Roy Exum: Little Jack’s Great Big Run

Wednesday, April 10, 2013 - by Roy Exum

By now 4 million people in the world have wept over the final play of Nebraska’s spring football game last Saturday and almost every one of them now has a heart for the ‘Huskers. Jack Hoffman, age 7, was put into the game of Goliaths and he – now in a two-week lull of 60 weeks of chemotherapy – had the longest run of the day, a 69-yard touchdown on fourth-and-one that stole the afternoon for the 60,714 watching in the warm Lincoln sun.

I think everybody in America should watch the video and embrace it and use it as an example of what we should each aspire to be for those who struggle. But I also think everybody should know a little more than the film shows because it was not a publicity stunt or a billboard for the ravages of pediatric cancer. No, Jack’s run at Nebraska actually started a couple of years ago.

When he was five years old he came to the breakfast table once morning in the little town of Atkinson, Neb. and was totally unresponsive. His alarmed parents rushed him to the local hospital where he suffered a massive seizure for 30 minutes and was airlifted to Omaha’s Children’s Hospital. It was there a golf-ball sized tumor was found.

Doctors told his parents surgery was needed but warned Jack might never wake up. They gambled but doctors were unable to get much of the tumor. After surgery Jack suffered multiple seizures and it became apparent a second attempt – at a much larger risk – was the child’s only hope. But about two weeks before they would go to Children’s Hospital in Boston, his dad Andy had an idea.

Jack’s dad called the Nebraska athletic department and asked if he could drive his son to Lincoln so he could meet –  in person – his favorite Cornhusker player. Jack loves NU running back Rex Burkhead who is now awaiting the NFL draft. Saying hello wasn’t enough, not for Rex, so Jack ate at the training table and then Rex took his to the stadium, where Jack outran the stellar player up and down the field.

Deeply moved, Burkhead followed Jack’s critical surgery and became more enmeshed with the boy. They had Jack come back to Lincoln, where he and another child with brain cancer, Isaiah Casillas, were invited to pregame activities and then ran onto the field during the 30-27 win over Wisconsin. Three months later Isaiah died and Burkhead soon launched the Nebraska chapter of “Uplifting Athletes,” a non-profit where college athletes use their fame to raise money to help people. Burkhead and his buddies have raised over $300,000 thus far for pediatric brain tumor research.

"Jack has taught me a lot about life," Burkhead told reporters. "He's put my life in perspective. To see Jack battle, it's something I never had to go through when I was a kid. But he's still living life and having fun and laughing. Just seeing that is motivation for me. If there's anything in my life that I think is hard, I take a second look at it now."

There was another thing that happened. The other players grew to admire and appreciate Jack, too. Many wear wrist bands that read, “Team Jack Pray.” Burkhead hasn’t taken his off, not for even a minute, since he begged one from Jack on the very first day they met. So just before the team divided on Saturday for the annual spring game, UN head coach Bo Pellini hauled Jack up in front of the team and yelled, “This is the toughest kid in Nebraska! Today, he’s going to fight with you!” The Husker players, as you might guess, went crazy.

Jack appeared on the sidelines wearing street clothes the first half, standing with his dad and his best friend Burkhead, but during the third quarter about 10 players made a tight huddle and helped Jack change into his makeshift uniform, his jersey No. 22 just like Rex Burkhead wore before his final season last fall.

Suddenly All-American quarterback Taylor Martinez appeared, drawing Jack a diagram on a marker board of what he would do.  “I think that’s where the nerves kicked in … he went from excitement to that deer-in-the-headlights look. I told him, ‘Don’t fumble, don’t fall down, and don’t run out-of-bounds,” said his dad.

Martinez, absolutely beside himself, led Jack into the ‘Husker backfield and big fullback C.J. Zimmerer encouraged Jack, “Follow me … follow me … no one will ever touch you!” So you watch the tape, 69 yards. You can see what happens but watch the real athletes, too, and their unbridled joy.

"It was all unscripted, other than us letting him score a touchdown," said the head coach afterwards. "Our kids running into the end zone, I never told them to do that. When I saw both sidelines empty and saw them celebrating with him, that was special. Our kids have been around this young man and have such a tremendous amount of respect for him and love him. He doesn't say much, but he's an intense kid. Obviously, he's been through so much."

And Burkhead? "It was awesome. It's something you can't put into words as far as how emotional it was. I was a fan of him. It was great seeing him get to enjoy the Husker experience. As a boy growing up in Nebraska, that's what you dream to do."

For Jack Hoffman it was undoubtedly the biggest thrill of his life. The only thing bigger will be when the cancer’s gone and this week our 7-year-old and his family resumed that steep climb. But for those who have watched and learned from the delicious two minutes with our speakers turned up high, Coach Pellini brought it all into perspective. “It's what we try to teach our players every day: that there's a much bigger picture out there other than football.

“There just is … ," he said, repeating. "There just is. Sometimes, that gets lost with everything that goes into college football. There's so much pressure and so much at stake. Sometimes our kids feel like, 'Wow! Football is tough and it's difficult.' Football is hard. But when you compare it to what a 7-year-old like Jack is going through, it pales in comparison. They should look up to the heavens every day and be thankful."

Jack’s father, Andy, became so emotional during the run he was unable to take a picture. After wepting like the rest of us, he said, “Jack is so incredibly blessed to have had such an amazing experience,” Andy said. “We’re thankful to Coach Pellini for the opportunity, but we also thank God that He has given Jack the physical ability to make that run. Pediatric brain cancer is a horrific illness. For Jack to undergo two very deep brain tumor surgeries and almost a year of chemotherapy, we find it amazing that he has the physical ability to run 69 yards. It’s a gift from God.”

Indeed. But so are the ‘Huskers.

* * *

12 THINGS THAT HAPPENED AFTER JACK’S RUN

1) Jack becomes the game’s leading rusher on one magical play.

2) Jack receives the game ball in the locker room from Coach Pelini.

3) Jack becomes the No. 1 video “Play of the Day”  on ESPN.

4) Jack is swarmed by Nebraska media, warmed by national response.

5) ESPN played, replayed and kept Jack prominent in its rotation.

6) ESPN.com headline asks: “Is Jack’s touchdown the greatest one ever?”

7) Kirk Herbstreit: "One of the coolest things I've seen in a long time."

8) Erin Andrews of Fox Sports to nearly 1.8 million Twitter followers: “I love Nebraska, Bo Pelini, and the fball team for allowing that little fan to have a moment like that today!"

9) Actress Alyssa Milano to 2.4 million followers: “OMG! MUST see! Tiny cancer survivor scores in Nebraska's spring game & Nebraska goes NUTS”

10) ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt tweets how "a 7-year-old named Jack Hoffman & Nebraska reminded us why we love them.”

11) ESPN’s Stuart Scott and Colin Cowherd and SI.com’s Stewart Mandel follow suit. Warning: "Keep a tissue nearby".

12) Larry the Cable Guy tweets that “Jack got-r-done!!”  and “made a lot of people happy today. Tell him Mater was cheering him on.”

royexum@aol.com


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