Meet Jack Johnson, Huskers' Make-A-Wish Wide Receiver
Randy York’s N-Sider
Official Blog of the Huskers
There’s something about Mike Riley that makes Nebraska’s second-year head football coach a heroic figure among national media, not to mention a good man who knows a great wide receiver when he sees one.
Meet Jack Johnson, an 8-year-old second-grader who’s all of 4-foot-3 and a whopping 55 pounds at Norfolk Catholic grade school. Riley was so eager to “recruit” Jack, he sent the excited Husker fan with a genetic disorder his own personalized video.
Johnson (pictured above) had no delusions of grandeur. But when asked to make a wish that he’d like to see come true, he carefully chose 10 words in a simple sentence – “I wish to be a REAL Nebraska Cornhusker football player.”
Yes, the genetic disorder was a big hurdle, but he loves football and for the first time ever this year, Jack experienced his first Husker game as a fan inside Memorial Stadium.
That memorable Saturday afternoon early in September ignited a passion that lit the match to make a wish despite Jack’s small frame – he wanted to be one of the players who was cheered on by 90,000+ on a Saturday. He wanted to be a Cornhusker.
Riley was in no mood to wait or debate the decision, so he asked HuskerVision to produce a personalized promotional video.
Rumor: Jack Johnson Has Moves that Can Challenge Jordan Westerkamp
“Good afternoon, Norfolk Catholic. This is Coach Riley here and I’ve been doing my research on a young recruit in your school recently,” he said in the video. “This 8-year-old has more passion for Nebraska football than most Nebraskans, and I’ve heard he’s quick and has moves that can challenge our very own Jordan Westerkamp.
Westerkamp agrees with his coach. “It’s one of the greatest things in the world to see a kid who’s gone through so much and you can still see a smile on his face,” Westerkamp told me. “If there’s anything we can do to help we are so willing to do that.
“Football is way more than just a game,” Westerkamp said. “It affects people in so many different ways, and you’re just eager to help this family. You want to put a smile on Jack’s face and really give him a good time here. To see his reaction when he saw the locker we set up was incredible. He was looking around, grabbing all the equipment and having a great time. It was just great to see that. This was a real memorable moment, not just for him, but for Nebraska. We felt blessed to help out on the wish he had.”
Tommy Armstrong Jr.: Small Things Matter, Help You Become Better Person
Incredible was the same word of choice for Tommy Armstrong Jr. His assessment of this special experience was remarkable. “I always look forward to days like this where you can help out and do something special for special people,” Armstrong said. “This means the world to Jack and we want to make sure that we’re a part of something that he sees as big.
“When Jack put down on his list what’s important to him, we’re going to make sure we’re a part of it,” Armstrong said. “I’ve understood that small things matter and it helps you strive to be a better person. You can always take time to help, especially when you are a part of something that can help make a family feel a hundred times better.
“Stuff like this really shows how much we’re growing as a family and as a team,” Armstrong said. “We’re focused on football, but we’re also focused on the community. We have a game in a couple days and understand that it’s more than just a game. We’re human, and any time we can touch the heart of a family, we’re glad to help.”
Jack’s Dad: Experience Made Jack Feel Like He Was Part of the Husker Team
Eric Johnson, Jack’s dad (pictured above with his wife and children), was totally surprised, along with his wife and three other children. “Just watching the athletes that Jack was inspired to watch on TV was incredible,” he said. “They all embraced Jack and it was so inspiring. This was not just a kid visiting campus. They made him feel like he’s part of all this.”
Jack’s dad pauses to chuckle. “The players were even tweeting about meeting Jack instead of the other way around,” he said. “It was incredible watching every step of the way. It’s like there’s another piece to this.
“Watching Jack walk onto the field with his own uniform totally overwhelmed me. With Nebraska, the sky is the limit. This goes way beyond my highest expectations. We had no idea all of this was going to happen. One of the real beauties is just the awareness.
“Hopefully it can help rare genetic diseases. For us as a family, we not only get to grow together because of the time we spend, but to know there are other people out there that care deeply with Make-A-Wish, the University of Nebraska and everybody else that was involved. We didn’t even have an itinerary of what we were going to do. There’s no question. This all came from the heart and it even helped our youngest son, Myles (who also has a genetic disorder), too. We cannot thank everyone involved enough.”
Thursday’s Hour-by-Hour Breakdown for Jack Johnson and His Entire Family
11 a.m.: Jack Johnson, his family and entourage take a limousine ride to Memorial Stadium, where he is greeted by the Nebraska spirit squad, band members, student-athletes and appreciative supporters.
11:05 a.m.: Jack and the troop take the elevator to the sixth floor for a press conference in the same setting that Mike Riley and John Cook hold court on Mondays during football and volleyball season.
11:45 a.m. After 40 minutes of life, cameras and action, Jack, family and followers go to a Compliance meeting, where Jena Johnson briefs Jack on the rules that go with being a Nebraska student-athlete. Johnson is pictured above in that compliance session with Jack and fellow "teammate" Pernell Jefferson.
High noon: Time for an academics meeting with Dennis Leblanc, who explains the support he can expect to help him achieve at the highest academic level possible.
12:30 p.m. It’s lunchtime in the executive dining room at Nebraska’s fabled Training Table with Jack’s family, staff and his No. 1 football hero – Jordan Westerkamp, who wears No. 1.
1:15 p.m. Westerkamp and Tommy Armstrong Jr. escort Jack to his own special locker to see what locker has been reserved for him and to receive all of the new gear that matches his team.
1:30 p.m. Jack and team visit the Players’ Lounge on the football floor, the perfect place to hang out before attending a team meeting.
2:00 p.m. Time for Jack and his family to be introduced to the coaches of an 8-2-ranked Husker team that is looking forward to Saturday’s Senior Day and 11 a.m. kickoff against Maryland.
2:20 p.m. Jack and his family are introduced to the entire Nebraska football team, giving his dad a chance to share Jack’s story.
2:30 p.m. Football walk-on/Winter Olympic Bobsled Gold Medalist Curt Tomasevicz talks to Jack about performance testing and asks him to test himself at the Nebraska Athletics Performance Laboratory.
3:15 p.m. Free time before practice.
4:30 p.m. Jack and new teammates play catch and practice their touchdown dances.
5:30 p.m. Official visit wraps up and Jack and family return to their Lincoln hotel via limo.
For Jack, Friday Will Be Another Busy Day Before Saturday’s B1G Kickoff
Friday will continue to be busy for the Huskers’ latest “recruit” From 8:30 to 9 a.m., Jack and family will be interviewed by a local radio station. Two hours later, they will visit with those who have helped grant Jack’s wish. Before noon, Jack will get taped for a workout by Husker trainer Jerry Weber before joining head strength coach Mark Philipp and linebacker Josh Banderas in a workout.
Ten minutes before noon, Tommy Jensen will go over what Jack should be eating to enhance his strength and performance before joining Husker freshman Pernell Jefferson at the Training Table for lunch.
On Friday afternoon, Jack helped out with a service project with the Nebraska Life Skills Team and participate in a Husker Photoshoot with Scott Bruhn, Nebraska Athletics’ chief photographer. Jack also will attend Friday’s team-through practice and eat dinner with Nebraska teammates and coaches.
On Game Day, Jack Will Take Team Bus, Be Part of Unity Walk, Tunnel Walk
All of that action will lead up to Game Day on Saturday when Jack will take the team bus to Memorial Stadium and be part of the Unity Walk at 8:40 a.m. Twenty minutes later, he’ll be in the locker room to watch the player hype video with coaches and players.
At 9:30 a.m., Greg Sharpe, the voice of Nebraska football, will interview Jack in the radio booth.
At 10:15 a.m., Jack and Pernell Jefferson will experience all pregame activities, including the team prayer, touching the horseshoe on the way out of the tunnel and watching 90,000 fans welcome you and running out of the tunnel with the sights and sounds of 90,000 of the greatest fans in college football.
Nebraska students will acknowledge Jack’s presence in the stadium, dropping an Iron N Sign from the southeast corner of the student section. Jack and his family will watch the last home game of the season from a donor’s skybox. Joining Jack, dad Eric and mom Michelle will be 13-year-old sister CeCe, 11-year-old brother Dylan and 6-year-old brother Myles, who has the same genetic disorder as Jack.
Jack Johnson’s exceptional experience reflects the heart and soul of Make-A-Wish Nebraska, a foundation that proves how wishes work wonders. Granting wish stories serves a unique and vital role in helping strengthen and empower children battling life-threatening medical conditions. There are four steps in the overall process of granting wishes.
10 Wishes that Define What Jack Believes Would Make Him a Real Husker
Jack came up with 10 wishes that define what he believes would make him a real Husker: 1) Get strong by lifting weights; 2) Practice tosses and touchdown dances; 3) Scrimmage in the days before a game; 4) Walk through the tunnel on game day; 5) Touch the horseshoe on the way out of the locker room; 6) Horse around in the locker room; 7) Ride from the hotel to the stadium on game day and through a crowd of screaming people; 8) Have his family cheering him on; 9) Get in front of the camera; and 10) Have an official uniform and helmet with his favorite number and name on the back.
“We came up with ideas that matched Jack’s wishes,” Burling said, pointing out that “everyone we asked wanted to help in any way they could. Because there were no roadblocks, we were able to extend Jack’s wishes over three days. It says a lot about Make-A-Wish and a lot about Nebraska. That’s why so many people say there's no place like Nebraska.”
Editor's Note: All photos pictured above are from Matt Elwood.
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