FOXBORO, Mass. — Rex Burkhead wore a red hoodie, a gray beanie and a wide smile as he addressed reporters in front of his locker Thursday afternoon.
He had every reason to be happy.
Just days after welcoming his first child into the world, the New England Patriots running back officially was removed from injured reserve and added to the 53-man roster Monday, making him eligible to play in Sunday’s matchup with the Minnesota Vikings at Gillette Stadium.
“It feels great,” Burkhead said in his first remarks to the New England media since September. “I’m looking forward to being back here on the field on Sunday and just being back out here with the team, practicing again and being around the guys. The past few weeks, it’s been different. It’s been weird not being around everything, so it just feels good.”
Burkhead was placed on IR after suffering a neck injury during a Week 3 loss to the Detroit Lions. It was the latest in a long line of injuries he’s suffered since joining the Patriots ahead of the 2017 season, but he’d never been forced to spend significant time away from the team.
Under NFL rules, players placed on IR cannot practice for six weeks and must sit out at least eight games.
“It’s not fun, for sure,” Burkhead said. “It’s something that I’ve never really dealt with for an extended period of time. But it puts things in perspective. It makes you really appreciate your time out on the football field and in the locker room with the guys. It makes you miss it, for sure. You’re just really appreciative for every moment you have, so I was definitely looking forward to when I could get back out there.”
Patriots coach Bill Belichick on Wednesday commended Burkhead for the hard work he put in while sidelined, saying the 28-year-old “consistently met or exceeded targets” set for him by the team.
“I just worked my tail off,” Burkhead said when asked about Belichick’s praise. “That was really it. Just doing whatever I could and control what I could control. The trainers did a great job; the strength coaches did a great job, really just getting me back into shape and being ready to go whenever I was able to come back and start practicing.”
With Burkhead unavailable, the Patriots, who also lost Jeremy Hill to a season-ending torn ACL in Week 1, have relied for much of the season on a backfield combo of rookie Sony Michel, veteran co-captain James White and converted wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson.
With Michel dealing with injuries of his own, the Patriots entered multiple games with just two active running backs.
“It was tough — very tough,” said Burkhead, who has 24 carries for 86 yards and three catches for 31 yards in three games this season. “But they’ve done a great job. Guys really stepped up and played their tails off. Even CP getting in there and getting some action. That was fun to watch. But at the same time, (I was) just doing whatever I could and still staying locked in mentally.”
Burkhead said he’s needed to “knock the rust off” since returning to practice Nov. 8, but he feels ready to get back to work on Sunday.
“I’m excited for sure,” he said. “Especially with it being a home game against a good team like the Vikings, it’s definitely going to be a challenge, and I’m looking forward to it for sure.”