NEBRASKA RUNNING BACK REX BURKHEAD WAS A SENIOR AT DALLAS'S PLANO SENIOR HIGH when he first picked up a copy of The Mental Edge. In the midst of a season during which he scored 35 touchdowns and led the Wildcats to the state 5A playoffs, Burkhead came across the book by noted sports psychologist Kenneth Baum and was turned on to its message: The mental aspect of sports is often the most important. "There are always things you can do physically," Burkhead says now, "but when it comes down to it, when you get in tougher situations during games, you have to have that mental edge."
Burkhead carried this mantra to Lincoln, where he has been a staple in the Cornhuskers' backfield for the last two seasons. "He's the kind of guy that anybody would die to have on their football team," coach Bo Pelini says. The 5' 11", 210-pound senior tailback finished with 1,357 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns for Big Red last season—the most yards by a Nebraska running back since Ahman Green's 1,877 in 1997—and reached the end zone in each of the season's first 10 games, tying a school record. He and scrambling quarterback Taylor Martinez formed the Cornhuskers' two-headed rushing attack, which finished third in the Big Ten.
The mental side of football is where Burkhead likes to find his advantage. This off-season he again cracked open Baum's book and also passed it to linebacker Will Compton, one of the returning leaders on defense, to help stress accountability across the roster, the notion of playing smart and not simply playing hard. "We can relay that message to the rest of the team," Burkhead says. It's a message with no better spokesman than Burkhead. "Every aspect of his football game—mentally, physically, emotionally—he's all in," says offensive coordinator Tim Beck. "I think that's one of the things that really separates him."
For the past year Burkhead, a history major, has separated himself in other ways, spending time in the company of Jack Hoffman, a six-year-old Nebraska fan battling a rare pediatric brain tumor. The team set up a meeting between the two last fall, and the friendship grew throughout the season as the Huskers sported wristbands supporting Jack's fight. In February, Burkhead was named the national 2012 Uplifting Athletes Rare Disease Champion. Burkhead has stayed in touch with Jack, who still has several months of chemotherapy ahead of him. "That award was for Jack and other kids who have diseases [like his]," says Burkhead.
On the field Burkhead's durability made him irreplaceable for Nebraska in 2011, when he carried the ball more than 20 times in eight games, six against Big Ten foes. But he knows the work off the field makes the difference, so he put in extra hours in the film room this off-season. "Each year you start to see a game that's coming to you slower," he says. "I've been working in the film room a lot just trying to see what defenses are doing, just so I can react quicker to what they bring."
Though he theorized that the Big Ten brings "bigger guys up front" than the Big 12 did, Burkhead had little trouble steamrolling defenses in the Huskers' first season in their new conference. But it was his brain, not just his brawn, that produced his success. "You have to have mental toughness that will put you over your opponents," Burkhead says. "That's what separates the good from the great."