Something caught the eye of Jack Hoffman as he walked down a sixth-floor hallway in Memorial Stadium on Saturday evening.
The 7-year-old boy, with no hair and decked out in Husker red, yanked his dad Andy Hoffman’s arm. Andy stopped and looked down.
“What is it Jack?” Andy asked with a confused look.
“Look, Dad,” Jack said, pointing at a poster of the Nebraska football team on the wall in the hallway.
Jack loves the whole Husker football team, but only one thing mattered to him: Jack’s finger pointed to No. 22, Rex Burkhead.
‘We thought we lost him’
The scar on the left side of Jack’s head is shaped liked a backwards C and is about as thick as a pencil.
It’s from surgery Jack had to remove a brain tumor last fall.
On April 22, 2011, Andy and Brianna Hoffman took Jack to Children’s Hospital & Medical Center in Omaha after a series of life-threatening seizures. Doctors later diagnosed Jack with a brain tumor.
“We thought we lost him that day,” Andy said.
Surgery was scheduled for May 20, 2011, at the hospital. But Jack continued to have frequent seizures, despite taking anti-seizure medication. He sometimes had as many as 10 to 12 seizures a day.
During the surgery, an Omaha neurosurgeon was able to remove a small amount of the tumor. Pathology revealed a cancerous glioma.
The Hoffmans looked to Boston’s Children’s Hospital for a second opinion. In Aug. 2011, pediatric neurosurgeon Liliana Goumnerova said she could resect the tumor. A golf ball-sized tumor was removed on Oct. 10, 2011.
During the time between his first and second surgery, Andy called Keith Zimmer, the associate athletic director of Life Skills for the Athletic Department, trying to get a picture of Jack with Rex Burkhead, his son’s favorite player.
Burkhead agreed and met Jack in September 2011. Burkhead showed Jack and his family, who are from Atkinson, Neb., around Memorial Stadium and went out to lunch with them. A bond began between the cancer patient and football player.
“I didn’t want to make it a one-time deal,” Burkhead said. “I wanted to be with him throughout the journey.”
And Burkhead has been with Jack every step of the way.
The senior I-Back called Jack the Friday before his second surgery. He wished Jack well, saying he was praying for him.
The next night ABC first mentioned Jack’s cause in front of a national TV audience when Nebraska played Ohio State in the Huskers’ Big Ten home opener.
The Huskers won the game in dramatic fashion, completing the largest comeback in school history that night in Lincoln. Burkhead said the team couldn’t have done it without Jack. Rex made it a point to call his new friend after his surgery and tell him the Huskers were thinking about him when they were down.
“He called Jack when we were in the hospital and he said he was glad the surgery went well,” Andy said. “He was letting him know that when the team was down they were thinking about him.”
For Burkhead, Jack is the definition of toughness and inspiration. Jack’s strength was something the team could rally around, he said.
“We were down at the time of the game,” Burkhead said. “Things weren’t going so well, but there are times when things aren’t going so well for Jack. The picture we have in football is nothing compared to what he is going through. He gives you a completely different attitude about what you’re going through. It gives you a motivation to stay the course and keep fighting.”
A bond extended
Jack is going to be a cop when he grows up.
“You can arrest people,” Jack said.
Rex Burkhead’s dad, Rick Burkhead, who is a member of the FBI in Texas, has had a lot to do with Jack being a future police officer.
Jack and his family spent 30 days in Boston recovering from his surgery in Oct. 2011. Rick Burkhead called Andy during that time to thank him for bringing Jack into Rex’s life.
“I’ll never forget that,” Andy said. “Here’s the father of a Big Ten running back thanking me for bringing my son into his son’s life. At that point, my heart overflowed with gratitude for everything Rex and his family had done.”
From that point on, the bond grew from between Rex and Jack to the Burkhead and Hoffman families.
Rick Burkhead arranged for Jack to tour the Boston FBI building when he recovered from surgery. The Burkhead family posts on Jack’s CaringBridge website frequently to say they are praying for him.
“No one asked them to do that,” Andy said. “They just did it out of the goodness of their own hearts.”
For Andy, the Hoffman’s relationship with the Burkheads stems back to one person: Rex.
“Rex is one of those guys, a rare commodity, that when he says he is going to do something, he does it,” Andy said. “Nothing surprises me when it comes to Rex Burkhead. If he rushes for 2,000 yards his first year as a rookie in the NFL that wouldn’t surprise me.”
Rex doesn’t think he is changing a whole lot though. In fact, he said Jack is the person who is changing him, rather than the other way around.
“He’s given me a sense of motivation,” Rex said. “He’s given me strength to keep pushing and stay motivated and to never give up no matter what. If you’re tired in a workout or something, I think about him often to help me push through.”
Jack hasn’t had a seizure since his last surgery. He’s going to be Darth Vader on Halloween and “eat lots of Skittles,” he said.
In addition to being a cop, he also wants to be a football player. He hopes to be a running back one day, just like his Nebraska favorite player.
Jack knows what’s going on. He knows Rex doesn’t have to do what he does for him. But Jack can see into the Husker running back’s eyes.
“He cares about me,” Jack said.
A Box of Goodies
It’s late Saturday night and Nebraska has just knocked off No. 22 Michigan, 23-9. Jack and his dad carry a box inside the Nebraska weight room at Memorial Stadium.
Andy opens the box and looks over at his son. A smile spreads across Jack’s face. He hovers over the box as Andy pulls out autographed footballs, mini-Nebraska helmets and signed T-shirts. Andy picks up a football and Jack races 10 yards away to catch a pass.
Nebraska football coach Bo Pelini walks over after talking with the media and shakes Andy’s hand. Jack stands next to a kneeing Pelini to take a picture.
Interviews of football players go on in the background as Jack talks to different people, all with a shy smile on his face.
Andy picks up his son’s new memorabilia. Except for one item.
He calls for his son, and Jack runs over to his father. With the box of goodies under his arm, Andy walks out of the weight room. Jack follows close behind, wearing a new, autographed Husker jersey. No. 22.