It was Nebraska’s 2013 Red and White spring game. The Red team held a 26-25 lead midway through the fourth quarter. Coach Bo Pelini needed a play. He needed a closer. On second-and-10 from the Red 31, the play went in. From the shotgun formation, quarterback Taylor Martinez handed the ball off to running back Jack Hoffman. Jack first ran to his left, then cut back right and ran for daylight. With a caravan of red jerseys leading the way, Jack sprinted into the end zone for a 69-yard touchdown. The moment was one for the ages. Players from both the Red and White teams hoisted Jack upon their shoulders and carried him around the field as he took in cheers from 60,174 Nebraska faithful.
Jack is 8 years old and a cancer survivor. In 2011, he was diagnosed with a malignant tumor near his brain stem. His first brain surgery had limited success due to the tumor’s location. Doctors recommended a second surgery as Jack’s symptoms worsened. He suffered as many as a dozen seizures a day and his medication was not working. Doctors advised Jack’s parents, Andy and Brianna, that a second surgery was very risky and that Jack may not survive.
Before the surgery, Andy and Jack created a bucket list of things Jack would like to do in case the procedure wasn’t successful. High on the list was meeting then-Nebraska and current Cincinnati Bengals running back Rex Burkhead. In late 2011, the two had lunch and toured Memorial Stadium. The meeting forged an unbreakable bond between Jack and his favorite player. Jack survived his second surgery and courageously battled through 60 weeks of additional chemotherapy to help shrink what was left of the tumor.
The Friday before the spring game, Nebraska coaches were looking for ways to add more excitement to the event. Ideas included getting a fan into the game or a child associated with another organization. Pelini suggested Jack because of his relationship with Burkhead and the team. Burkhead and his teammates had worn “Team Jack—Pray” bracelets and visited Jack regularly. Burkhead also started a chapter of Uplifting Athletes, a nonprofit that uses college football players to raise awareness and support for rare diseases.
Andy already planned to attend the spring game with Jack, but the invitation to participate on the field came as a total surprise. Pelini invited the Hoffmans to the pregame meeting where he reintroduced Jack to the team. He told them Jack would join them on the field that day. Nebraska players were overjoyed and welcomed their newest teammate with open arms. When the moment finally happened – when Jack took off for the end zone – Andy was so overcome with emotion that he couldn’t hold his camera still.
The entire series of events put life and football in perspective for the Nebraska program. Pelini told ESPN.com, “It’s what we try to teach them every day: that there’s a much bigger picture out there other than football. There just is. Sometimes, we get lost with everything that goes into college football. There’s so much pressure and so much at stake. Sometimes our kids feel like, ‘Wow! Football is tough and it’s difficult.’ Football is hard. But when you compare it to what a [kid] like Jack is going through, it pales in comparison. They should look up to the heavens every day and be thankful.”
Jack’s battle has inspired the creation of the Team Jack Foundation, which is committed to helping find a cure for pediatric brain cancer. For more information, visit teamjackfoundation.org.