We’ve done it! Two Husker wins in a row! In a season that’s been, at times, one to forget, most Nebraska fans will celebrate every victory and milestone with enthusiasm and a smile. In fact, in our Sunday poll on ketv.com, a majority of voters said they think the Huskers will BEAT the #5 undefeated Hawkeyes on Black Friday! Who knows!!
For KETV producer Jay Roberts, the secret to Nebraska’s recent success is pretty simple.. I’m NOT covering the games.
I was in LA when USC beat Nebraska in 2006.
I was at Memorial Stadium when Nebraska BARELY lost to Texas a few weeks later.
I was in Kansas City when Nebraska lost in the Big XII Championship game that December.
I was at Camp Randall when Wisconsin crushed Nebraska 48-17 in 2011.
And I was at Ohio Stadium when the Buckeyes blanked the Huskers 63-38 in 2013. Actually, I think it was at this game I shared my 0-5 Reporter Record with Nebraska wide receiver Kenny Bell, who then responded ‘maybe you shouldn’t go on the road with us anymore!’
Assistant News Director Vonn Jones, hasn’t let me cover the Huskers since.
BACK TO OHIO STATE… I will always remember a handful of moments from that trip. The Buckeyes Athletic Department, for whatever reason, provided FREE McFLURRIES IN THE PRESS BOX, and I think I gained 19 pounds in 3 hours. While I am a HUGE fan of the Pride of Nebraska Husker Marching Band, the Buckeye Band was downright PHENOMENAL, performing a halftime show based on old-school Nintendo games. INCREDIBLE.
Finally, the professionalism and kindness exhibited by Nebraska star Rex Burkhead.
#22 Rex Burkhead, Nebraska I-Back 2009-2012 (Photo courtesy Nebraska Athletics)
Burkhead had a hell of a game that day. He recorded the longest run of his career, pushing his own total at Nebraska to 3,046 (only the 7th Husker in history to reach the 3K mark), and he marked the 13th 100-yard rushing game of his career. Then, in the 3rd quarter, Burkhead went down, badly injuring his left knee. Even up in the press box, we could see that Rex, who’d taken hit after hit throughout his time at Nebraska, was hurting. The following week, he started against Northwestern, but left the game.. and didn’t return for the four following games.
After each game I covered, I tried to find players or coaches willing to do a live interview with Jon/Andy during our Big Red Zone post-game coverage. Burkhead was a clear fan favorite and had talked to us several times before. Looking back to Ohio State, I wonder how much pain Rex Burkhead was in both emotionally and physically, perhaps already worrying how much of his senior year he would miss because of his injury. Not knowing at the time how bad it was, I once again approached him after the game. He could’ve just ignored me. He could’ve cussed at me, or shot me a dirty look. Rex Burkhead APOLOGIZED, saying he was sorry, but wasn’t up for it.
A moment for me that revealed character and maturity, probably isn’t even a blip on this guy’s Husker Memories radar. He was the Team MVP, Team Captain his senior AND junior year, a Sports Illustrated Honorable Mention All-American, a Doak Walker Semifinalist, Guy Chamberlin Trophy winner, and a First-Team All-Big Ten member.
Those are just his awards for his work ON the field. 2011 in particular was a remarkable year for Burkhead, still arguably one of the best rushers in Nebraska history.
“Probably my favorite [moment] was the Ohio State game my junior year,” Burkhead told me recently. “It was our Big Ten opener and we were down by a hefty margin. I think, at the time, it was the biggest comeback in school history. We came back and won in the final few minutes. The crowd was going crazy; it was just an unbelievable atmosphere that night.”
Burkhead also loves that game because a friend of his got some national attention for the first time.
KETV’s Thor Tripp was interviewing Burkhead for a profile story, and asked why he was wearing a ‘Team Jack’ bracelet on his wrist. Burkhead told him about a little boy with brain cancer who had asked for an autograph; instead, Burkhead invited him to Memorial Stadium to look around. An incredible gesture, one that to this day, Burkhead doesn’t take credit for.
“Really, it all started with Coach Pelini taking him in, allowing him access to practice, then putting him up in a suite during a game and really, Jack just becoming another teammate with the guys,” said Burkhead.
Photo courtesy Nebraska Athletics
Pelini, a father of 3, and Burkhead brought back Jack and other children with pediatric brain cancer, to take part in team activities and traditions. Through that, Nebraska fell in love with these kids.. and we also learned the terrible truth about this horrific disease. Isaiah, the little boy in this photo with Jack doing the ‘Tunnel Walk’ with the team before the Wisconsin game in 2012, died just a few weeks later.
8-million people and counting saw what happened next.. the Nebraska Cornhuskers rallied around Jack, bringing the pint-sized player onto the field during the Spring Game in 2013. Wearing his friend Rex’s #22, Jack Hoffman ran for a touchdown, cheered on by 60,000 fans. In the weeks and months that followed, the Hoffman family was invited to the White House to meet President Obama, they won an ESPY for Best Moment of 2013, and best yet, THE WORLD was talking about pediatric brain cancer.
Nebraska Fullback CJ Zimmerer (another Throwback Thursday Husker!) was the brainchild behind that magical moment, but the connection, THE FRIENDSHIP between this little boy and Nebraska football players and coaches began because of Rex Burkhead. He was named Captain of the Allstate AFCA Good Works Team, a 3-time member of the Brook Berringer Citizenship Team and the 2012 Uplifting Athletes Rare Disease Champion. Since Rex Burkhead responded to the Hoffman family’s request in 2012, just asking for an autograph, the Team Jack Foundation has raised more than $2 million dollars for pediatric brain cancer research.
“Myself and Jack and Andy and his family never would’ve thought it would expand like it did,” said Burkhead. “It’s been unbelievable just to see the expansion of the Team Jack Foundation, how much support is still out there, not just in the state of Nebraska but across the country as well.”
Rex and Jack still keep in touch, the Hoffmans even going to see Burkhead’s new team play. After graduating from Nebraska, Burkhead was drafted by the Cincinatti Bengals, a team that’s only lost ONCE so far this season.
“I’m really enjoying it, it’s a great team and a great bunch of guys on our team who love the team camaraderie aspect of the game,” said Burkhead. “It’s a lot tougher to do that in the NFL, just because of the business aspect.”
Burkhead also follows his alma mater, and calls Nebraska’s firing of his coach, Bo Pelini, very tough.
“Bo was a huge reason that I went to the University of Nebraska,” said Burkhead. I just loved everything about him. I loved the character he was instilling in the program with the players. How he taught me not only things on the football field but off the field as well. Very disappointing and sad to see them make that move, that switch. Even though I may not have agreed with it, I’m still always going to support the Huskers no matter what.”
Burkhead adds that he met Coach Mike Riley in the spring and that he seemed like a great guy. Fitting, coming from a guy I once heard described as ‘the most beloved Husker football player since Brook Berringer.’
To the Huskers fighting to the finish line of 2015, Burkhead says keep going forward and stay positive.
“Keep fighting, you never know what can happen toward the end of the year,” said Burkhead. “Just know the former players have your backs and we look forward to Saturdays every weekend.”
And to all Nebraska fans, from the Hoffmans watching from Atkinson, to the parents who named their baby boys ‘Rex’ (we met two of them!), to the journalists who remember a star athlete and all-around nice guy, Burkhead says he’s honored you DO remember.
“Definitely an honor, a privilege,” said Burkhead. “That’s Husker football for you. The support there is unbelievable.”
(Photo courtesy Nebraska Athletics)
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