Musial Awards to honor Nebraska football team, brave young boy

LINCOLN, Neb. - In Nebraska, you can see a long way in all directions, and yet there are still some things you never see coming.

When his son Jack was born, Andy Hoffman saw colors: scarlet and cream.

"That's the first thing any Nebraska dad thinks of when they have a son. 'Cool, we can go to Husker games together,'" Andy said.

In this state, the two most important words besides "John Deere" are "Husker football." By wins and winning percentage, Nebraska is the winningest college football program of the last 50 years.

But on the morning of April 22, 2011, football was the last thing on Andy Hoffman's mind. Jack, then just five-years-old, was sitting at the breakfast table when he became unresponsive.

"And I just kept getting right up into his face and clapping my hand right up in his nose and I'm like, 'Jack!' And finally I'm clapping as loud as I could and yelling his name as loud as I could and just nothing," Andy said.

They didn't know it at the time, but Jack was in the middle of a massive seizure. He was rushed to the hospital in his hometown of Atkinson and then transferred four hours away to Children's Hospital in Omaha.

"You know, I didn't know if he would make it to Omaha, to the hospital," said Brianna Hoffman, Jack's mother.

Jack survived the night but doctors gave the Hoffmans a devastating diagnosis: he had to undergo surgery for a malignant tumor near his brain stem.

"There is nothing worse than watching your five-year-old boy being wheeled down the hall to brain surgery," Andy said. "It is absolutely gut-wrenching."

For the next several months, there were more seizures, a second surgery, and the intense chemotherapy that made Jack feel sick.

"Then I started taking these three pills six hours a day and it kind of helped me not puke," said Jack.

It was between surgeries when the Hoffmans wanted to do something special for Jack to lift his spirits.

"We reached out to the university to see if Jack could meet Rex Burkhead, his favorite player at the time," Andy said. "Just thought that would be something nice to do for Jack."

The Huskers football team not only opened its doors to the Hoffman family, it opened its collective heart.

Jack and Rex Burkhead, the former Nebraska running back, became fast friends and by extension an honorary member of the team.

"They've made him feel so welcome; he does feel like he's part of the team," Brianna said.

Every time he was up to it, the Hoffmans made the three-hour drive to Lincoln so Jack could see the Huskers play. He even led the team out of the tunnel in their 2012 game against Wisconsin.

"He embodies everything that Nebraska Football is all about: toughness, character, class, and perseverance," said Jeff Jamrog, Assistant Athletic Director at the University of Nebraska.

Almost two years since Jack suffered that first seizure, the Hoffmans were sitting at home when they got a call the night before the spring game.

"I just wanted it to come off the right way, so that it was a good moment for Jack," said Bo Pelini, head coach of the Nebraska football team.

Coach Pelini and his staff asked Jack to suit up and play a down with the 2013 Huskers. He announced it to the team in the locker room before the spring game.

"He brought Jack in and he said, 'You know this is one of the toughest kids in the entire state. Well today, he's going to suit up for the Cornhuskers and he's going to score a touchdown.' And the players just erupted," Andy said.

With less than eight minutes to go in the fourth quarter, Jack was lining up behind quarterback Taylor Martinez, 69 yards from the end zone. He'd been briefed on the play and got some words of advice from his dad.

"I'll tell you what, Jack. Don't stop running until you hit the fence. I said, 'Just run until you hit the fence,'" Andy said.

The play actually got off to a rocky start.

"Right when I snapped the ball, he ran the wrong way and I grabbed him and moved him back the right way," Martinez said, "and just put him around the corner and he was gone from there."

Jack remembers the moment simply: "Well I first started to go the wrong way and then I turned, and then I just scored a touchdown."

By the time Jack Hoffman made his mad dash down the sideline and all the way to the end zone, 60,000 people were celebrating.

"It was at that moment where I just lost it. I just lost my composure. I just lost it," Andy said.

With fans on their feet, Jack was lifted off of his.

Since then, Jack has become a celebrity of sorts. He not only won an ESPY Award, he even got to meet President Obama.

"He's pretty tall," said Jack.

The Hoffmans are now running toward another end zone: putting a stop to pediatric brain cancer.

Jack still faces an uphill battle, but thanks to that second surgery, he no longer has seizures and the chemo has shrunk what's left of the tumor.

"Just kind of live life one day at a time, one MRI at a time," Andy said.

We usually look up to our role models, but in Lincoln they look down -- to a little boy fighting cancer.

"When our players step back and see the strength that a young man like Jack is able to show and the fight that he shows on a daily basis, it serves as a great example for every one of them," Pelini said.

And one thing is clear; in his continuing battle with this terrible disease, Jack Hoffman will never be alone.

"We came out of that whole experience having a whole new appreciation and respect for Nebraska football," Andy said.


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