The date is November 17th, 2007. The location - Texas Stadium home of the Dallas Cowboys.
Down 28-13 at halftime, the Plano Wildcats were experiencing an unexpected battle from Rockwall high school in 5A Bi-District Playoff action.
Plano, 9-1 overall and ranked No. 5 was playing a team considered just a road-bump at 6-4 on the year.
The Yellow Jackets might have dominated the first half, but it was all about to change in the second. Plano had a secret a weapon. A force that grew more powerful as the game went on. On the field they called him Superman – off the field he was known as Rex Burkhead.
"He gets stronger in the fourth quarter," said Plano head coach Jaydon McCullough. "I think it's one of thing that separates him, his endurance and physicality. He's just going to get better."
A long story short, Plano came back to beat Rockwall 42-35, large in part due to Burkead's performance. The junior running back had three touchdowns in the second half, ending the game with 195 yards and five scores overall.
There are many more examples of "Superman" like performances for Burkhead during his days in 5A Texas high school football, we just don't have enough time to cover them all.
Plano would reach the state semi-finals in 2007, before being knocked out by eventual state champion Euless Trinity in double-overtime, 30-27. A game still referred by many in the state of Texas as one of the best high school football games ever. Burkhead ran for over 200 yards and a touchdown.
“Every time we played in big games, he played better at the end then they did,” said McCullough. “It's almost like he carried his pads faster at the end. He gets better when he gets in the groove of things.”
As a freshman at Plano, Burkhead was a running back and played in the secondary, intercepting former Alabama quarterback Greg McElroy during his senior year of high school. As a sophomore, Burkhead played quarterback and set Plano records throwing the ball in a running based offense. His junior and senior year, back to running back with a little bit of everything else sprinkled in.
“In the four years that we had him, he had over 6,100 all-purpose yards,” said McCullough. “How he got the nickname Superman, we had nothing to do with that. Believe me, he didn't go around saying I'm Superman. That is not how he operates.”
Described by many as overly humble, Burkhead was given the nickname Superman by local reporters early in his high school career according to his father Rick. It could be due to the fact even as a freshman, Burkhead showed the potential of a great player in the making.
“I'm a comic buff, so I refer to him as Bruce Wayne. He just doesn't want anyone to know who he is outside until he has the helmet on,” said Rick Burkhead. “He was pretty young when the Superman thing started, maybe the end of his freshman year. It just spread. We saw people wear stuff to games and stuff. I think it was more embarrassing than anything for him.”
It might have been embarrassing and at times he might not have liked it, but the Nebraska coaching staff will ask Burkhead to be Superman again. The name has stuck with him, but expect a few more Huskers fans to say “is it a bird...is it a plane...no it's Rex Burkhead” this fall.
From Plano to Lincoln...
After rushing for nearly 1800 yards and 30 touchdowns his senior year at Plano, Burkhead was awarded the AP Texas 5A Offensive Player of the Year award.
"Watching Burkhead in high school you knew that he was a certain difference maker. He was the guy fans showed up to specifically watch on Friday nights, because you knew he was going to do something special,” said Scout.com Midlands Recruiting Analyst Greg Powers.
But not everybody shared Power's excitement for the recruit. Critics of the senior had multiple reasons for not projecting success at the next level. He wasn't fast or wasn't big enough to take punishment in college. Some felt he was too polished, saying he wouldn't be able to improve any and was tapped out talent wise. Others thought he would be better at other positions.
“When scouts were projecting him to college they always debated what position might be best for him, but there was probably a little too much nit picking going on regarding his game,” said Powers. “As a running back, he could do a little of everything and then some. He was a tough runner and could catch the ball out of the backfield.
"At the time he committed with Nebraska they had some pretty talented or highly thought of players in the pipeline at running back, and many thought he could end up playing receiver or safety, but he has come in to the program and has done exactly what he was doing in high school -- make big plays.”
Burkhead ignored his critics and inked with Nebraska, stating on signing day they wanted him on special teams and at running back – his position of choice.
“I don't know if it motivated him. Rex is self-motivated by the love of the game. So he doesn't let things like that overcome him,” said Rick Burkhead. “I would say he takes note of it. I think we as parents notice it more than him. I would say this, people who said he wouldn't succeed, weren't around him everyday. They didn't realize how athletic he was and how gifted he was when it came to knowledge of the game.”
Something tells us now they do.
2011 Workload concerns?
It didn't take long for Burkhead to make an instant impact at Nebraska. Even as a true freshman, the coaching staff decided to throw the Texas product into the fire. Burkhead only carried the ball 82 times his first season, but saw a jump to 172 carries this past year – rushing for 950 yards in the process.
“Actually playing on the college level, the experience is huge. I saw a lot of progression from my freshman to my sophomore year,” said Burkhead.” I saw the field quicker, understood the game a lot of better. I saw a lot of growth.
“Whatever the coaches want me to do this season, I will be ready for it. I would say they have a little higher expectations for me this year.
Burkhead can expect the coaching staff to increase his carries again.
The past two seasons the junior has shared the backfield with Roy Helu Jr. Helu has graduated and moved on to the NFL – leaving Burkhead as one of the only running backs on the roster to actually carry the ball in a game.
He has talented incoming first year players behind him, with at least one expected to make an impact this season. But how early will they be ready to step up this fall? Will it take a few games and more of a workload early for Burkhead? Can they be trusted in the 4th quarter? All questions that have been brought up this summer by fans and various members of the media.
“Just knowing the type of person he is, he's excited for the challenge,” said McCullough. “An extra workload wouldn't be a concern of mine. It's actually one of the comments I heard over and over again when he was here. He looked stronger when he got more carries.”
McCullough might be onto something. Burkhead's career high for carries in a game is 20, set last year against Iowa State. Against the Cyclones he racked up 129 yards, good for a 6.5 yards per carry average. One of this highest averages of his short career.
But it won't just be the extra carries. The actual extra snaps will have an impact. Burkhead knows with the move to the Big Ten, the running back position will be liable for extra punishment.
“The linebackers are definitely bigger than in the Big 12. When they come in on a blitz, they are bringing it. They are not making many moves, just running straight at the quarterback,” said the junior when talking about pass protection. “Physically I have gained a few pounds this offseason, but I will probably lose it once the season starts.”
With the conference switch, Burkhead loses out on the opportunity to play teams he grew up watching closely. No more Texas, Texas A&M, Baylor, Texas Tech, or Oklahoma. Having the opportunity to play in front of family and friends was a draw to Lincoln, but the running back has given it more thought this summer.
“You have to take it in perspective. Not many teams get to play in two different conferences, playing some historical teams with loads of tradition,” said Burkhead. “All of them will be fun to play, because we haven't played them, but definitely the game against Wisconsin is going to be fun. It will be an experience playing there and for it being the first time in the conference. Also, Ohio State at home will be a big-time game as well.”
It's not very often a starting running back's off the field presence is more important than his on field product, but in 2011 it might be the case for Rex Burkhead.
Burkhead will fill the role as player/coach – much like Helu was with him two seasons ago. Guys like high school All-American Aaron Green, Alabama speedster Ameer Abdullah, and Scout.com 3-star 2010 running back Braylon Heard will lean on Burkhead for guidance when the coaching staff is not around.
“Being around here a few years, the coaches have put it on me to be a leader and to speak up,” said Burkhead. “I have a lot of younger guys under me. A lot of times in the meeting room, I have to teach things and pass on what I have learned from other players, like Roy. I think the biggest thing is when you teach it, you understand it that much better when you see it on the field. Visually you are seeing everything faster and can react faster.
“As far as being a leader, when I ever see something that shouldn't be done, I let them know, it's not the way we do things here.”
So what would running back's biggest advice to be to incoming first year running players?
“A big thing is to have no fear. Respect the older guys when you go out there, but you can't be scared of going against the,” said the junior. “When they step out, they have to realize it's still football. You are going to get hit hard.”
New Nebraska running back's coach Ron Brown cannot think of a player he would rather have as the clear cut leader at his position.
“He's a front runner, he's going to step up,” said Brown. “We have some very talented younger running backs coming in and I feel very confident about the informal coaching that will happen between Rex and some of the guys.
“Those guys are going to get a dose of Rex Burkhead and those are the type of guys I want in my room. In my running back room, I want a high standard of excellence. Rex Burkhead he certainly fits that. It's now about putting other people on his back and taking them where they normally wouldn't go. That is what great leaders do.”
While Burkhead has not had the title of leader before at Nebraska, he's no stranger to the position.
“He knows, like it or not, he's a leader....I can show you pictures from countless games where he's walking around talking to different kids,” said his high school McCullough. “He has no sense of entitlement and no sense of arrogance. I can guarantee you, he's going to make everyone in that program better. People like to follow guys like that. He never complains, he's positive, he's the hardest worker on the team.
“I still do it today. It's been a while since he graduated, but I'm still encouraging my players to live up to Rex Burkhead's expectations as a leader.”
Something tells us, if Nebraska lives up to Rex Burkhead's expectations this season, it could go down as a special one.