Randy York's N-Sider
When Andy Hoffman and 7-year-old son Jack woke up Sunday morning, they didn't pinch each other before that first bite of toast, and they didn't ask each other about a dream they both lived but still can’t quite grasp. A lawyer in Atkinson, Neb., Andy calls Saturday's experience a "surreal ripple effect" of an audacious idea that emerged from circular logic, yet somehow soared to the top of the nation’s sports conscience at a time you'd least expect.
When a loving father and a brave son are closing in on the finish line of a 60-week chemotherapy protocol for brain cancer, they don't expect the world, including ESPN's Sports Center and ABC's Good Morning America, to focus on an ordinary family that had an extraordinary experience. When that happens, though, a mom and a dad are humbled because they know that the national spotlight is also focusing on the University of Nebraska, on head coach Bo Pelini and his football program, and on the disease itself. Who could have guessed that Jack’s historic and heroic 69-yard touchdown midway through the fourth quarter of Nebraska's annual Spring Game would be trending like March Madness and the NCAA Final Four?
Somehow, the sports world not only paused and took notice of this creative 11th-hour idea, but also relished and embraced it, reported and promoted it, and, in its own way, elevated a unique Nebraska story to a league of its own.
Pint-Sized Hero Poster Child for NU's Program
What America has here is a pint-sized national hero who's stolen hearts across the country. He's become a catalyst for a program with college football’s best overall record over the past 50 years, not to mention home for an unprecedented 325 consecutive home game sellouts. Talk about positive brand awareness. Here are a dozen ways Jack is representing Nebraska, Husker football, Big Red fans and pediatric brain cancer:
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.”
After a Day in Sunshine, Time for Church, Reflection
Jack, his dad, plus a friend and his dad, enjoyed dinner with Rex Burkhead and his parents, Rick and Robyn, on Saturday night, then drove 3½ hours back to Atkinson. "Fortunately, we were on a drug-free, alcohol-free high from an amazing afternoon at Memorial Stadium," Andy said, adding that the weekend whirlwind transitioned Sunday to church and reflection for a quiet, courageous kid to get back to his normal routine in small-town America. Relatively unaware that his shadow is reaching across the country and around the world, Jack will go to school Monday, play with his friends and become a beacon of hope for the cause of pediatric brain cancer. Because Team Jack has raised more than $300,000, Uplifting Athletes can support the disease that continues to threaten Jack's life. That's why Andy shares the sanctity of Saturday's experience with equal doses of humility and respect for everyone who made it possible.
Andy Hoffman loves the way fullback C.J. Zimmerer, the president of Nebraska’s chapter of Uplifting Athletes, was involved from the outset. Andy was shocked when Jeff Jamrog, assistant AD for football operations, called him Friday night to discuss the idea while Jack was in bed, preparing for an early-morning drive. Both father and son were thrilled when Jamrog, assistant Jake Wesch, Zimmerer, receivers coach Rich Fisher and Pelini made sure that a bold, inspiring idea became a reality that broadens and reinforces Jack's – and Team Jack's – ever-expanding popularity.
Believe me, this was no publicity stunt. It was a sincere, heartfelt gesture to acknowlege and inspire a young cancer patient who represents countless more across the country and around the world. The decision to honor Jack in a Nebraska players/coaches-led way traces back to Pelini inviting the Hoffman family to Nebraska’s football banquet last December. NU's sixth-year head coach told the Hoffmans how much Jack inspired the team and how the team wanted Jack to remain a part of the Husker family experience, even though Burkhead, his buddy, would move on to the NFL.
“Today was another ‘once-in-a-lifetime-experience’ for our son,” Hoffman told me Saturday. “Coach Pelini is world class. Truly there are no words to describe what this means to Jack and our entire family. Watching Jack run ahead of both teams towards the North end zone, I was absolutely overcome with emotion. Our heart overflows with gratitude for what Coach Pelini and his staff have done for our son. It truly means the world.
“Jack is so incredibly blessed to have had such an amazing experience,” Andy said. “We’re thankful to Coach Pelini 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.”
Coach Pelini Kneels, Connects with Players, Jack
Inside the doors of a postgame locker room, Jack received the game ball, and the Huskers shared a spiritual moment. Coach Pelini and his team went to a knee, and Nebraska’s head coach held a player’s hand on the left and a 7-year-old’s hand on the right. Like he did at a pre-bowl practice, Pelini then asked Jack to help “break it down” and he did with a word, a fist and a heart.
"What a special moment that was when Jack got the game ball in the locker room,” Andy said. “It’s one that he will never forget nor will I. Jack was absolutely pumped when he was invited to join the team on the field. He loved running with the football. Taylor Martinez was so gracious. He was helping Jack every step of the way, starting on the sideline when Joe Ganz was drawing up the play. What fantastic ambassadors for the program! Everyone exemplifies the great character of their coach - something the Burkheads have known for four straight years."
Zimmerer took Jack under his wing on Nebraska’s sideline Saturday. “C.J. has been there every step of the way during Jack’s fight,” Andy said. “It really meant a lot to Jack and our family that C.J. was such a big part of today’s touchdown run. We can’t thank Coach Pelini enough for everything that he’s done for Jack and our family this past year.”
I tell Jack that I remember how he challenged and then beat Rex in a race from Memorial Stadium's South end zone to the North end zone a year-and-a-half ago. Then I ask him which race was more fun – the one where there were only a five people watching or the one where at least two-thirds of the 60,000 fans were watching, plus a national television audience? Jack looked puzzled. He thought for a couple seconds, then a light bulb came on, and he smiled broadly. “Both!” he said. “I like both the same!!”
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