Scott Shirley holds Jack Hoffman and Ryan Burkhead holds Isaiah Casillas Saturday night..
Photo by Scott Bruhn/Nebraska Communications

Jack & Isaiah: Little People With Big Hearts

By NU Athletic Communications

Randy York’s N-Sider

Two heroes representing Nebraska’s second biggest home football comeback of all time led Saturday night’s Tunnel Walk but didn’t play a down. They became larger than life on facebook but weren’t introduced to a sellout Homecoming crowd until after the band finished its halftime performance. Running back Rex Burkhead lifted up Jack Hoffman, 7, so he could touch the lucky horseshoe hanging over the locker room door that marks the first step of Nebraska’s emotional march to the field. Receiver Quincy Enunwa lifted up Isaiah Casillas, 6, so he could touch the same horseshoe. Then Burkhead and Enunwa became personal body guards, helping two fun-loving little boys with brain cancer avoid a human stampede.

Big Red fans could see the uplifting ceremonial horseshoe experience on Memorial Stadium’s big screens, and they tweeted, retweeted, liked and told facebook followers why those two little heroes touched their hearts. Not every man, woman or child saw that touching scene, but Keith Zimmer did. He watched Bo Pelini kneel down and put his arms around Jack and Isaiah in the hallway adjacent to the locker room.

Zimmer, Nebraska’s associate athletic director for Life Skills, was the one that connected the Burkhead family with the Hoffman family – a relationship that celebrated its one-year anniversary Saturday on Nebraska football’s center stage.

Bo Has His Own Private Moment

The scene will forever be etched in Zimmer’s mind. "When I saw Bo fist-bumping Jack and Isaiah before they helped lead the team onto the field, I thought to myself: 'What other head football coach would include two little boys with his team before going out on national television?' Just seeing that was one of the most touching moments of my life.”

It was poignant because it came straight from Bo’s heart and outside the spotlight. “When Bo fist-bumped Jack and Isaiah, he told both of them how glad he was that they could be a part of the Tunnel Walk,” Zimmer said.

Forget about a first-half performance that fell flatter than a pancake block. Little Jack and Isaiah are doing big things for Nebraska football, and what they bring to the table goes beyond winning and losing. Jack is Rudy. Isaiah is Rocky and together they stir the emotions like a double matinee of Hoosiers and Remember the Titans.

Jack celebrated birthday No. 7 at home in Atkinson, Neb., last Wednesday. Isaiah’s family in McCook, Neb., just hopes and prays that he'll make it to his seventh birthday.

Jack and Isaiah: Two Little Titans

These two little boys share brain tumor experiences. They compare surgical scars on their heads, and they admire Rex Burkhead with the same kind of love and affection they have for their parents.

No wonder Burkhead helped convince 46 of his teammates and his head coach why it made sense to launch a Nebraska chapter of Uplifting Athletes, a national nonprofit organization that aligns college football teams with rare diseases. Fullback C.J. Zimmerer is the president of Nebraska’s chapter of Uplifting Athletes, and he considers Jack and Isaiah two titans to be remembered and two targets among thousands of other pediatric brain care patients that have been using the same treatment protocol for 25 years.

Because of Rex and Jack and now Isaiah, there is a formal launching pad to make pediatric brain cancer a national priority. “Nebraska’s chapter is a true blessing for the rare disease community to share Rex and Jack’s inspirational story with so many caring people in the great state of Nebraska,” Scott Shirley said Saturday.

As Uplifting Athletes founder, executive director and chairman, Shirley understands why more than 76,000 Husker fans voted for Burkhead to win the 2012 Rare Disease Champion Award. Rick and Robyn Burkhead, Rex's parents, and his brother, Ryan, a former defensive end starter at Harvard, accepted his award from Shirley at halftime with Rick holding Jack and Ryan holding Isaiah. Big Red fans showed their appreciation for Rex, his little buddies and the cause that Burkhead and his teammates have chosen to support.

Burkhead: Perfect Representative

"Rex embodies the meaning of our Rare Disease Champion,” Shirley said. “He’s the perfect representative for Uplifting Athletes and a terrific advocate for pediatric brain cancer research. At a time when it seems all eyes are on college football, the Huskers understand the opportunity that they have to use their position to help those who need it most. They’re a shining example for what’s right with this great sport." 

Shirley announced Saturday that an anonymous donor has graciously pledged to match donations made to the Nebraska football team's Uplifting Athlete's chapter, up to $100,000, for all pledges or donations received by the chapter before the next bowl game. “This money, as well as all other money raised,” Shirley said, “will go towards pediatric brain cancer research – the rare disease the Nebraska Chapter has chosen to support.”

Those wishing to donate can do so through this Uplifting Athlete donation site, which has been approved by the NCAA, according to Jamie Vaughn, Nebraska’s associate athletic director for Compliance.

$100,000: Seed Money for Cause

"The generosity of Husker nation is overwhelming,” Shirley said. “This $100,000 pledge has the potential to be the largest single gift Uplifting Athletes has ever received and significantly moves the ball forward in the Nebraska chapter's drive to cure pediatric brain cancer. My heartfelt gratitude goes out to all of those who made this possible."  

Andy Hoffman, Jack’s dad, said a grass-roots group has sold about 10,000 Team Jack tee-shirts and that group is donating 100 percent of its net proceeds of approximately $100,000 to pediatric brain cancer research.

The Hoffman and Casillas families enjoyed watching Nebraska’s Saturday night comeback win with Shirley, who played football at Penn State now has become a certifiable Husker fan because “he thinks we have an incredible university, incredible student-athletes and an incredible fan base,” Andy Hoffman said.

Saturday night’s comeback was reminiscent of Nebraska’s 34-27 win over Ohio State last year. That was the Huskers’ biggest come-from-behind home-field effort in school history. It was also the national introduction of Team Jack because the television commentators unveiled the story of the game’s individual hero, connecting Burkhead’s never-give-up spirit to his mentoring relationship with a 6-year-old boy getting ready to go Boston for brain tumor surgery.

“Rex really helped Jack get through a lot of rough moments. He’s uplifted our whole family going through this process,” Andy said.

Struggles Part of the Experience

According to Hoffman, Nebraska’s first-half struggles Saturday night reflected the challenges inherent in both football and life. Both journeys require care, love and compassion with equal doses of inspiration and hope. Cancer scares you, but also teaches you never to lose heart or give up. It gives you strength, courage and confidence every time you stare fear in the face.

Pelini used three words – character, toughness and perseverance – to communicate what he thought carried Nebraska to victory over the Badgers. He could have used the same three words to describe the young cancer patients that led the entire team through a memorable Tunnel Walk.

Saturday night, after celebrating a great award, a great win and a team that seeks greatness in more ways than one, Andy Hoffman asked Jack what Rex Burkhead told him right before the Tunnel Walk.

Burkhead asked his little buddy a three-word question: “Are you ready?” And fortunately, he was, just like the Huskers were ready to scale a mountain of their own making. Yes, they self-destructed more than once Saturday night. But like Jack Hoffman and Isaiah Cassilas, they did not lose heart. They refused to buckle, and they did not give up. They, in fact, fought to a glorious and a triumphant end.

“Last night was the highlight of my family’s life,” Andy Hoffman said. “We’ve never had so many emotions stirred all at once. We can’t believe the way Husker Nation has embraced Rex and these two little boys that represent a cause he believes so strongly in. When I looked at the sign coming into the stadium that said Through These Gates Pass the Greatest Fans in College Football, I thought to myself that even the players don’t know the half of that. As one of thousands of families who care about pediatric brain cancer, we know why Nebraska fans are so great … because they care so much, and that literally brings tears to my eyes and so many others out there.”

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