Randy York’s N-Sider
The N-Sider tip for Nebraska’s only bye football weekend this season was a poignant video that featured Jack Hoffman and Rex Burkhead, who not only helped kick off the Big Ten Network's weekend game coverage, but also helped a 12-school fan base understand an important cause - pediatric brain cancer.
Jack is a 7-year-old that had one wish atop his Bucket List when he was diagnosed with brain cancer more than a year ago – to meet Rex, who not only accommodated that request, but built a dynamic relationship between the Hoffman family and his own.
Dan Lindberg, the young BTN feature producer living in Chicago, recommended that viewers have Kleenex nearby before watching the 9½-minute piece he's been shooting for months. That proved to be good advice for Patrick Sullivan, a Husker fan who lives in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. "I barely made it through your article, so I didn't know if I should tackle the video," Sullivan wrote in an email. "Thanks to your warning, I held up a little better than I expected when I watched it. I thought it was a great segment. Maybe two losses isn't such a big deal, huh?
The video is a perspective changer, thanks to the Hoffman family giving Lindberg all kinds of access to tell a story that not only inspires Husker Nation, but everyone else who watched this compelling profile in courage on BTN's worldwide network.
Photo Shows Jack’s Surgical Scars
The N-Sider is using the grainy photo above to help promote the BTN piece because it was taken exactly one year ago today in Boston Children’s Hospital, two days after Jack underwent a second surgery for brain cancer. The picture shows Jack and all the battle scars from that surgery. Flanked by his dad, Andy Hoffman, and his mom, Brianna Hoffman, Jack is connected on the phone with Burkhead, whose voice had become just as warm and encouraging to Jack as his own parents in the midst of battling this deadly disease.
“It’s been an awesome experience meeting the entire Hoffman family,” Lindberg said. “They’re great people, and I hope it really comes across in this piece how great Rex Burkhead is. A lot of college athletes would have agreed to meet Jack. It’s what Rex has done after he met Jack that’s truly impressive and truly indicative of what kind of person he is.”
It's also indicative of what kind of program Burkhead plays for. BTN did not shoot and narrate this story to raise money and awareness for pediatric brain cancer or to support that cause through Uplifting Athletes, a national nonprofit organization that aligns college football programs with rare diseases. That organization already existed before Jack was diagnosed with brain cancer, but there is no doubt that Jack’s relationship with Burkhead paved the way for launching Nebraska’s chapter of that organization and created a platform for an anonymous gift of up to $100,000 to match private contributions.
“This story will make Husker football fans proud that Rex is on their squad,” said Lindberg, who admitted interviewing Jack’s dad was the most difficult. “My job,” he said, “was to sit down and have him relive some of the most painful days of his life. It gets emotional, but we both had to keep our eye on the goal, which was to show what Rex did for Jack and this family. Rex really changed their life around and helped lift their spirits when they needed it most.”
Hoffman, Burkhead Families Bonded
It didn’t take long for Lindberg to embrace the football player who became a mentor, a friend, and almost an extension of the Hoffman family, along with his own parents and brother, Rick, Robyn and Ryan Burkhead.
“I hope what really, really comes across is that no one asked Rex to do all he did,” Lindberg said. “It becomes very obvious that Rex was doing everything he did because he genuinely cares about Jack, his family and a pediatric disease that’s been using the same protocol treatment for 25 years.”
Football may keep Rex’s cleats flying toward the opponent’s end zone, but a discouraging fact like kids getting the same treatment for a quarter-century makes him sprint towards another opposing end zone – pediatric brain cancer.
In the teaser video at the top of this column, you’ll see Jack ask his new friend, Rex, if he’d like to race on the first day they met. That footrace on Memorial Stadium’s hallowed turf put a big smile on Rex’s face and an extra beat in his heart. It marked the beginning of a healthy athlete uplifting a little buddy with brain cancer. Check the video to see who won. An hour or two after that race, Rex, Jack and his parents had lunch with Keith Zimmer, Nebraska’s associate athletic director for Life Skills. Zimmer was the one who made it all happen and asked me to join Rex and the Hoffman family at the Nebraska Training Table that memorable day. It was an honor then and even more so now that I’ve seen and been able to write about a bond that keeps getting tighter between a kid with cancer and a selfless running back. Rex and Jack's relationship is authentic and, in my mind, nothing short of an awesome wonder.
Rex, Teammates Launch Own Chapter
Burkhead was a catalyst, asking his head coach if he could invite the Hoffmans to a pre-bowl practice last December. Pelini gave Rex and four dozen teammates the green light to start their own chapter to support Uplifting Athletes. The Huskers draw inspiration from Jack. Many of them wear his red bracelet that reminds them to pray. Big Red fans are equally inspired. They've bought 12,000 Team Jack Tee-shirts, and that will put about $120,000 into the fight against pediatric brain cancer. “None of this could have happened without Coach Pelini giving players his blessing," Andy Hoffman said. "Coach Pelini's support helped the cause meet all the compliance requirements to start their own chapter of Uplifting Athletes.”
Lindberg is impressed with the structure, the cause and the inspiration everyone takes from it. “I am so appreciative that the Hoffmans, Nebraska Athletics, Coach Pelini and the Burkheads gave us access so we can tell this inspiring story about Team Jack and Rex,” he said. “I don’t have any nieces or nephews, but if I had a nephew, I would want him to be just like Jack Hoffman because I’ve had a blast with the kid. He has so much energy and such a positive attitude. When you’re with him and his parents, you’d never know what they’re dealing with.”
Andy Hoffman knows, and he remembers every day in rather vivid detail, including that phone call from Rex one year ago today. “Jack was heavily medicated with pain medicines, and he was still recovering from the effects of surgery,” Andy said. “Jack wasn’t very talkative. Rex told Jack that he was proud of him and that he was glad the surgery went well. He also told Jack that when Nebraska was trailing Ohio State 27-to-7 that he thought of Jack, and he told himself and his teammates that ‘Jack’s not giving up, so we can’t give up either.’”
As the Hoffmans look back over the past year, it’s hard for them to believe that it’s really been a year. “Our family will always remember the incredible support that Rex provided Jack and the rest of our family during an incredibly difficult time,” Andy said.
Burkhead’s Thoughts Were on Jack
Not only did Rex call Jack to wish him well a day before he played in one of the biggest college football games of his career, but he took it upon himself to tell ABC announcers about Jack. Rex conveyed information that would eventually evolve into a national prayer request for Jack when his family thought he needed those prayers the most.
The Hoffmans have had a year to absorb the transaction of events over a four-day span one year ago. “To this day, it still has not sunk in,” Andy said. “When you get the kind of support that Rex provided our family during those deep, dark times, I don’t think it will ever truly sink in.”
The events of that experience will be forever interwoven in the minds of Jack’s parents.
When Jack was moved from the Intensive Care Unit to the ninth floor at Boston Children’s Hospital, a nurse realized that the Hoffmans were from Nebraska. She then proceeded to tell them about the Nebraska-Ohio State game over that weekend one year ago and asked if they watched it.
“We told her that we did,” Andy recalled. “The nurse then said: ‘Did you hear that part towards the end of that game when they talked about that boy having a brain tumor surgery out here in Boston?’”
Do We Know Him? Why, He’s Our Son
The Hoffmans looked at the nurse somewhat in awe. “We did hear that, and they were talking about our Jack,” Andy Hoffman told her. “The nurse’s jaw just about hit the floor, and before we knew it, she went and got other nurses and started telling them that this was Jack, the kid that they were talking about on ABC.”
That’s not the only remarkable thing that Andy recalls because Rex isn’t the only Burkhead who showed unbelievable support during Jack’s surgery last year. “The whole Burkhead family poured on their support,” Andy said. “I vividly remember Rick (Rex’s dad) calling me on my cell phone one evening in the hospital. I will never forget sitting on a chair outside Jack’s hospital room in Boston and actually listening to Rick thanking our family for bringing Jack into Rex’s life.”
The father of a pediatric brain cancer patient interpreted that irony with faith. “During a period of time when our family was so full of gratitude for everything that Rex and his family had done for Jack, even though they had only known each other for three weeks, it was Rick Burkhead thanking us for bringing Jack into Rex’s life,” Andy said. “It was very humbling to listen to the father of an All-Big 10 running back thanking me for allowing our two sons to be friends. It was not only touching, but it was one of those calls that you’ll just never forget.”
The irony does not end there. As the Hoffman family sat and watched Nebraska’s greatest football comeback in history in an apartment in Boston, just two days before their son’s surgery, they watched the Huskers struggle on the field like Jack was struggling at home and in school.
Barking Signals from a Boston Apartment
“Late in the second half, as the momentum started to shift, the entire room seemed to feel a certain connection of what was happening in Lincoln,” Andy said. “Here we were, in a small two-bedroom apartment crammed full of family members who are all Husker fans. We all sat there and kept telling ourselves out loud: 'Give the ball to Rex. Give the ball to Rex,' and sure enough, they did!”
When Burkhead scored the last two touchdowns in the Huskers' 34-27 win, Memorial Stadium shook, but no more so than the that Boston apartment.
After Rex scored the second touchdown and ABC announcers gave their plug for Jack, via their discussion with Rex, “the entire room went from cheers to tears in a matter of seconds,” Andy recalled. “We could not believe that our son just received what would equate to a national prayer request on ABC television. At that point, we felt like Jack could conquer anything, including brain tumor surgery on that next Monday.
“To this day, while it may sound crazy,” Andy Hoffman said, “we attribute how well Jack’s surgery went and how well he recovered from that surgery, to the fact that we had thousands and thousands of people praying for Jack, due to the selfless kind acts of Rex Burkhead, who made sure he told the ABC announcers about Jack before the game.”
Now You All Know the Rest of the Story
This column may be the N-Sider, but I have no idea what all will be included in the piece about Team Jack and Rex at 10 a.m. CT Saturday on BTN. Whatever it is will be one of the more compelling stories related to Nebraska football and one of its all-time most popular players. “Most pieces like this are four or five minutes,” said Lindberg, who produced the feature and admits he had people behind the camera crying while they were filming the raw emotions of a father reliving the family’s darkest days. “We got it down to 9½ minutes, and they wanted more cut. But everyone who watched it agreed. We couldn’t take any more out. There’s just too much there.”
The reason there’s too much there is because of the Burkhead family. “It’s not just Rex,” Andy Hoffman said. “It’s his brother, his parents, his uncle and both sets of his grandparents, who are all over Jack’s CaringBridge website. I know this. When Rex has your back, the entire family does. They’re a model family ... for all of us!”
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