A 6-year-old boy with brain cancer was the center of attention at Monday's Nebraska football practice, but before we revisit little Jack Hoffman and reintroduce inspired Rex Burkhead for leading like great football captains lead, let's climb inside the heads of two fathers who also gathered at the 50-yard line at the end of Monday's practice.
The first, of course, is Bo Pelini, a head football coach bilaterally consumed with recruiting and preparing for a Jan. 2 bowl game against a 10-2, Top 10 team from the fast and ferocious Southeastern Conference. The second is Andy Hoffman, a man you met through the N-Sider in October. He's a small-town Nebraska attorney who's spent 85 days away from home this year helping Jack in his fight to be cancer-free and live a normal life.
Well, Monday was not a normal day for Jack, his dad or his mother, Bri. Rex asked Bo if he could introduce Jack to his teammates, and the first-year Big Ten head coach gave his all-conference running back the only green light that was available this week. There were no big donors, no corporate sponsors, not even close family members at Husker practices this week, so rest assured, this special invitation was based on compassion, engraved with trust and came straight from Bo, the father, to show another father that he cared enough to reach out and touch someone with his very best.
Radio commercials may frame up far-fetched examples of why "Bo Pelini is a Man's Man", but this post-practice gathering showed the other side of Bo, the side that fans rarely see, the side that shows beneath all that manly emotional armor is a father who cares about kids and not just his own.
Connecting Through the Eyes of Fathers
Andy Hoffman will tell you that he's always been a staunch Bo-liever, but Monday's experience went beyond the respect a fan has for a coach that restored order to his favorite program. When they came together Monday, two minds found a way to plug into each other. "I didn't even feel like I was talking to Coach Pelini ," Andy said. "I come from a family of football guys. We're all Charlie McBride disciples, so you can imagine how we rate Bo as a football coach. Until yesterday, I never looked at Bo any way other than a football coach. But I saw him through the eyes of a father. I don't want to sensationalize meeting him, but that was our connection.
"He is such a busy man, but he was totally focused on Jack and our family after practice, and it really made Jack and this father and his mother feel very special," Hoffman said. "Bo showed his humility, his graciousness, his kindness and his compassion. He made it very clear how important thoughts and prayers are in his life."
Nebraska's head football coach also made it clear how much he respects Burkhead as a captain and why so many Huskers are supporters that choose to wear Team Jack bracelets. When Burkhead introduced Jack to the team, "woot-woots!" were loud and applause was spontaneous. When Pelini said it was time to break huddle for the day, they asked Jack to help break it down.
Burkhead hoisted his little buddy in the air so he could put his hands in the large huddle and then start the closing chant: "1-2-3 ... Huskers!" Players that have worn Team Jack bracelets since last September celebrated their new hero with the same genuine affection that Jack and his family celebrate them.
Role Reversal: Players Want to Meet Jack
Watching the break down was semi-fascinating. Dozens of players that always get asked for autographs wanted their photo taken with a 6-year-old who has no idea how much he inspires them when times get tough and they have to reach down inside to deliver even more. Players wanted fives from Jack and for Jack. They flashed their wristbands in his face and let him know why they wear one to honor him. "This never comes off!" freshman Givens Price told Jack.
The little guy's grateful father couldn't thank Pelini, Burkhead and all of his caring teammates enough for Monday's uplifting, reinforcing experience. What Andy, Bri and Jack Hoffman don't know and might never understand is how much their family means to a team that has adopted them into its hearts and carries their fight and spirit onto the field.
"We're overwhelmed with all of their great support," Andy said. "All I can say is wow. This team puts everything they have on the line, and I think South Carolina just might be in trouble."
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Voices from Husker Nation
This article caught my eye as I was looking for the Husker basketball score. I loved it!!! It shows the character of this team and what Bo has instilled since being here. Sometimes, we get all caught up in wins and losses instead of all that this team represents. I would take players like Rex Burkhead any day of the week. What a leader he is. I'm a 38-year-old father of four, and I hope I can do what it takes to have my kids grow up and have the character that Rex exhibits. Great article! Thanks. Jayson Seip, Lincoln, Nebraska
I want to drop you a note and let you know how your articles have helped inspire our community. I think you have done a wonderful job of painting an authentic picture of the situation on Jack Hoffman. His father and I are friends and during these difficult times, the Huskers and your articles have helped ease the pain. Jack attends our school. He is a humble little boy but has enjoyed his Husker experience. Thank you. Bill McAllister, Supt. of West Holt Public Schools, Atkinson, Nebraska
This column explains why I have been a Nebraska football fan for more than 30 years. I have no ties to Nebraska but have great respect for Tom Osborne and the way his teams represent the state. Obviously, Bo Pelini cares about many of the same things his athletic director does. Phil Anderson, Minneapolis, Minnesota