Rex Burkhead, Nebraska's first-team All-Big Ten running back, was named the 2012 Uplifting Athletes Rare Disease Champion Wednesday for inspiring a young fan battling a rare brain cancer. Following a record 76,000 online votes, the announcement was made via an international webcast during a special event held in Bethesda, Md., at the National Institutes of Health's annual Rare Disease Day.
"Rex is a shining example of a college football player who realizes the position he's in to make a difference," said Uplifting Athletes founder and Executive Director Scott Shirley, who made the announcement in Maryland. "The friendship he's forged with Jack Hoffman (a 6-year-old kindergarten student in Atkinson, Neb.) has inspired Jack and his family with hope. Rex has also brought much needed attention to a rare disease cause, so it's fitting to recognize him with this honor and to place his name alongside our former winners."
Uplifting Athletes is a nonprofit organization uniting college football teams under the common goal of raising awareness and funds in the fight against rare diseases. A rare disease is defined as one that affects less than 200,000 people. Because of their rare designation, these diseases often receive little or no funding to support awareness and research to treat or cure illnesses. With more than 7,000 rare diseases in existence, the organization impacts more than 30-million Americans.
Burkhead didn't realize lunch with a stranger in September this past year would change his life. It was then that he met Little Jack, who had been diagnosed with a rare pediatric brain tumor called a low grade glioma; Jack's ultimate dream was to meet Burkhead.
"I couldn't believe how positive he was," Burkhead said. "He didn't feel sorry for himself, whatsoever."
Andy Hoffman, Jack's father, says Rex took an interest in Jack and almost instantly they became buddies. For that day, there was not a care in the world for Jack, who would later see Rex and his teammates wear wristbands in honor of Jack.
Rex has followed up with Jack numerous times on the phone and in person, even calling Jack days before a second scheduled surgery in Boston. It has meant the world to Jack, knowing that Rex cares so much. The Hoffmans are confident that Rex is making a difference in their son's life. Although the road ahead is long, they say doctors believe the prognosis is favorable.
The Rare Disease Champion Award was determined by an online vote among four finalists nominated by their respective schools or organizations. It is presented annually to recognize a college football leader who has made a positive and lasting impact on the rare disease community.
Previous Rare Disease Champions include 2011 winner Jordan Culbreath of Princeton, 2010 winner Ian Mitchell of Dickinson College and 2009 winner Grant Teaff of the American Football Coaches Association.
Current Uplifting Athletes chapters include Boston College, Colgate University, Kent State University, University of Maryland, North Carolina State University, Northwestern University, Ohio State University, Penn State University and Princeton University.
Other finalists for the 2012 Rare Disease Champion Award included North Carolina State's Wayne Crawford, UCLA's Luke Gane and Florida's David Lerner. Burkhead will receive the sculpture at a date to be announced later.