Andy and Bri Hoffman just wanted five minutes of Rex Burkhead’s time. The more than 200 miles they had to drive from their home in Atkinson, Neb., to the University of Nebraska in Lincoln was nothing. Not with what Jack, their 5-year-old son, was going through.
Five minutes with Burkhead and a couple of pictures with their son’s favorite player — well, the favorite Cornhusker of the entire Hoffman family — was all it would take to bring a smile to the face of Jack, a pediatric brain cancer patient. In 10 days Jack was due to undergo a second operation to remove the tumor that surrounded his brain stem and cerebral artery.
“Jack was at risk of possible death, of stroke. It was a very invasive surgery,” Andy Hoffman said.
For two hours on Sept. 15, 2011, Jack and Rex couldn’t be separated, not until a Nebraska athletic department official made sure Burkhead went to class.
The day was more than the Hoffmans ever dreamed of, and the day struck Burkhead in a manner he never envisioned. The visit spawned a friendship and gave roots to a movement to raise awareness of the No. 1 cause of cancer-related pediatric deaths in the United States.
On Friday, Burkhead began what he hopes will be a long career in the NFL when the Cincinnati Bengals open their annual three-day rookie mini-camp. The Bengals selected Burkhead, the fifth-leading rusher in Nebraska’s storied history, in the sixth round of last month’s draft. Burkhead is no shoe-in to make the team’s roster in September, but he says with all that his buddy Jack has had to endure in his short life, there is no way Burkhead is backing down from any challenge.
“You see this kid and even though he’s battling brain cancer he still has a smile on his face, he still has a positive attitude, and I think that inspirational message relates to everyone,” Burkhead said. “I think it connects with everyone because all of us have things that we think are hard in our life, but it’s kind of the mindset that we take along with it that determines how we react to those times. I think Jack definitely gives you a better outlook on those things.”
A better outlook on life is what the Hoffmans left Lincoln with that day.
Jack nearly died on April 22, 2011, when he suffered a seizure due to respiratory failure. It was then that doctors discovered the golf ball-sized tumor. For the next five months, Andy Hoffman said, his family talked about nothing else other than brain cancer, tumors and surgeries.
The Hoffmans are your typical Nebraska family. That means Cornhuskers football is a top priority. When Jack came home from the hospital after being born, he was wearing a Cornhuskers outfit. His first birthday was a Husker-themed party. At the age of 2, Jack knew the name of Nebraska’s starting quarterback.
Andy and his older brothers would watch Nebraska games and Jack was right there with them. It was a natural for Jack to take to Burkhead because his dad and uncles took to Burkhead, right from his first game as a true freshman in 2009.
Rex carried the ball nine times for 39 yards, including an 8-yard touchdown run at the end of the third quarter in a 49-3 romp against Florida Atlantic.
“We just loved the way he played football: that lunch bucket mentality, that hard-nosed, day-in and day-out attitude,” Andy Hoffman said. “He’s so representative of Nebraskans and how we lived. Jack was all around it. He was very impressionable.”
Andy Hoffman apologizes that the story isn’t fancier. But that is why the story of Jack and Rex has captivated the country.
“It’s very organic,” Andy Hoffman said. “It’s authentic. There’s nothing about it that’s made up or produced. It’s a God thing. It’s God connecting two people that He felt needed to be connected. When God put that meeting in place, when He put it in motion, He had big plans for both Jack and Rex, and I don’t think they’re finished. That’s the best thing about it.”
The Team Jack Foundation was created with the goal of helping raise funds for research and awareness of pediatric brain cancer. When Jack’s cancer was first discovered, the Hoffmans used bracelets with the words “Team Jack Pray” on them as a reminder to think and pray for Jack.
Jack offered Rex a bracelet when they first met, and Rex put it on and asked for more for his teammates. Rex has been wearing it ever since, including during a 34-27 win against Ohio State on national TV on Oct. 8, 2011, two days before Jack was to undergo his second surgery.
Nebraska trailed 27-6 in the third quarter before rallying for the largest comeback victory in school history. Burkhead rushed for 96 of his 119 yards and scored the tying and go-ahead touchdowns in the fourth quarter. The announcers, ABC’s crew of Sean McDonough, Matt Millen and Jeannine Edwards, told the audience about Jack after Nebraska took the lead.
“That clip still gives us chills,” Andy Hoffman said. “The friendship is great, the awareness is great and we’ve talked about how he’s helped us further the cause of this disease with the prayer and support. But here we are (chokes up, pauses a second) when Jack needs it the most (again pauses, this time a little longer) … We basically had a national prayer request for Jack on prime-time ABC a day before his surgery. It doesn’t get any better than that.”
Doctors were able to remove 95 percent of Jack’s tumor and relieve the epileptic seizures it had caused. The other 5 percent couldn’t be removed because of its location on the brain stem. An MRI last April revealed the remaining tumor had begun to grow, necessitating a 60-week session of chemotherapy.
Those sessions at Omaha’s Children’s Hospital, a 3½-hour drive, are due to be completed in June. So far, Jack’s prognosis is good. Once treatments are done, he’ll need to get an MRI every three months for a year and then every six months.
In February 2012, Burkhead was given the Rare Disease Champion award from Uplifting Athletes, a non-profit organization that connects college football programs with rare diseases. Rare diseases are classified as those conditions that typically affect less than 200,000 Americans and receive little attention in terms of outreach, education, research and advocacy.
In less than six months, Nebraska’s Uplifting Athletes chapter was able to raise nearly $300,000, which included an anonymous gift of $100,000 from a Nebraska-based business, for pediatric brain cancer research. The Team Jack Foundation sold 20,000 shirts as well as holding other fundraisers through CureSearch for Children’s Cancer, and together they were able to present a grant of $275,000 to the Dana Farber Cancer Institute/Harvard Medical School this past January.
“It’s been awesome working with them, getting things going for the foundation and seeing the state of Nebraska get excited about it over the past four years,” Burkhead said. “It’s been really cool and it’s turning out an Uplifting Athletes chapter at the university with the football team is something very neat. That came out of Jack and his situation as well.”
The positive outlook for Jack Hoffman hides a stark reality. He is 7 years old. He knows way too much about cancer at his age.
“The hardest thing is watching those around him die,” Andy Hoffman said. “He did the tunnel walk with Isaiah Casillas this past fall. Isaiah had brain cancer also. About two months later Isaiah died. We struggled greatly with how to tell him how Isaiah died, as just months earlier they were comparing scars and anti-seizure meds. Jack knows that kids with brain tumors around him have died. He hides it well, but it does bother him. He knows things are serious, but he also has a confidence that he is going to be OK, and I think that comes back to our faith in Christ. We are constantly praying for healing at home, and that helps.”
FOOTBALL PLAYER AT HEART
With all of the attention Burkhead has received as for his relationship with Jack, it can be easy to forget he’s a pretty good football player.
The Bengals are coming off of the franchise’s first consecutive playoff trips since 1981-82 and have been to the postseason in three of the past four seasons, but they haven’t won a playoff game since the 1990 season. Their improvement plans this season include jump-starting an offense that has lacked an explosive threat out of the backfield, one that can better complement starter BenJarvus Green-Ellis.
They drafted North Carolina’s Giovani Bernard in the second round with that purpose in mind. The pick of Burkhead in the sixth round surprised some analysts, but he fit what the Bengals were looking for.
“We add another really good football player to our room,” Bengals running backs coach Hue Jackson said. “The thing that’s exciting is at this point in time in the draft, you’re looking for players that can really come in and make a difference and still have a chance to compete and play, and obviously, this young man has done a great job at Nebraska.”
Burkhead, from Plano, Texas, is 5-foot-10 and 214 pounds. His father, Rick, had training camp experiences with Miami and Philadelphia in the early 1990s before moving on to a career in the FBI. Burkhead is a two-time, first-team academic All-American and rushed for 3,329 yards and 30 touchdowns in his career while catching 60 passes for 507 yards and five touchdowns.
A sprained knee limited him his senior season and likely hurt his draft stock.
“A lot of people call Rex a ‘throwback player,’” Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said. “They almost act like he’s this overachiever. I think he gets a lot out of what he does. But I don’t think people realize how good of an athlete this guy is.
“He’s a tremendous athlete. … It’s ridiculous, really. He has almost a 40-inch vertical leap. I don’t think people realize how explosive this guy is.”
Besides Green-Ellis and Bernard, Burkhead will be competing against veterans Bernard Scott and Cedric Peerman, who is a special teams stalwart, second-year player Dan Herron (last year’s sixth-round pick) and rookie free agent Onterio McCalebb for roster spots.
The Bengals have a preseason game scheduled at Dallas, near where Burkhead grew up. Friends and family already are making plans for that trip.
Plans also are in the works for Jack and his family to visit Cincinnati for a game in the regular season. Jack has been wearing a Bengals hat religiously since they picked Rex in the draft, but he’s been a Green Bay Packers fan in the past.
The Packers visit the Bengals on Sept. 22, four days before Jack’s eighth birthday and National Pediatric Brain Cancer Awareness Day, named so in honor of Jack Hoffman.
“Well, if he comes to that one, I’ll make sure he has a Bengals shirt on,” Burkhead said.