There was some sadness in Nebraska circles when Rex Burkhead didn’t get to say goodbye to Memorial Stadium with a couple of carries last week.
It was arguably worth it for what happened this week. The already impossibly large legend of Rex Burkhead grew again.
On Friday, Nebraska needed Burkhead. Nebraska needed him badly. Trailing 7-3 to Iowa with a trip to Indianapolis on the line, the Huskers had finally found the one thing capable of stopping its prolific 2012 offense — wind.
Frigid, 40-mile per hour gusts helped Iowa hold the Huskers to a season-low 263 yards on the day and just three points in the first half. So the Huskers turned to the place they’ve turned for most of the past four seasons.
The halftime conversation went something like this:
Bo Pelini: Are you ready to go?
Burkhead: Absolutely. Let’s do this.
And he did it. From the Huskers’ first play of the second half to his final fourth quarter carry, Burkhead gained 69 yards. That was a yard more than what the entire offense had gained without him in the first half. He scored the Huskers only touchdown. He gave his team confidence. He gave his team’s fans confidence.
That last part isn’t so easy to do when Nebraska is 30 minutes away from losing control of the division and, potentially, a trip to the Big Ten title game.
But Rex did it.
He did it with the clutch run when Nebraska was backed up at its own 3-yard line in the fourth quarter. Burkhead plowed through the line and then through a throng of Hawkeyes to get the first down.
“I loved that run by Rex to get a first down, carrying people on his back,” running backs coach Ron Brown said. “That kind of heart and soul and spirit was huge at that point of the game.”
He did it on fourth-and-1 — after bobbling the pitch no less — to help set up a 52-yard Brett Maher field goal.
“He got a lot of tough yards,” offensive coordinator Tim Beck said.
He did it with the many little runs that made a big difference for the Huskers’ offense overall. Nebraska was off-schedule for most of the first half offensively, averaging just 2.8 yards per play on first down. Pure passing downs are problematic for an offense. When the conditions make passing nearly impossible, they’re a poison. Burkhead averaged 6.29 yards per carry on first down. Nebraska got back on schedule.
He did it with only 69 yards rushing. That’s not typically a myth-making performance, but Nebraskans’ love for Rex Burkhead isn’t typical.
Why do we watch sports? The popular answer is for the drama, to see real life play out with the unexpected twists and turns of fiction. Stories are an elemental part of us and the story of Burkhead’s return, while new on Friday, is actually quite old.
You take the hero, put him through increasingly more difficult trials, and then wait to see how – usually not if – he succeeds. It’s the basis for almost all dramas, from Homer’s “The Odyssey” to Vince McMahon’s “Friday Night Smack Down.”
We all inherently like this story. It’s part of us.
America’s leading mythologist, Joseph Campbell, once wrote that “myths are public dreams.”
Rex Burkhead is Nebraskans’ public dream. He’s carried the weight of the state’s football dreams on his back for the past four years.
There was mounting evidence – the comeback wins, the quickness and brilliance of Ameer Abdullah, the growth of Taylor Martinez — that maybe those days were done.
The Iowa game showed that they are not. Not yet.
“I appreciate everyone sticking in there with me,” Burkhead said after the game.
There was never any other choice. As humans we’re drawn to heroes.