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Uplifting Athletes: Changing Lives, Touching Hearts
From left, 6-year-old Isaiah Casillas, Rex Burkhead, 6-year-old Jack Hoffman and Ava Hoffman.
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Courtesy: NU Media Relations
09/28/2012
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Randy York’s N-Sider

Last July 18 was an historical day for Nebraska football ... an inspiring, moving and meaningful day for 47 Husker players who bonded to form the nucleus of a new chapter for Uplifting Athletes, a national nonprofit organization that aligns college football programs with rare diseases. Each chapter chooses a rare disease and then elevates that disease to a national priority through outreach, research, education and advocacy. Scott Shirley, the executive director and chairman of Uplifting Athletes, said the Nebraska chapter is the most advanced starting chapter in history because its launch on day one is comparable to other chapters beginning year three.

When Nebraska hosts Wisconsin Saturday night, All-Big Ten running back Rex Burkhead will receive the 2012 Rare Disease Champion Award, the highest individual honor from Uplifting Athletes. Burkhead earned the award after collecting 76,000 votes in a national online poll. Last April, Shirley was in Lincoln to present the award at Nebraska’s annual Spring Game. Heavy rains, however, postponed the ceremony, and somehow the first Big Ten game of the Huskers’ 2012 season seems more relevant.

New Chapter Elevating Spirits

Honoring Burkhead five months later than originally planned also seems more timely because Nebraska’s Uplifting Athletes chapter is already raising the bar for the entire national organization. The NU chapter is elevating spirits, changing lives, touching hearts and showing how character, structure and a strong belief can redefine the word and refuel the verb. “This football team, led by Bo Pelini, has set the bar incredibly high when it comes to service, leadership and societal impact,” said Keith Zimmer, Nebraska’s associate athletic director for Life Skills. “Rex’s teammates have watched him develop a close relationship with Jack Hoffman, a 6-year-old boy with brain cancer. Little Jack inspires Rex and stirs the spirit for virtually everyone who knows his story. That’s why our football team formed an official chapter and decided to take on the very worthy cause of pediatric brain cancer.”

Uplifting Athletes and Team Jack are motivating players and influencing coaches, staff members, fans and family members dealing with this deadly disease. When Jack’s parents (Andy and Brianna Hoffman) learned that their son would be using the same treatment protocol for pediatric brain cancer that’s been used for 25 years, they dedicated themselves to find ways to lift up these kids, raise their cause to a higher priority and find a national platform to fund research. Rex and Jack became that platform, and their tight relationship continues to inspire and reinforce one compelling example after another. Here are several ways that describe how Burkhead and Team Jack are influencing the Uplifting Athletes organization and raising funds:

Little Jack Won Rex’s Heart

Last December, at a pre-bowl practice in Lincoln, Burkhead, a Nebraska captain, introduced Jack and his family to his teammates and coaches, including Pelini, who asked Little Jack to help break the team huddle for the day. Burkhead then hoisted his little buddy in the air, so he could put his hands in the large huddle and start the closing chant ... “1-2-3 ... Huskers!” Players who had worn Team Jack bracelets most of the season celebrated their new hero with the same genuine affection that Jack and his family celebrate them.

Team Jack is a support group that includes his family, local residents in his hometown of Atkinson, Neb., and Husker football fans across the country and around the world. Through private prayer and public acknowledgement of Jack’s courageous fight, both Jack’s and his family’s spirits have been uplifted. Awareness of pediatric brain cancer also has been heightened for 3,000 to 4,000 new patients diagnosed with that often deadly disease each year.

Isaiah: Jack’s New Buddy

One of those new patients is Isaiah Casillas, another 6-year-old kid with brain cancer. Isaiah lives in McCook, Neb., and was diagnosed with the disease in June. By mid-September, his doctor called Zimmer to see if Isaiah might be able to meet a football player. Ironically, Zimmer already had arranged an Arkansas State postgame ceremony for Jack to be honored by Salute the Troops, a nonprofit, Kansas-based organization that wanted to make a special presentation to Little Jack.

Zimmer didn’t hesitate to invite Isaiah and his family to the same celebration for two reasons: 1) He knew implicitly that Jack’s parents always have seen their cause in global terms because the mission is to do everything humanly possible to help kids in their fight with brain cancer; and 2) Sadly, Isaiah’s brain cancer is terminal and everyone in his family, including Isaiah, knows his time left is only a matter of months.

Terminal Kid Uplifts Others

Here’s another bit of irony: Zimmer, the Hoffman family and the Burkhead family discovered another uplifting force that can touch human hearts everywhere. That would be none other than Isaiah Casillas, the charismatic little 6-year-old who made an important celebration an even bigger one and in the process, became another little buddy of Rex, Rex’s parents, Jack and Jack’s parents.

Isaiah is spirited, animated and perpetually smiling. He’s warm and friendly and gives high-fives and low-fives. He took off his Nebraska cap so he could share and compare surgical scars with Jack’s. When Gary McGirr, a Salute the Troops presenter from Topeka, Kan., gave Jack several mementos as planned, he also gave Isaiah one, and both cancer patients beamed almost simultaneously.

Burkhead’s Mom Gets a Hug

Rick and Robyn Burkhead of Plano, Texas, are Rex’s parents, and they have become just as close to the Hoffman family as their son has. They’ve marveled how Andy and Bri Hoffman always remind them how Uplifting Athletes isn’t about Jack. It’s about fighting a disease and uplifting everyone’s hopes, and if Isaiah has any role in that double-barreled goal, let’s just say that he has hope covered like a blanket.

“That whole experience with Jack, Isaiah and Rex left me speechless,” said Robyn Burkhead, Rex’s mom. “It was such an emotional afternoon that it’s hard to describe your feelings. I was just so very proud of how my son is positively impacting the lives of others and sharing his blessings with those around him. At the same time, I was humbled and honored to be in the presence of two amazing children.”

Isaiah Stole Some Hearts

“Little Isaiah stole my heart!” Robyn said. “What a precious angel he is, giving and sharing himself with everyone around him. You can tell that he’s never met a stranger, and he loves unconditionally. He hugged everyone in the room, and what a special hug it was. It’s one that I will treasure forever.”

Forever is a word most of us have difficulty grasping, but Patrick Casillas, Isaiah’s dad, said his 6-year-old beacon of faith, hope and love understands the meaning of the word. “He believes in eternity, and he’s helped his teachers and parents of his classmates understand, too,” Patrick said. “He was the strongest baby and the strongest kid you’ve ever seen. He was never sick. When we learned in early June that his brain cancer was 70 percent, we were shocked. Isaiah lost a grandpa and two other family members unexpectedly, and McCook has rallied around him because he’s so positive and inspirational. Even when he’s sick, he wants to be in school. Our doctors in Denver are amazed. Isaiah’s cancer is terminal, but it did not grow from his last checkup, so they’re trying some new treatments to extend his life. He’s an amazing kid, and he absolutely loved getting the chance to meet Rex and Little Jack.”

Little Isaiah not only stole Robyn Burkhead’s heart, but Rick Burkhead’s as well. “I didn’t see a dry eye in the room,” Rex’s dad said. The experience followed a game day when a still injured Rex did not play a down, but he may have made the biggest plays he’s ever made, connecting with a pair of 6-year-old cancer patients at the same time. “I get more enjoyment watching Rex off the football field as a selfless, positive role model, and I’m proud of him for being such a good person,” said Rick Burkhead, a football father who loves game action but has an even keener appreciation for faith in action.

The Salute the Troops presentation to Little Jack included a personal letter from an Army helicopter pilot who has flown combat missions in at least seven countries with an American flag, a Rex Burkhead #22 jersey and several special patches as his salute to

Jack Inspires Combat Pilot

Team Jack. Mike Eckhardt is the pilot who lives in North Carolina. He’s a Husker fan who read about Team Jack on Huskers.com. Eckhardt says he’s so inspired by Jack’s bravery and his courage that he wanted Jack “to know that you are my hero.”

There’s one more military veteran who feels the same way. John Lehning, 77 and a 25-year veteran of the Air Force, drove from Omaha to watch McGirr salute Little Jack. Lehning stood up, impromptu, and told a small room how he’d gone through 75 radiation treatments for extensive throat cancer. “This is the God’s truth,” he said. “Since 60 percent of the people going through the protocol that I was taking don’t finish it, I was feeling sorry for myself one day. Then I saw Rex and Jack holding hands on TV. Once I saw that clip on television, I felt just like that helicopter pilot did. I felt a big boost of energy and on Dec. 7th, I was cleared of cancer.”

Brown Connects the Dots

Nebraska running backs coach Ron Brown hears the series of uplifting stories and does his best to connect the dots. “Scripture tells us how God allows us to go through trials so we can receive his comfort and then pass that comfort on to someone else,” Brown said. “Rex Burkhead has great faith in his Lord, Jesus Christ, and it’s helped him handle the ups and downs in his own life. He’s experienced the trials and made the sacrifices in his own journey. For Rex to have the capacity to take God’s love into his own heart and then pour it out onto that young boy, and then have that young boy become an inspiration for a pilot doing battle against worldwide terrorism ... well, that says everything. It’s the connective process that takes place. It’s the enrichment of the love of the Lord Jesus Christ.”

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