Monday was Andy Hoffman's 7th bowl game as a Nebraska football fan, and he'd be the first to tell you Orlando's Capital One Bowl was very different for him. It was, in fact, more special than any of the first six bowl games he attended combined. Andy and his wife, Bri, are not Nebraska season ticketholders, nor are they fair-weather NU fans. Like Husker fans everywhere, they were disappointed when Nebraska didn't finish well against South Carolina. "We had our chances, and it wasn't easy sitting there and watching the game slip out of our hands," Andy said, admitting that once upon a time, he would have been complaining and swearing about what was happening inside a rickety old stadium built in the 1930s when Hitler was in power.
"This bowl game, though, was different, and the week leading up to it was very emotional for me and my wife," Hoffman said. "As the game headed in a direction we didn't want to see it go, I put my hand on my son's head and looked at my wife, and we both knew, right there, that I finally had some real perspective about football."
Andy's son, you may already know, is Jack Hoffman, a6-year-old pediatric cancer patient who's been through two brain surgeries. Andy and Bri admit they're getting "quite anxious" to get the results of the second surgery next week when they head back to Children's Hospital in Boston. In the past three months, Little Jack has become a celebrity of sorts. Through NU Life Skills Associate AD Keith Zimmer, Academic All-American and All-Big Ten running back Rex Burkhead reached out to the Hoffman family and took on two important causes at once: 1) To lift the spirits of a family facing huge medical hurdles; and 2) To heighten awareness for pediatric brain cancer and the 3,000-4,000 new patients that are diagnosed with that often deadly disease each year.
Team Jack is an outgrowth of a support group that includes Hoffman family members, local residents in Atkinson, Neb., and throughout the state, plus Husker football fans across the country that continue to help Jack through private prayer and public acknowledgement of his courageous fight.
Team Jack Bracelets Still Popular Items
The most visible members of Team Jack, however, are Nebraska football players and Husker coaches, all of whom gave their level best Monday to meet a difficult challenge: Beat a 10-2 Southeastern Conference football team in Florida. "Just about everybody on the team was wearing Team Jack bracelets," Hoffman said Tuesday while driving his SUV back to Nebraska from Orlando, where they'd spent a meaningful vacation that included three visits to Disney World and one to Sea World.
"We were looking at almost $5,000 in airfare, so we just packed up the Suburban and drove the family to Florida," Andy said en route to Tennessee and an estimated midnight arrival in Kansas City for the Hoffman Five, including Jack and his two younger sisters (4-year-old Ava and 13-month-old Reese). "We didn't see any other Big Red fans on the Interstate, but we're glad we made the decision to drive. All five of us were together, and it was great experience for all of us. We can't thank family, friends, Rex, his teammates and his coaches enough for their inspired prayers. We feel surrounded by caring Husker fans everywhere."
A practicing attorney, Andy understands why losing to South Carolina is a big deal to NU players, coaches and fans. "This whole Team Jack thing has given us a different perspective on life, not just on football," he said. "Our perspective is probably a little different than most everyone else has, but it is absolutely one that I think we all should have. Football is so important to Husker players because of the lessons they learn, and it's important to the coaches because it's their livelihood. But for the rest of us, well, I just think we all need to keep football in better perspective than we do now.
"I get very, very disappointed in our fan base reaction and the media coverage we see whenever we lose," Hoffman said. "We seem to have this habit of feeling the need to assign blame for every loss. Last night, after the game, I read a column and a blog on my iPhone, and they made me almost want to throw up."
Huskers Hit 'Em with their Best Shot
Hoffman doesn't mind sharing why he gets so disgusted. "The SEC is the holy grail of college football right now, and we took one of its best teams to the absolute max," he pointed out. "I don't care what anybody says, that bowl was an even matchup, and that game went down to the final moments. As Husker fans, I think we should take more positive things out of that game than all of these negatives. Our players manned up and took a Top 10 team to the wire. Change the result of any of three plays that went wrong - the blocked extra point, the Hail Mary pass or the missed field goal - and that game is right there for the taking. Our team was hungry and wanted that game, and when I read some of the things I read, I wonder if the ones writing what they write were watching the same game we were watching.
"I understand negativity is part of the objectivity of covering sports," Hoffman said, "but I'm not going to read all those negative stories anymore because the real story yesterday was how gorgeous the weather was, how hard the boys played and how they showed up determined to do their best. Mistakes were made, but they were focused, they were valiant, and they gave it 110 percent. What more can we ask for?"
Andy Hoffman believes there were at least 25,000 Nebraska fans inside the stadium despite the NU Ticket Office selling just 8,500 of its 12,500 allotment, forcing it to donate the remainder to charity. "I think the Nebraska fans in the stadium were proud of the effort we gave," Hoffman said. "You could tell by the way everyone was trying to compliment the South Carolina fans.
"This whole Team Jack thing is real. It's a very caring family situation," Hoffman said. "There's a bona fide relationship that exists beyond the photographs and autographs. We've met with Rex's family and shared some incredible time together. We rooted hard for Rex yesterday, even though it was a hard day for him and for all of his teammates."
The Highest of Highs, Lowest of Lows
No wonder a father with a reprioritized perspective finds it easier to frame his own measure of disappointment.
"We've experienced the highest of highs and the lowest of lows dealing with Jack's brain cancer," Andy said. "We've come very close to losing our son on a couple of occasions. Those were the lowest of lows, and, of course, the opportunities we've had with Rex are the highest of highs. There's been such an extreme range of emotions. When you've had the opportunities we've had, you get to know players as people, and you get to remove that aura of mystique from Cornhusker Football. You get beneath the surface and get to know these young men as real people. Our whole family is not just overwhelmed that they're so human, but that they're such good humans."
Andy remembers coming out of Orlando's Peabody Hotel one day while preparing to go to Disney World. The Nebraska team buses were lined up behind the hotel's parking garage and getting ready to pick up Husker players and take them to practice. Keeping to his vow not to impose on the team, Andy couldn't help but notice an open door to an empty Team Bus #3.
"A female bus driver opened the door to talk to us, and we kind of poked our head in," Andy said. "I said to her: 'Just so you know, you are transporting some of the nicest young men in the country, and she stopped and said: 'You're telling me? These guys are thegreatest guys. They're the nicest young men I've ever driven for.' To me, her comments just showed why a player's reputation off the field is every bit as important as it is on the field."
A Champion's Mindset Most Important
In the Hoffman family's mind, that is not say, however, that Nebraska came up short on the field. "Jack and I went to the Northwestern game, and we forgot about that result before we got back to the car. Watching the South Carolina game, I thought of a quote after that Hail Mary pass and later, when things started looking a little bleaker," Andy said. "I remember after that 1993 Orange Bowl when we lost to Florida State. Tom Osborne made the statement that rings and championships aren't the most important thing in football. Playing like champions is more important, and I think that's how our kids played in the Capital One Bowl ... like champions. Sure, they had some bad breaks, but they played their tails off, and I think being butchered like they're getting butchered in the media is a complete misrepresentation of their effort.
"Everyone keeps talking about Nebraska losing its poise, and that's just not true. Our kids took it to South Carolina for two quarters, and they never gave up the entire game," Andy said. "They didn't get any breaks, but that's football. It shouldn't be a license to butcher a 19-year-old. My wife and I are both very emotional about how these kids are being portrayed. I thought our fans in the stands were great. They were proud of their team, and they tried to be amicable to the SEC fans. Three Nebraska fans even came up to Jack during the game and wanted their picture taken with him. It was kind of funny that so many people recognized Jack. Some came up to us and told us how much they've appreciated reading his story and how they're praying for him. They'd ask for bracelets. We gave out what we had, and we're ordering more.
"Team Jack isn't just about Jack," Andy emphasized. "It's about all kids with pediatric brain cancer. When these guys wear those bracelets, they're promoting a cause. It's their way of doing a heart walk or something like that. This is their show of support for the pediatric community, and I think it's making a real difference."
Bottom line, despite a hard-fought loss to South Carolina, "We're as enthusiastic as we've ever been about Nebraska football," Andy said, "and personally, I think we're going to kick some people's behinds next year. I really do think that. These kids will continue to grow, and I just hope that our fans can grow with them."
OK, so we lost another bowl game. Now let's not start whipping ourselves. I remember some things my father used to say, like: "Jim, nobody ever learned anything by doing it right the first time" and "There's never time to do a thing right the first time, but funny enough there's always time to do it again." If I think about it, he was telling me you learn more from mistakes than you do from victory. Mistakes encourage you to grow, and the getting of wisdom is often hard won. If the players and coaches can morph their mistakes and the wisdom they won into a reality, next year will prove to be a blinder. The team is young and individuals will be working like stink over the winter and spring ... getting smarter, getting better and getting ready. Last season wasn't a bad season. It was a learning season. Next year we will get to see how this opportunity and this learning plays out. Can't wait. Jim Weaver, Wales, United Kingdom
Absolutely beautiful article!! Jack is in great hands! Andy drove the nail right through the board. The team my family saw was giving great effort. We bought our tickets directly from the Capital One Bowl, like most other Husker fans I met. I only found a few from Nebraska. Many were from Florida and others from South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia and Ohio (son at NU), etc. I am always proud of the Huskers and just like Devaney, Osborne and Solich before him, Pelini is still learning, and he seems to be willing to learn. That isimportant. Remember Bob's two 6-4 seasons? The knock on Osborne? They adjusted, and so will Bo. We will be "just fine". Our prayers are with you and your family, Andy!! Ed Murphy, Murrells Inlet, South Carolina
I just finished reading Mr. Hoffman's article. Very true and it brings out the compassion some people have as being true fans. I was born and raised in Lexington, Nebraska. I left for the Air Force in '65 and have always been a true follower of Husker football. I, too, get steamed at the misgivings some of the fans lay on the young men that are on the Big Red team. I don't like negative articles and refuse to read them. Mr. Hoffman, you are a very truthful and compassionate man as is your wife, I'm sure. I hope and pray that your son recovers and can spend his young life growing and maturing. That he can experience life with his father and you with him. Just by reading your article, I can assure you that young Jack could not have a better example to follow than you. Good luck to you and your family, especially young Jack. Prayers are with you and all the young children that have fallen to health problems. Pete and Brenda Gomez, Manila, Arizona
What an amazing story!!!! How can we not feel awful for some of the things we say and think about the players and coaches after reading Andy's perspective? Andy is right on, and I will stop and think about the big picture in the future. My prayers will go out to Jack and the entire Hoffman family. Thanks for the article.Joe Hunhoff, Bloomfield, Nebraska
What a terrific article on what has to be one of the true lessons of athletic competition at any level. The lesson is especially true of the Husker football program. Legacy players, coaches, and fans can all be proud of the kids that are recruited, attend, and represent the University of Nebraska on a national stage every day. Winning is the goal of any game. Respect, perseverance, and learning to grow up as a decent human being are the end results of the process. Thank you for publishing this. Sincerely, Michael McClaughry, Lake Ozark, Missouri
Thank you, Mr. Hoffman. Reading your thoughtful comments renewed my similar similar perspective on our Nebraska football team members. Too often we expect these young men to perform the impossible. Not winning is one possibility and one reality in all things we do in life. Good will come from this setback. In fact, it already has brought more attention to little Andy's plight and for me that is enough in itself. I'm a sensitive sort so it was little surprise to me that I was so emotionally moved by the struggles of your son. I hope and pray for you, your son and family. God Bless. Regarding the bowl game, the Huskers played hard and deserved to win but South Carolina has an awesome team. They may have gotten a few breaks that we didn't but congratulations to them. GBR. Jerry Samulcek, Tempe, Arizona
I think Andy said it all. This game should never be about winning or losing. It's about how hard you fight. And the Huskers fought as hard as they could. Sure they pulled up short but they are still winners in my mind because they didn't give up. Everyone should know going into this game it was a fight to the finish for the Huskers. The fact that they never gave up is what makes them champions. I think it's very disgusting how bad some of our fans are when we lose. Through every game this year that we have lost, the comments I have seen are like Andy said: They “make me want to throw up". I think our fans need to realize that no one's perfect, and we can't win them all. I did not make it to one game this year but I heard about the game where no one was cheering because we were losing and everyone blamed Taylor Martinez. Losing is never one person's fault. We are a team and that includes the fans. I don't know if I could have handled sitting through an entire game where no one got up and cheered or tried to encourage their team to get back in it. That's just sad and makes me glad I stayed home to watch it. As for Jack, that boy is the epitome of a winner because he continues to fight every day for his life. Go Team Jack and GBR! Kristi J. Morgan, Atkinson, Nebraska
I hope every Husker fan reads that article. It was beautiful. Terry Mann, Gothenburg, Nebraska
I say “Amen” to the “This Dad Has New Perspective on Football” article. The Cornhuskers had many opportunities to win the game. As a Nebraska sports fan since 1960, I say the young men played with heart. Give South Carolina credit on good defense and the QB for getting them out of trouble. We all seem to lose perspective on what is really information in life. I will put Jack and the other pediatric cancer patients on my prayer list. Steve J. Schmidt
Thanks for publishing such a great perspective on the Capital One Bowl loss. How much more important are Rex’s visits with Jack than his visits to the end zone? God in His infinite wisdom brings us to the end of ourselves that he might bring us to a new beginning with His beloved Son. God sees hope where we see helplessness, oh may He be blessed forevermore. Sveinn Storm, Sioux City, Iowa
Mr. Hoffman nailed this one. All too often we want to blame or criticize those that play the game. Life is way too short for this kind of crap. I’m in the Phoenix area and the garbage that comes out of Arizona State is amazing. They wonder why their teams are failures and if they would just take a look at their attitude they would know why. Nebraska has the best fans in college football, and I hear that a lot from other fans out here who have been to Nebraska games. Earlier this year, I spoke with a man from Nebraska who lives out here and his daughter goes to ASU. She went to the Missouri game and said the way the Missouri fans were treated was terrible. It’s too bad that the media has to find and report on athletes short comings on the field and can’t do the good reporting of the good things they do in the community. The role that Rex Burkhead has taken on with this young boy is commendable, and I’m sure this is something that young Jack will never forget. I know I will continue to pray for this family and will always follow this story. Bill Hancock, Mesa, Arizona