they play the game,” Jackson said. “And the guy plays the game the way you're supposed to play it.”
Burkhead was born in Lexington, Ky., about a two-hour drive from Cincinnati. Other than his parents, he said, pretty much his whole family remains there.
As at Nebraska, he likely will become a fan favorite in Cincinnati, where the Bengals have made back-to-back playoff appearances but aren't far removed from a rash of off-the-field problems with players.
“He runs hard,” draft analyst Mel Kiper said on the ESPN set. “He's a much better athlete than people give him credit for ... quicker than you would ever think.
“I like the way this kid plays the game. He's a nice kid to have on your football team.”
Burkhead ran for 3,329 yards and 30 touchdowns as a Husker, even though his freshman and senior seasons were both disrupted by injuries. He was an All-Big Ten pick as a junior when he rushed for a career-high 1,357 yards.
Prior to Saturday, Cincinnati hadn't taken a Nebraska player in the draft since using its third-round pick on Jim Skow in 1986.
“The Bengals have a great organization,” Burkhead said. “I really respect Coach (Marvin) Lewis and a bunch of the players on the team. I'm just excited for the future and excited to play for them.”
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