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Last Saturday night, as his carries and yards piled up inside a stadium with the highest elevation in all of college football, a little voice whispered to Rex Burkhead and reminded him how physically drained he was. "In that altitude up there in Laramie, it's tough to breathe," Burkhead said before acknowledging he had the perfect antidote to any thoughts of letting up.
Even when you're having the greatest game of your college career at Wyoming - 170 yards rushing on only 15 carries and touchdown runs of 45 and 16 yards - "You definitely have to collect and prepare yourself to keep going out there and sell out every play, and I definitely had a focal point that worked for me," Burkhead said, pointing to a red rubber bracelet that says simply:
Team Jack - Pray
Burkhead has worn that bracelet for career record-setting performances in his last two games to honor Jack Hoffman, who just celebrated his 6th birthday at Boston Children's Hospital last Monday and prepares himself for yet another 6-hour surgery on Monday, Oct. 10, to re-sect the remainder of a brain tumor that could not be surgically removed last May at Omaha Children's Hospital.
It's been a long, tearful, tough road for the Hoffman family since their perfectly healthy 5-year-old boy suffered his first seizure last April 22 in his hometown of Atkinson, Neb. Since that day, Jack has fought courageously through sickness, sleepless nights and a never-ending series of MRIs, pathology reports, neuro-surgery appointments and multiple epileptic seizures, including five on Thursday and four more on Friday - the day before his new role model plays Wisconsin on national television.
A year ago, on his fifth birthday, all Jack wanted was a Rex Burkhead jersey. Two weeks ago, he experienced something much more special - a chance to meet Burkhead and have him as a personal tour guide for several hours in Lincoln.
Take it straight from Jack's dad, Andy, and Nebraska's associate athletic director for Life Skills, Keith Zimmer: This was no go-through-the-motions meeting between a sick child and a very busy, well-known college football player. This was the real deal - two people who formed a bond, a relationship and a connection neither will ever forget.
Rex Went 'All in' to Make Jack's Day Ultra-Special
Burkhead immersed himself into the entire opportunity and in the process, became a proud, committed, bracelet-carrying member of Team Jack. If you watched the two in action together, you'd never know that Jack was sick or that Rex was carrying much of the weight of a young Husker offense on his shoulders.
When Tom Osborne was introduced to Jack Hoffman, Burkhead watched Nebraska's athletic director get down on his knees to connect with Jack and talk to him eye-to-eye. Burkhead, an All-America running back candidate, made Jack feel equally comfortable, using the same eye-to-eye approach. Within an hour, Jack had so much confidence in the people he was meeting for the first time that he acted almost like he was attending a family reunion.
Burkhead told Jack he wanted to wear his special red bracelet in the Washington game, and a 5-year-old's eyes lit up. Rex then took Jack into Nebraska's locker room, found some shoulder pads and asked his newest buddy to try 'em on.
Next stop was the North Stadium tunnel and an inside view of Memorial Stadium, and feeling increasingly confident by the minute, Jack said: "I'll race 'ya!" before bolting towards the south end zone. Burkhead smiled and followed.
"Jack was definitely running full steam, and Rex was running just fast enough to stay right behind him," said Andy Hoffman, a practicing attorney and Jack's father. "It was so fun, watching those two chatting things up for several minutes at the other end. I knew right then and there that Jack was thinking he'd just beaten Rex Burkhead in a footrace. I also knew he had some new hope and a fresh focus."
Burkhead Wears Team Jack Bracelet as a Reminder
Burkhead was a definitive difference-maker in a young family's life. "I wear that bracelet as a reminder of what Jack's been through and what he's still going through," Burkhead said. "No matter how tough it gets for us on the practice field or in a game, it's nothing compared to what he's going through with his illness and all the struggles that go with that illness. Jack's a great kid. He has a great family and a lot of friends behind him, and I'm really proud to be one of them. He's going through so much, but still manages to stay so positive. He motivates me."
Burkhead means everything he says and credits his parents for helping him understand why athletics is a privilege, not an entitlement. "Just meeting Jack and being able to say a prayer with him was so meaningful for me," he said. "It was a blessing to show him around, to share with him and for the two of us to inspire each other.
"My parents raised me very well. They've always kept me on the right track, whether it's on the field, off the field, in school or wherever," Burkhead said. "I've always known you should never get a big head and never judge other people. There's no reason why you can't play hard and have a great heart at the same time. That's a big reason why I came to Nebraska in the first place. This is a hard-working, blue-collar mindset where people are never promised anything. We work as hard as we can every day, keep our mouths shut and try to reach out to the community every chance we get - for their benefit, not ours."
The Hoffman family couldn't believe the Rex Burkhead they met in person was the hard-charging, aggressive football player they watch and cheer for on TV. "Rex was so kind, so gentle and so selfless in those hours that we met with him and had lunch with him. We still can't even believe it's the same guy we watch on TV," Andy Hoffman said.
"Rex Burkhead is a role model for my 6-year-old son, and he's a role model for all adults," Andy said. "He has such humility, such grace. He gave Jack everything he had inside of him, just like he does on the field. He's so caring, so compassionate, so genuine and so sincere. I don't know how you could find a better role model anywhere. Rex is somebody you want your kids to grow up and be like."
Football: A Ray of Sunshine during Dark Days
Football brings together the Hoffman family even in the midst of trying times. "Here we are, days away from the biggest surgery in Jack's life, and we find ourselves high-fiving each other because Rex Burkhead has put us on Cloud Nine," Andy said. "Our days are brightened and our focus is sharpened because of the positive energy he provided. The magnitude of the emotional lift Rex gave Jack and everyone around him cannot be overstated. Instead of talking to our friends about brain tumors all the time, we're talking about Rex and how awesome he is. We're talking about his courage and the example he sets. It's a refreshing reprieve, and Jack now considers him a part of our family."
Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini is not surprised. "We knew how special Rex was when we recruited him," he said. "He's the total package and a good football player to boot. He's the kind of guy you want to build your program around in every manner possible - on the field, off the field, in the classroom and in the community. He is the model for what you want all college student-athletes to emulate."
Andy Hoffman has one more point he wants to make. "Rex has made a meaningful difference in our lives, and I know we're just one illustration in his whole body of work," he said. "I know, without a doubt. that Rex has big things in store for him, and I'm not referring to him becoming an All-American running back in college or an All-Pro running back in the NFL. That's not important to us at all because we consider him an All-Pro human being, and nothing is bigger than that."
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Voices from Husker Nation
This article has definitely confirmed my belief that Rex Burkhead is the epitome of what an athlete should be, whether pee wee, high school, college, or professional; that being good at their job, grounded, humble, giving and well-rounded. He is an exceptional young man and we as Husker Nation should be extremely grateful that he is here and providing great leadership and an excellent example to his teammates and all those that he encounters. Rex IS what all athletes should aspire to be!! Thank you for sharing this story with all of us and once again showing us that athletics is more than just a game. It's about the players and who and what they are in real life as well. Dianne Wolterman, Lincoln, Nebraska
That was one of the most heart-warming stories I have read in quite some time. Thank you very much for the opportunity to read this, and God bless Jack and his family and God bless Rex. What an awesome guy, I am very, very proud that he is a Husker, and I will keep little Jack and his parents in my prayers. Thanks for printing this story. GO BIG RED!!!!! (The "REAL" Big RED!!) Bryan Hightower
God gave us a better place to live when He shared Jack and Rex and Tom with us all. Joe Sokolovsky, Fremont, Nebraska
Great article. You really made me feel what you talked about. I am from Atkinson, and we are rooting for Jack and will be cheering for Rex, too, on Saturday. We know Jack has the bigger wall to scale but they are all in our thoughts and prayers! Thank you for what you do! Vicky Johnson, Atkinson, Nebraska
I have just now stopped crying and want to communicate that friends and family are e-mailing me like crazy and telling me that this is the best thing they have ever read. It was an honor and a privilege for Jack's story to be told. We are now hearing about how he has inspired other people. This story has pulled feelings from friends and family that we never even knew existed. The entire thing is monumental in our lives. Thank you, again. Andy Hoffman and family, Atkinson, Nebraska
Thank you so much for raising even more awareness of little Jack Hoffman's need for prayers ... a powerful boost for the Hoffman family and beyond. Janet Caldararo, Valley, Nebraska
Wow. Rex Burkhead has always been right up there among my top all-time favorite Huskers, especially for someone who's just a junior. Now, I don't have to wait until he graduates. He's in my all-time Nebraska Hall of Fame starting tonight. What an inspirational story - one that almost brings tears to my eyes. Team Jack, expect even more prayers across Husker Nation. Rich Olson, Santa Fe, New Mexico
You know what I like best about college football? Players like Rex Burkhead, who go that extra mile on the field, off the field, in the classroom and on Sundays. Whether he plays beyond Nebraska or not, Rex lifts us all up. Thank you, Rex's parents, for nurturing such a caring soul who also happens to be an incredible athlete. Sam Thomassen, Tucson, Arizona
The Jack Hoffman story, with Rex Burkhead helping to tell it, was THE best sports story I've read in years. Amazing stuff. Amazing grace. Let's all pray for Team Jack! Kathy Johnson, Omaha, Nebraska
You are fortunate to have written a story about Team Jack and Rex Burkhead and the Hoffman family that will serve to always remind us of the value of wonderful parenting. Young Jack has parents that continually offer him encouragement and support with tons of love. Rex Burkhead is a product of loving and supportive parents who have helped him seek the next right thing. Tom Osborne has always been a model of manhood that all of us can respect and admire. He selected Bo Pelini as the Huskers leader, and Bo is a man that truly helps his players achieve in the right way, on and off the field. Loving and supporting parents have the future of our world in their hands every day, and your story reminds us of their importance to all of us. Jon Boller, Leawood, Kansas
Please do us all a favor and keep us posted on Jack's surgery and recovery. One thing I'm sure of, Rex will be a big part of the story. Go Huskers! Dick and Connie Mullins, Denton, Texas (formerly of Meadville and Norfolk, Nebraska). (Editor's note: The Hoffman family encourages all who want to follow Jack's journey to click the Caring Bridge site here or at the top of the story and sign up to receive family updates).
I'm just writing regarding your story about Rex Burkhead and Jack. I do not know Rex but I do know his uncle and aunt, and I know he comes from a fine family and this story does not surprise me. I think that we need more stories like this in our sports news. We hear too many times of the athletes when they get in trouble or do something good on the field. But this is much larger than anything that can be accomplished in any sporting event. Jim and Ruth Ann Davis, Winchester, Kentucky
Watching the Wyoming game at the Hoffmans' home and seeing the difference that Rex has made in the Hoffman family was awesome. The excitement when everyone saw that Rex had the Team Jack bracelets still on for the second game was indescribable. Thank you, Rex, from another Team Jack member! We are praying for you Jack! Brent, Michelle, Jaegher, Channing, Aleigha, Dominick, and Kwayd Ogden
Thank you for a wonderful article on Rex Burkhead and his meeting with the Hoffman family. I live in Atkinson, and we continue to pray for them daily. There is a reason that Rex and Jack formed a bond, and it goes much deeper than football. The Hoffmans are role models, and we are proud to have them in our community. They also are examples of genuine, sincere and compassionate people. There is no wonder why they had a connection with Rex. Sandy Holtgrew, Atkinson, Nebraska
I knew before I even started reading this story my tears would be flowing. Yes, it didn't take long. I am so proud to be a Husker alum and ex-athlete. I swam for Nebraska back in the late '70s under Coach John Reta. The meaning of being an athlete goes so much further than on the field, court, gym, or pool. It is what an athlete can do to give back to the community, the people and the fans and not just on game day. It was a long time ago but I just don't remember ever having the opportunity to do the same as Rex Burkhead and other Husker athletes are doing -- Making that connection to a young person's life to make a difference. We need to see and hear more of these "life-changing" stories not just from the Nebraska base but from all college athletes who inspire young fans like Jack. If there was more exposure, more young athletes would hopefully get the message that making a difference off the playing arena is more important. I currently teach high school Physical Education just off downtown L.A., just minutes from the Staples Center. There are many times that I attempt to get the emphasis across to students and athletes that it's not what happens just in the game but what you do before, after, and off the playing area. It's a tough battle because "having the glory" is all that seems to matter to so many young athletes now days. I am far from making a difference to kids like Rex has made to Jack and struggle myself to scratch the surface. But I still have hope just because of my willingness to do what's been taught from my parents, coaches of the past, and my overall pride of being a Husker. Some days, students ask me what happened to my legs. See, I've had MS for 23 years and it's difficult for me to walk. Every day I wish I could do more physically and join my students side-by-side in lots of activity. I tell them I used to run the South end zone stadium bleachers at Memorial Stadium ...100 rows up-and-down when I was on the swim team. I wish I could do that now but reality is simply not possible. But, I have not quit. I keep going and try to make modifications for myself. Hopefully, students will understand what one might have to overcome to succeed. Thank you for writing stories about Jack and Rex. It renews my hope, and if it is possible, I would be honored to wear a Team Jack bracelet. Sincerely, Bruce Carr, UNL Class of 1981, Sierra Madre, California, GO BIG RED!