Those players who signed letters of intent to play at Texas A&M fully anticipated, along with their friends and families, to play more than just home games in the state of Texas. They expected MOST of their games to be held close enough to home to drive on a Saturday and see that player before their eyes (minus a remote control). Beginning in 2012, it will NOT be the case because it’s a damn sight harder to hook it over to Gainesville, Fla., than to go to Waco, Texas…or even Lubbock.
One of those players is Rex Burkhead, a product of Plano Senior High School, a couple of miles from my house. The running back was a star for the Wildcats, leading his team to the Class 5A-Division 1 semi-finals in 2008. (Texas divides schools by attendances TWICE for football playoffs; but don’t ask, too hard to explain).
However, he wasn’t that heavily recruited, especially by the University of Texas, which finds nearly ALL its recruits in-state. His 40-yard dash time of 4.84 wasn’t particularly impressive and while he was named the Player of the Year by the Dallas Morning News, the upper echelon state schools weren’t among them.
Eventually, Burkhead was scooped up by Nebraska and on Saturday, he, and his Nebraska teammates, will make their first-ever visit to Ann Arbor to play Michigan … of the Big 10 Conference. But when he signed with the Huskers, I guarantee such a scenario was the furthest thing from his mind. After all, Nebraska was part of the Big 12 Conference and there were potential games close to home in Waco, Austin, College Station and Lubbock. Heck, his folks could make the three-hour trip to Norman, Okla. to see Nebraska play Oklahoma.
But decisions made one year ago destroyed all that. Nebraska, long wishing to escape the far-reaching shadow of the Longhorns, jumped at the invitation from the Big 10 to join it as its twelfth member (it’s odd that the Big 10 has 12 members and the Big 12 has 10…). Unless the Burkheads spend the money to fly to Detroit, book a hotel room for a couple of nights and spend on meals, they will join me Saturday searching for which ESPN channel will air the game.
As said, that wasn’t part of the deal in 2009 when Burkhead inked his NCAA letter of intent because Nebraska did not maintain its own promise NOT to completely change the scenery.
Burkhead has turned out to be an excellent signing for the Cornhuskers. This season, he has rushed for 1,072 yards on 212 carries (a 5.1 yard per carry average) and 14 touchdowns. In addition, he was caught 15 passes for 130 yards and two touchdowns.
All this promise was evident here in Plano. As a junior, Burkhead led his team to a 13-2 record and a spot in the 5A state semifinals where Plano went out to eventual champions Euless Trinity in double-overtime. He finished the year with 1,769 yards rushing and 29 touchdowns.
As a senior, Burkhead ran 256 times for 1,776 yards and 23 touchdowns, plus 42 receptions for 592 yards and 4 touchdowns. The Plano Senior High School schedule contained five schools which had captured state championships.
While not blessed with great speed, Burkhead is a strong individual. In high school, he bench-pressed 320 pounds and squatted 500 pounds. He also had an impressive 38-inch vertical jump, which was employed in basketball where he was starting point guard, averaging 16 points per contest.
Academically, he was a solid high school student, with a 3.6 GPA and 25 score on the ACT test.
“I can catch the ball and take hits. I’m good out of the backfield too and can do anything; I can even punt or play quarterback,” he told local media back in his Plano days. “I do it all. I’m just a do-anything-type guy and can just open up the offense. But I still want to improve my pass blocking skills and make better cuts and reads.”
When people think of Texas, they often, and improperly envision, open range, oil wells, lots and lots of cattle and cowboys … and for much of the state, it’s accurate. That describes much of the acreage west of Fort Worth, but for the major population areas (Dallas-Fort Worth, Austin, San Antonio, Houston), it’s as wrong as it could be.
There is a saying in Texas, as a response to someone from this area: “Hon, I’m not from Texas, I’m from Dallas.” Dallas has always been more about high style than any other region of Texas. “Urban Cowboy” could only have been filmed in Houston because that area reflects part of the film’s message. The TV show “Dallas” reflected what the city was like in 1977, but things have changed drastically, and Plano mirrors all the alterations.
Plano is a northern suburb of Dallas - very flat, plain and ugly in terms of topography. It is significant for its subdivisions, shopping centers and athletic reputation (aside from its dark days as Heroin Capital for the fairly rampant usage in the late 1980s at … Plano Senior High School). Its alumni include several actors of decent note and three former NFL stars (Billy Ray Smith, Pat Thomas and Alan Reuber).
In the late 1970s, Plano was much smaller (72,000) than its current population of more than 277,000. Because of what is known as “build out,” Plano’s size will stay at that level for the rest of most people’s known lives.
Other area and neighboring cities have experienced even faster, explosive growth, but Plano is the model by which most DFW suburbs are marked. Any open space is either viewed as a housing development or retain opportunity.
With such growth comes expansion of the school system and in Texas, it means high school athletics. And Plano has earned more than its share of state championships, seven in football ranking behind only Celina (a small community in the same county), Brownwood and Southlake Carroll. The last one happened in 1994.
The fable of “Friday Night Lights” aside, there is nothing like the experience of Texas schoolboy football, where hundreds of thousands of supporters travel highways and back roads to watch the local sons play for the home town. And when playoffs roll around, the crowds balloon into the thousands and the venues change from high school stands to the likes of Cowboys Stadium, The Alamodome, The Astrodome, Kyle Field (at Texas A&M), Ford Field (at SMU), and many, many others.
When Plano lost to Euless Trinity, it was in front of 45,000 spectators at the (now defunct) Texas Stadium, the former home of the Dallas Cowboys. This Saturday, Burkhead will play in front of the largest live audience he’s ever seen.
And it’s miles and miles and miles away from his Plano home. That wasn’t the deal when he signed, but it’s what’s happening now.
So when schools, like Boise State, negotiate with the Big East Conference for admission, merely to get itself as place at the BCS table and a bigger share of the crumbs (someone else already ate most of the pie), think about all those families out in the Utah cold (or in Texas) who simply cannot go see their sons play in the likes of Pennsylvania, upstate New York, or any place on the East Coast.
Those expectations get trampled quicker than the chariot racer in “Ben-Hur.” And just as painful.