Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Rex Burkhead's versatility traces back to father's failed journey to NFL

By: Henry McKenna | 1 hour ago 
Rex Burkhead’s versatility goes back to pool noodles and Nerf footballs.
Somehow, those two items helped build Burkhead into someone that New England Patriots running back Sony Michel called “the best back on the team” and who Bill Belichick called “one of our most dependable players.” Burkhead contributes on every down, whether he’s running between the tackles, executing routes with precision, demonstrating reliable hands or applying proper technique in pass protection. But that’s just on offense. The Patriots trust Burkhead on special teams, too, where he can contribute on all four elements between kickoffs and punts.
Rex’s versatility was discovered in pee wee football, when he was coached by his father, Rick Burkhead. Rick had pursued an NFL career but failed to make a roster after attending the Dolphins’ training camp in 1992 and the Eagles’ camp in 1993. Rick’s failure, in part, fueled Rex’s success. Rick was a fullback out of Eastern Kentucky, where they ran the option. The 1992 Miami Dolphins were not running the option.
“You’re standing with Dan Marino in practice, and Marino is changing the play three times before the snap in the first week of practice,” Rick said. “And I had no clue what he was saying.”
Rick did his best to learn and apply the passing concepts which were well beyond what he’d seen in college. And he felt he was doing a nice job. On one particular play, a defender clobbered Rick in coverage, yet Marino threw it to the fullback’s left knee and he caught it.
“Dude that was crazy,” Rick remembered saying to Marino. “Guy was all over me.”
“No, you were open,” Marino said. “I threw it to the open spot.”
It was another level of football.
When fullback Tony Paige came out of retirement at the end of that training camp, the Dolphins cut Burkhead. One year later, he tried out for Philadelphia, but the Eagles didn’t end up keeping a fullback on its 53-man roster. Rick landed with the FBI in Dallas, where he has enjoyed a 20-year career and runs the critical response teams. Rick had learned a lesson he would relay to his sons, Rex and Ryan, many years later.
When Rick coached Rex in pee wee and 7-on-7 football (a version with no offensive line and consisting exclusively of passing plays), Rick instilled an emphasis on versatility. He said he did his best not to be one of those crazy football dads — although it sounds as if he teetered on the edge.
Rick sat Rex down one day and asked if the NFL was Rex’s goal. Rex said it was, and they became committed to that goal together. But Rex said he didn’t feel added pressure to make the NFL just because his father didn’t.
“I didn’t honestly,” Rex said. “He made sure I had as much fun as possible. Yeah, he pushed me. … But he never put that pressure on me that if I didn’t make it, he’s going to frown upon me. It was always a great relationship between enjoying the game and continuing improvement.”

Rex Burkhead carries the ball during the third quarter against the New York Jets at Gillette Stadium in Week 3. (Photo by Billie Weiss/Getty Images)
From the perspective of Robyn Burkhead, Rex’s mom, that pressure was “self-inflicted.” And Rick and Rex, a pair of perfectionists, were a perfect match in Rex’s pursuit of the NFL.
“This was the kid that had goals stapled above his bedroom door every summer and hit it before he went out the door every morning,” she said. “It’s not like we had to enforce anything at all. It was pretty much on him. … He’s always been wired a little differently. As a little boy, every little thing was about a ball. The drive and the desire was always there.”
Rick used drills that he learned in Miami — with adaptations to suit youngsters. Instead of smacking ball-carriers with blocking dummies, Rick would have a running back run through a line of teammates with pool noodles.
“We’re doing the same stuff out here (with the Patriots),” Rex said. “[Although] we may not have pool noodles.”
Indeed, New England coaches throw white rags at players’ faces when they try to catch the football at practice. Belichick will even squirt water in the face of the holder to simulate rain on a field-goal attempt.
Rick and Rex invented similar drills together, often emphasizing a player’s ability to catch the ball. One drill had a player lying on his back while another player ran in circles around him while they threw the ball back and forth. (This emphasized catching the ball away from the prostrate player’s body). Another had a player get in a wheelbarrow-like position on his hands, push up, catch the ball and retain it through contact with the ground. Rex also performed drills with the offensive line, which surely paid off in his pass blocking.
Then there was the Nerf drill, a maniacal exercise mixed with father-son bonding. They’d stay up late at night, with Rick chucking the ball at either one of Rex’s ears, a spot which Rick had found was the hardest spot for him to make a catch.
“He would basically bring me balls every night, kind of like a dog,” Rick said. “I would stand behind the couch and throw it as hard as I can, and he didn’t know which ear (I was targeting).”
They drove Robyn crazy. She is a big football fan who takes pride in her own passing ability and might enjoy watching football on TV more than Rick. But she didn’t enjoy the broken lampshades and picture frames. Rex also would host “knee football” games which left holes in the wall and the blood on the carpet from rug burns.
“It drove her crazy. … We kept doing it,” Rex said with a laugh.
Rex’s strong play at Plano High School in suburban Dallas earned him a scholarship at Nebraska, where he ran the ball (3,329 rushing yards, 30 touchdowns), caught the ball (507 yards, five touchdowns), passed the ball (4 of 7 for 46 yards and three touchdowns) returned punts and logged special teams tackles.
After four college seasons, the Cincinnati Bengals selected Rex in the sixth round of the 2013 NFL Draft. He was stuck on the depth chart behind Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard, only getting a shot as a feature back when both players sat out in Week 17 of 2016. That game — with 119 rushing yards, two touchdowns and 25 receiving yards — helped raise Rex’s profile, and the Patriots signed him the following offseason. Although Burkhead has endured injuries in New England, he has been a nice fit with Tom Brady and the offense.

At Nebraska, Rex Burkhead catches a long pass over Idaho Vandals cornerback Aaron Grymes on September 4, 2010 in Lincoln, Nebraska. (Photo by Eric Francis/Getty Images)
Rex has gone through many of the same things with Tom Brady that Rick went through with Marino. In New England, the media often refers to Brady’s circle of trust — Rex is in it. Rick was trying to do the same, soaking up feedback from Marino, whom Rick said was enormously helpful, patient and instructive in Rick’s development. In his early days, Rex needed a few nudges from Brady, who paid close attention to the running back’s routes and helped him understand the timing that is paramount when playing with the Patriots quarterback. Rex has since become a fixture in the New England offense and on special teams.
“You know, there’s a handful of guys like that that can just play on every down but those guys are rare, and then to play at a high level like Kyle (Van Noy), Devin (McCourty), Pat (Chung), Rex do,” Belichick said in a press conference last week. “As a coach, that’s a tremendous luxury to have on your team, to have players that are that versatile in terms of the variety of things they can do, and then that versatile in terms of being able to do it at a high level in all of those situations. You’re lucky to have one of those guys on your team, maybe two of those guys on your team.”
In Week 3 against the New York Jets, Burkhead had 11 carries for 47 yards and a touchdown, plus six receptions for 22 yards, while playing 74 percent of the offensive snaps. He also pitched in on 40 percent of the special teams plays. Burkhead statitically outperformed the lead back, Michel, who has been unable to contribute in the passing game since joining the Patriots as a first-round draft choice in 2018.
That hearkens back to something Rex said last week: “The more you can do, the longer you can play.”
It’s not a novel concept in the NFL. But it’s a phrase that clearly holds special meaning to Rick and Rex Burkhead.

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