Steven M. Sipple: Rex says he's 'just scratching the surface as a player' after six NFL seasons

Steven M. Sipple: Rex says he's 'just scratching the surface as a player' after six NFL seasons

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

STEVEN M. SIPPLE Lincoln Journal Star 

Safe to say Rex Burkhead embraces the Patriot Way.

Why am I not surprised?

"The expectations every day are to perform at a high level," says the former Nebraska running back, who earlier this month helped the New England Patriots capture Super Bowl LIII. "The coaches and players in the organization understand the standards set every year. It definitely helps you reach your potential, although I feel like I'm just scratching the surface as a player even though I'm six years in (as an NFL player).

"There are just so many little details you always can clean up."

Burkhead is one of the most popular players in the history of Nebraska football, his brand enhanced by his enthusiastic (and extremely genuine) involvement in the Team Jack Foundation, which funds research for pediatric brain cancer. In fact, Rex helped spearhead the formation of the foundation during the late stages of his Husker career (2009-12). He was in the trenches early on. So, of course he'll be on hand for the foundation's annual gala Saturday night at Embassy Suites in downtown Lincoln.

He'll arrive from his hometown of Plano, Texas, where he's spending part of this offseason with wife Danielle and their 3-month-old son, Jett.

"It's cool to be able to spend time with him," said Burkhead, who finished the Super Bowl with seven carries for 43 yards (6.1 yards per carry), including a 26-yarder during the Patriots’ final drive, which ended in a field goal that essentially clinched the 13-3 triumph Feb. 3 against the Los Angeles Rams.

Burkhead also had two receptions for 15 yards. All told, he touched the ball on nine of his 19 snaps. He essentially did what Rex does: a little bit of everything.

"Coming out of high school, in college, now in the NFL -- you'll always see Rex valuing the culture of a team more than just his personal ability and achievements," said Ron Brown, the former Nebraska running backs coach. "That's what I loved about coaching him. He was really the greatest teammate that you could possibly have. He would do anything and everything. He's still like that, obviously."

Burkhead's legs looked live in the playoffs perhaps because he spent eight games on injured reserve with a neck injury. What's more, he's part of the Patriots' committee approach at running back, a three-man group that also includes rookie Sony Michel, who scored the Super Bowl's only touchdown. But it was Burkhead on the field late in the game when the Patriots needed to hold off the Rams.

"It felt good, I can't lie," Burkhead said of his 26-yard burst up the middle. "The clock's ticking down at that point, and after a run like that, good things tend to happen."

After the game, Burkhead's wife and parents, Rick and Robyn Burkhead, celebrated with him on the field at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. His father wore a No. 22 Husker jersey, which thrilled plenty of Big Red fans.

"Just showing his Husker pride, I guess," said Burkhead, who plans to attend the Red-White Spring Game in April.

In addition to his strong Super Bowl performance, Burkhead played a critical role in the Patriots' 37-31 overtime win against the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC championship game. The scene in Arrowhead was memorable: Temperature in the 20s, Tom Brady gunning for yet another Super Bowl, the old lion, Bill Belichick, trying to devise ways to slow Patrick Mahomes. It was the sort of grand theater that makes the NFL playoffs must-see TV.

And there was Burkhead plunging into the end zone from 2 yards out to give his team the win.

"Cool game," he said. "Definitely one I'll never forget."

Thousands of Nebraska fans never will forget the scene in Memorial Stadium late in the 2013 Red-White Spring Game: 7-year-old Jack Hoffman, battling brain cancer, ran 69 yards for a score on a sunny afternoon -- his little legs churning and churning -- as practically the entire team followed him into the end zone. Although Burkhead already had graduated from the program, Jack wore No. 22. You see, Rex had befriended Jack the year before. They remain close to this day.

By the time Burkhead graduated in December 2012, the foundation already had raised $300,000 for pediatric brain cancer research. After the gala this weekend, the number will hit $6 million.

"The run gets a lot of credit for launching the foundation, but the mechanical pieces were in place prior to that," said Andy Hoffman of Atkinson, Jack's father. "The run was huge in our lives, and none of it happens without Rex. He took this little boy and formed a relationship with him and his family, and that relationship evolved.

"Eventually, it became a relationship with this football program and this disease, and that's the thing I'm most proud of when it comes to Team Jack. I mean, this thing's named Team Jack, but really it's the Nebraska Pediatric Brain Tumor Foundation."

So, yeah, there's the Patriot Way, but there's also the Nebraska Way. Burkhead epitomizes both exceptionally well.

"It wasn't just my thing at Nebraska; it was the whole team's thing," Rex said of Team Jack, emphasizing the team element.

That's Rex. Why am I not surprised?

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