Lincoln, NE - Nebraska junior running back Rex Burkhead isn't flashy. He's not a Prima donna. He doesn't trash talk on the football field. Burkhead is what you call a coaches' dream player. Nicknamed Superman, he shows up and does his job well – in the process often being overlooked or not appreciated enough.
"I think the coaches that play against him and watch him on film have a real appreciation for him," said Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini. "Nationally, I don't know."
Burkhead split carries last season with NFL 4th round running back Roy Helu Jr. With Helu now a rookie for the Washington Redskins, questions began to form during the offseason if Burkhead would be able to handle more of the load.
Burkhead is only 248 yards away from having his first 1,000 yard season, with five games and a bowl game left to play. His 752 yards is good for 20th in the nation and his 10 rushing touchdowns puts him inside the top ten in the category.
But his most impressive trait? It could be Burkhead gets stronger as the game goes on. Currently he's averaging over 6.5 yards a carry in the 4th quarter. According to the Associated Press, Burkhead has ran for 252 yards in the last 15 minutes of games – or nearly 34 percent of his production. A stat not common of most running backs.
"We know we can just put the ball in his hands anytime and he'll pick up a first down for us," said Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez on Monday.
Martinez is right. Burkhead has been called up more than once to finish off teams in the 4th quarter.
"I wouldn't say (he's) undervalued, from where I'm sitting right now. That's for sure," Michigan State Mark Dantonio said, Nebraska's next opponent. "I would say he's an extremely tough, tough running back. He plays with great effort, catches the ball, runs the ball, breaks tackles, runs through the smoke. He runs through tackles. You've got to get him down."
There is no doubting Burkhead has been special this season. If Nebraska goes on to win the Big Ten Legends Division, he surely will be a big reason why. But talk to anyone that has known the Plano, Texas product his whole life, and they are not surprised.
Superman is born
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 inside the top five, was playing a team considered just a road-bump at 6-4 on the year.
"He gets stronger in the 4th 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, there is just not enough time to log 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, he 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 one of the most humble men you will even meet, 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 name has stuck – even in Lincoln, Nebraska.
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.