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Burkhead brings State of Rex


Rex Burkhead, whose old position coach says is "arguably the most popular player ever at Nebraska," has his own favorite Cornhusker.

Ron Brown watched Burkhead drape his arm around hospice patients in their last days, as well as Ameer Abdullah when Abdullah replaced Burkhead in the backfield this past season because of a knee injury. Rick Burkhead remembers the night after a game during his son's junior year when it took them 2.5 hours to walk the length of Lincoln's Gateway Mall because hundreds of people stopped for Rex for a picture.

And, of course, the nation watched last week when Rex Burkhead joined his friend Jack Hoffman in Barack Obama's Oval Office as the two continued their crusade for pediatric brain cancer awareness.

But Rex Burkhead has been admiring someone else.

"Ahman Green," Burkhead says of the running back that racked up more than 9,000 yards in 12 NFL seasons. "I loved how fast and quick he was. He could get around you so quickly, and if he didn't, then he'd run over you."

The fact that Green played at Nebraska about the time the six-year-old Burkhead moved from Winchester, Ky., to Plano, Texas, is why Brown calls Burkhead one of the best film students he's seen in his 23 years in Lincoln. In fact, there may be as much Winchester as Lincoln in the Rex makeup.

It also shows the fight the 5-10, 214-pound Burkhead has on his hands when he reports to the Bengals rookie minicamp Thursday night in preparation for the Friday-Sunday workouts.

He's not as big as Green or as fast. It's why Green went in the third round 15 years ago and why Burkhead's speed in the 40-yard dash (reported in some spots at 4.68 seconds) ticketed him to the sixth round last month despite a remarkably resourceful and versatile career that left him fifth on Nebraska's all-time rushing list.

At the moment it appears he's trying to get that last running back spot behind veterans BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Cedric Peerman and second-rounder Giovani Bernard in a pitched battle with last year's sixth-rounder Daniel Herron. But it's early.

"There's game speed and there's 40-yard speed and I think having knowledge of the game and being able to react is what makes you fast," Burkhead says.

That's how Burkhead grew up and that's how his legion of fans envisions him forging a successful NFL career. Raised in a stew of fundamentals and discipline that was first brewed about an hour and three quarters south of Cincinnati and just 23 miles from Lexington, Rex has never been able to get enough of the game. Rick, who ran for more than 1,000 yards while playing fullback at Eastern Kentucky before sipping a cup of coffee in the training camps of the '92 Dolphins and '93 Eagles, coached him through junior high.

And that included the move from Winchester to Plano when the FBI transferred him and where he is now a supervisor for critical incidents response teams.

"I watched for a year and couldn't stand it," Rick says.

Rick went back home after the Eagles weren't serious about signing a fullback to put in front of Herschel Walker in a split-back offense and became executive director of the YMCA while also coaching youth football teams and high school baseball teams.


It was a great spot for a graduate of George Rogers Clark High School, where he made first-and second-team all-state in football. And while playing for a Kentucky Hall of Famer in Guy Strong, who played on a UK national title team, Rick Burkhead helped the basketball team to the state quarterfinals and a loss to Pulaski County's Reggie Hanson.

"All four of our football coaches played college football; that's pretty rare," Rick says. "We were well coached and Guy Strong played for Adolph Rupp at Kentucky, so there was a lot of discipline there."

Not to mention that both parents worked in the district schools and his dad was a coach as well an assistant principal. Although he grew up a Cowboys fan, Rick's baseball favorites were Johnny Bench and Dave Concepcion in the last days of the Big Red Machine and he made his share of crusades to Riverfront Stadium.

Throw in the fact that one of the first meetings with his future wife Robyn is a basketball game against each other when he was in sixth grade and she was in fifth, and competition has always been next of kin.

But it was while coaching a 9-12 age group team in Winchester that Rick first got a whiff Rex would be a player even though he was just four.

"He wanted to be a part of it. He got in every drill and he worked as hard as my best player. He got the kids' respect," Rick says.

They didn't have 22 players, but Rick wanted to give his offense a look at a two-deep zone and told Rex to stand way back at safety. Dad emphasized that nobody was to hit the little kid. He was just giving them a look, and when they ran a play out of the Wing T the running back, a big 12-year-old, broke out of the line.

"The running back comes flying up to me and two of my other coaches. Rex was behind us, kind of off to the side," Rick says. "All of a sudden I see our running back dive in the air. He just goes over the top of this little blur. Rex does about five tumbles and gets up, dusts himself off, looks at the guy on the ground and goes back in his stance back at safety. He thought he made the tackle. He wanted to unload on him. The kid said, 'Mr. Burkhead, I had to dive over him or I would have hit him.' I said, 'Thank you.' "

The state of Nebraska has been saying "thank you" ever since Rex opted to enroll. Then-Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh was interested and with brother Ryan playing defensive end at Harvard, Crimson coach Tim Murphy came calling.

"He wanted to go where football was the most important thing to everybody and in Nebraska, that fit," Rick says.

And Rex Burkhead became one of its most important figures. How he met the seven-year-old Hoffman through an introductory lunch and how they became fast friends complete with Burkhead making the trip a few times to the Hoffman home three-and-a-half hours away in north central Nebraska and the team wearing wristbands during the season reading "Team Jack, Pray" has become the great feel-good story of a not-so-feel-good spring of Boston, Cleveland and West Texas.


But there has been so much more than that.

"He's a man of faith and he's gone all over the state (with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes) pouring his heart out," Brown says.

The legacy: a three-time member of the Brook Berringer Citizenship Team. One of Nebraska's Student-Athlete HERO Leadership Award winners in 2012. One of Uplifting Athletes Champions of 2011-12, for helping to put a national focus on helping children with rare diseases. Plus, his outreach work included team hospital visits, the Madonna Wheelchair Football Workshop, and the Irving Rec Center.  

Keith Zimmer, Nebraska's associate athletic director for life skills who has been at the school for a quarter century, says Burkhead and Berringer, the national championship quarterback killed in a plane crash two days before he was to be selected in the 1996 NFL Draft, have been the two most popular players in a football-mad state.

"It's the way he's carried himself," Zimmer says. "He's a blue-collar guy. They read about the good things he did in the community. He exemplified the Husker way. He's not a flashy guy."

The school gets about 100 requests a month for athletes to appear in the community and 15 to 20 are for Burkhead. Zimmer watched that first lunch with Hoffman and has seen him talk to 50-year season ticket holders whose last wish is to meet a Husker.

"These people are dying and he handles it so well," Zimmer says. "He always turns the conversation to them. 'Tell me about your career,' and things like that. He's incredibly mature."

All Rick can say about it all is his son is genuine. He and Robyn, a teacher, made both boys humble. They made sure of that. Even during the draft, Rick had to go out in the backyard and warn them about getting too physical in a 3-on-3 hoop match.

"I thought I was back coaching junior high," he says.


But the Husker legions are telling you there is a football player in there among the feel good. The same four-year-old rolling up from safety is the same guy Brown has been watching on film.

"He's one of the best all-around backs to come through here. He's got the energy and focus to carry a big load," Brown says. "He's got a variety of skills as not only an inside and outside runner, but he's also a guy who can pass protect and you can split him out wide in an empty set and be a receiver for you and run routes. He was a Wildcat quarterback for us and we also put him back in special teams as a return guy, and a guy who could go down and cover punts and kicks. You can even line him up and play defense. He's a terrific all-around player."

He's also getting some camp advice from his old coach.

"I think there are things that stand out when you get to NFL camps. You see who actually likes contact and who doesn't. That stands out real quickly in the NFL," Rick says. "It may sound funny, but I saw that when I was with Miami and Philly. I told him you'll see that right away and I told him to learn the all the audibles, all the pass routes from a running back standpoint, and just be aggressive."

Rex may have been two and three years old when Rick went away to camp, but the 20-year-old lessons sound pretty good. Rick is telling him to spend time with the proven offensive players going over the playbook.

"It's quickly learning the offense and just reacting. That's where the talent is going to come out," Rick says. "He's going to be more versatile and more athletic than people realize. I don't worry about that part from being in camp. There were fullbacks drafted in front of me from USC and Illinois and places like that and when I got to camp I was lot more athletic than they were. They weren't around very long. Every day's a competition and I tell him to wear a smile because he loves it."

That confidence and discipline is so accessible that Brown can call it up on his computer.

"You can stop the film at any point and whatever he's doing and you seldom see his face looking down," Brown says. "If you slow motion his moves in the hole and see him make people miss in the open field, his face was always up and his knees were always bent and his hips were low. He has the confidence to play with his face up and that takes discipline."

If speed is going to make him or break him in the NFL, Rex Burkhead has at least quickly moved to surround himself with the best advice he can find. Including from his all-time Husker.

"(Green) told me to keep away from all the distractions. They're the easiest things to get caught up in," Rex says. "I feel like I have to show I can do multiple things and make fast reads. Showing your knowledge."

It sounds like he is showing as much Winchester as Lincoln.

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