ST. PAUL, Minn. — Led by its star quarterback, an NFL dynasty walks onto the stage at the Super Bowl’s opening night. This is the game’s media day, and the Patriots are at the event for the eighth time since 2001.
New England fans cheer from the stadium seats, and the press — a mosh pit of 2,000 serious reporters and sideshow acts — gaze at the team. There’s a waving Tom Brady. Coach Bill Belichick wears a suit instead of his standard hooded sweatshirt. Also in a suit is Patriots owner Robert Kraft, a short, white-haired billionaire who’s a half step behind the line of players.
Right next to Kraft is Rex Burkhead. The Patriots’ running back looks briefly up at the popping fireworks and then out at everything before him.
“The most cameras I’ve ever seen,” Burkhead said a few minutes later. “This is nuts.”
He is a legend in Texas high school football, where he starred for Plano on Friday nights, and at Nebraska, where he became a Saturday afternoon folk hero for his playing style and a friendship with Jack Hoffman, a pediatric brain cancer patient. On game days, his No. 22 jersey still pops up all over Memorial Stadium.
But Burkhead’s original love was the NFL. His father, Rick, had his pro career cut far too short by injuries. Rex plastered every wall of his childhood room — the ceiling, too — with posters and cutouts of athletes he admired. NBA. Major League Baseball. Of course, NFL players.
Barry Sanders and LaDainian Tomlinson were Rex’s favorites, and Sanders’ pictures are all over. Right near the headboard of his bed is the old-school Nebraska logo — a big red N with black script “Huskers” in the middle.
Rick and Robyn, Rex’s mom, haven’t changed the room one bit since Rex left home.
“It’s neat,” Rex said. “I’m surprised they haven’t taken those pictures down. They keep them up. It’s special. It definitely brings memories back.”
So will the hour-long media session Burkhead has during Super Bowl opening night. Burkhead learned quickly: People don’t forget about him.
Patience, a lot of patience
Media night is a circus. Only some of the questions focus on the Super Bowl.
One reporter, from Australia, is asking players to share the biggest “BS” question they’ve been asked all night. Another asks Burkhead which teammate has the worst taste in music. Burkhead blinks and gives a non-answer. Then, he’s asked if he’s superstitious. Not anymore, he says.
“So can you shake hands with this guy?” a reporter asks, presenting another buddy who is apparently bad luck. “The biggest curse in the world! You touch him and it’s bad news.”
Burkhead shakes his hand.
“How do you feel now?”
Burkhead: “I’m good.”
“Is the life being sucked out of you?”
It’s the strangest exchange Burkhead has. Most of the night, he’s meeting old friends, in a way. Reporters from Nebraska. Reporters from Texas and Dallas specifically. Reporters from Cincinnati, where Burkhead spent the first four years of his NFL career. He remembers every one.
“Good to see you!” he says to one.
“Hey!” he says to another.
“It’s something you always dream about,” he says when asked about playing in the Super Bowl.
“Conserve my energy,” when asked about keys to the week.
He can lean on any number of teammates who have been through this before. For New England and particularly Brady, this is old hat.
It’s one of the reasons Burkhead, when he became an unrestricted free agent in the offseason, was so intrigued by the Patriots. He admired the franchise from afar.
The Bengals weren’t bad during his stint — three playoff appearances in four years — but Burkhead was generally stuck on the bench behind Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill, players Cincinnati drafted ahead of him. Burkhead got nine carries in 2014. Four in 2015. He toiled on special teams and caught the occasional pass.
“Patience,” Burkhead said. “A lot of patience. I tried to be as much of a team player as possible and tried not to focus on, ‘Should I be out there?’ but preparing for my opportunity to play.”
Through 10 games in 2016, Burkhead had six carries, six kickoff returns and two catches. In that 10th game, though, Bernard tore his ACL. Burkhead took his spot and took advantage.
He finished with 68 carries for 305 yards and caught 15 passes for 121 yards in the final six games. His biggest performance — the season finale — was an audition for free agency. Cincinnati coach Marvin Lewis made Burkhead the lead back for one game, and Burkhead ran for 119 yards and two touchdowns.
“We saw in that last game when he got a chance,” Cincinnati WLWT-TV sports anchor George Vogel said. “I think he should have gotten more of one, yeah. Any time that guy gets an opportunity, you see what he does. He’s certainly a missed piece in that organization.”
Vogel was one of several in the Cincinnati media who came over to say hi to Burkhead.
“You can’t beat him,” Vogel said. “You cannot beat him. First-class guy all the way through. A lot of times he didn’t play a whole lot but he was always a go-to guy for the media because you knew he’d be good.
“He’s good people. Nebraska should be proud of that guy.”
Fitting into the Patriot Way
When Belichick doesn’t want to answer a question — which is most of the time — he mutters a few words or, sometimes, just gives a constipated look.
When the Patriots coach is intrigued by a question, he still mutters, but he talks in one long, unceasing sentence, no periods and lots of commas, or maybe ellipses, as if reading a scouting report.
So is the case when he’s asked about Burkhead, whom the Patriots signed to a one-year, $3.15 million deal in the offseason.
“Going back to Nebraska, Rex was a good football player, versatile guy, could run, catch, tough, he played in the kicking game, he did all those things for Cincinnati in varying degrees, more offensively in that last season than some of the other seasons because of the depth they had at that position, he’s done all that for us, played on all four downs, very productive, running, catching, kicking game, tough, good football player, smart, like him,” Belichick said.
Belichick’s won five Super Bowls being, well, like that.
“His knowledge for the game is unbelievable . It’s off the charts,” Burkhead said of his coach. “He knows every single coach or player who’s ever played the game. Every stat. It’s unreal.”
The Patriots are built with Belichick’s brain in mind. After Burkhead signed the deal, which included a $1.1 million signing bonus, he quickly became aware of The Patriot Way. The culture includes catchphrases — “do your job,” “attention to detail” — and a kind of ruthless objectivity from Belichick on down. Players lead by example, or they’re made the example.
“Half the team’s there super early,” Burkhead said of his first day with New England. “Just seeing the focus going into workouts, every single detail in warmups and certain drills we’re doing. You saw attentiveness and the competitiveness right off the bat.”
Brandin Cooks also joined the Patriots in the offseason.
“From the first day of offseason workouts, I knew it was a great organization,” he said.
Brady, the 40-year-old quarterback who has increasingly promoted his brand of healthy living and now stars in the Facebook documentary “Tom vs. Time,” is the constant of the franchise. He’s won every Super Bowl for the Patriots.
The parts around him change. Especially the running backs.
New England’s leading rusher from last season? LeGarrette Blount? The Patriots signed Burkhead and Mike Gillislee instead; Blount will play for the Eagles in the Super Bowl.
Patriot holdovers Dion Lewis and James White have been with New England for years, always sharing carries and receptions. Burkhead was added to that mix, though he missed six regular-season games with various injuries. Typically playing on first and second down — and often when Brady was under center — Burkhead had 264 yards rushing, 254 yards receiving and eight total touchdowns.
Lewis, White, Burkhead and Gillislee combined had 2,626 yards from scrimmage and 26 total touchdowns. New England was second in the NFL in points per game.
“They’ve all contributed,” Belichick said of the four backs. “It’s a healthy situation.”
Burkhead credits New England’s success to the “competitive atmosphere” created by Belichick and the example set by Brady, who doesn’t have to say a word, Burkhead said, to get his point across. It was Burkhead who ran into Brady’s right hand during a practice before the AFC championship, busting it up. Brady still played well, throwing two fourth-quarter touchdowns as the Patriots beat the Jaguars. He also wore gloves to Super Bowl opening night.
Perhaps that’s why Burkhead would answer any question — except one about Brady’s hand.
Yes, Burkhead would like to stay with the Patriots after the season, he said. But there’s no guarantees of that. It’s Belichick. It’s New England.
So he has this moment, the Super Bowl. He’s always watched the game on TV. Now he’ll be on the field.
His parents are headed up for the game. He’d hoped a few more guests could attend, too.
Alas, the Hoffman family, Burkhead said, had scheduled a cruise well in advance of the game.
Burkhead’s friendship with Jack, which dates to Burkhead’s junior season at Nebraska, is perhaps his biggest legacy. Jack is 12 now; he was 5 and a pediatric brain cancer patient when they met at NU.
The Team Jack Foundation, which resulted from their bond, has raised millions of dollars for pediatric brain research. Burkhead holds his annual Team Jack Gala in Lincoln in February. Last year, he held his first Team Jack fundraiser in his hometown of Plano. He made it a cause in Cincinnati, too.
“It’s so special to be a part of,” Burkhead said. “The foundation’s doing great. The gala we’re going to have in February is unbelievable. We’re spreading that awareness throughout the country because it is a rare disease and it needs more and more research and treatment options.”
Burkhead talked to his dad last week about his life — their life — in the sport.
“He’s pushed me as hard as I wanted him to,” Burkhead said. “We were talking the other day, how it all started in Pee-Wee football, where he coached me.
“It’s crazy. It’s my 20th year of playing football in total. It’s unbelievable to look back and see where I am today.”