If you live in Nebraska, native son Andy Hoffman says, few dreams are more vivid than the obvious one.
“For most fathers and their sons in Nebraska,” he said, “all you want your son to become is a Nebraska football player.”
Two-plus years ago, his 5-year-old son, Jack, suffered a grand mal seizure that left the family fearing for his life. He was diagnosed with pediatric brain cancer, underwent two brain tumor surgeries and went on chemotherapy.
The prospect of suiting up for the Cornhuskers wasn’t much on the minds of anyone any more, even as Jack became entwined with the program through his favorite player, Rex Burkhead.
Burkhead took such an interest in Jack that he was instrumental in organizing a local chapter of Uplifting Athletes to raise funds for the cause and invoked Jack’s name when the team was down 20-6 to Ohio State at halftime of its 2011 Big Ten home opener days before Jack’s second surgery.
“Jack’s not giving up,” he told his teammates then, “and we’re not giving up.”
Nebraska came back to win 34-27, and last season Jack remained a fixture with the team. With Burkhead’s eligibility ending after last season, Andy Hoffman reckoned that Jack’s presence around the team might diminish.
But even after coach Bo Pelini pulled him aside at the Nebraska football banquet in December and told him, “As long as I’m here, Jack’s going to be a part of this program,” he had no notion of just how much so.
He didn’t know Jack would soon have a moment to do something that would inspire 8 million-plus YouTube views and a trip to the White House.
He couldn’t know that their family — “the Clampetts,” as he playfully calls them — would be in California tonight to see if Jack wins the 2013 “Best Moment” in sports award at the ESPYs.
“This whole thing is kind of surreal,” he says.
The call came from Nebraska director of football operations Jeff Jamrog at 9:30 p.m. on April 5, the night before the team’s annual spring game.
“We’ve got this idea,” Hoffman remembers Jamrog saying, adding, “We want to have Jack score a touchdown tomorrow in the Red and White game.”
The Hoffmans’ home in Atkinson is about four hours from Lincoln. They already were planning to go, but there was a certain extra urgency now.
“We scrambled to try to put together a makeshift Husker football outfit,” said Hoffman, whose foraging included finding practice pants worn by Andy’s brother, Michael, when he was a Nebraska walk-on. “And, by golly, (Jack) kind of looked like he played the part.”
Sitting in the stands in the first half the next day, Andy nervously coached Jack on three basics: “Don’t run out of bounds, don’t fumble the ball, don’t trip.” He agonized some.
“I was kind worrying about him falling, because he’s got some neuropathy from the chemo and stuff. So that was a real concern,” he said in a phone interview. “And he never really ran a lot on turf and never played a down of organized football.”
Finally, the time came to go down to the field, where Jack took his outfit out of his backpack and changed as players surrounded him on the sidelines. It’s likely few, if any, of the 60,000 people there noticed him as he waited for what seemed like forever to his father.
Then, suddenly, here was quarterback Taylor Martinez and a couple of coaches calling Jack to a marker board and showing him his play.
And then out to the field he went, 69 yards from the end zone as Martinez lined him up in the backfield.
With the crowd starting to buzz, he took the handoff and ran left before Martinez tapped him to reverse field and go right. And then he hit his stride near midfield.
As he led the entire Nebraska team into the end zone, the crowd now roaring, Andy Hoffman put down his camera and cried.
“It’s not a moment I ever thought my little boy would get to have,” he said.
Jack’s story got prominent play on ESPN that night, and when they came home from church on Sunday there were messages from “Good Morning, America” and CNN, among other national outlets.
“The play itself was just so innocent and intended for just something for the local fans to enjoy,” Andy Hoffman said.
Now, they had a choice to make. Embrace the moment to further advocate for research and awareness of pediatric brain surgery, or try to maintain their lives in Atkinson, where he works as an attorney and wife Bri is a pharmacist.
“We live in a town of 1,100 people, and we tell people we don’t live in Atkinson, Nebraska, because we like to be on national TV,” he said. “You live in Atkinson because you like the peace and solitude of rural America. And that was about to be invaded.”
But through their Team Jack Foundation, they already had been invested in the broader cause. They came to see this opportunity almost as a calling.
“If Jack’s got to be the face of pediatric brain cancer, then let’s do it, and let’s do it right and get some exposure,” he said.
And they continue to work through the foundation (teamjackfoundation.org), which recently was bolstered by the addition of Royals star Alex Gordon as a “Team Jack All-Star.”
“I have followed Jack’s story from the day I saw his infamous touchdown run in Memorial Stadium, and I was extremely moved,” Gordon, who played baseball at Nebraska, said in a news release last week. “He inspires me every day to go out and work hard in everything I do.”
In honor of Gordon playing in baseball’s All-Star Game, the Hoffman entourage in Los Angeles was sporting T-shirts Tuesday signifying his participation.
As for their own big night tonight as one of four nominees for the “Best Moment” award?
“We’re going to soak it all in,” Andy Hoffman said. “But if I get a chance to talk to LeBron James, I’m going to talk to him about pediatric brain cancer and make sure he becomes aware of how debilitating and devastating the disease is, you know?”
Besides, after an audience with President Barack Obama at the White House, the “Clampetts” can only get so star-struck.
“It’s one of those things you sit there and tell yourself, ‘You need to soak this in; this is the president of the United States,’” said Hoffman, who was careful to say he was not making any political statements as he noted Obama’s graciousness and added it was rewarding to “get to hand-deliver the message where you wanted it to go.”
As for where Jack goes from here, last month he received his last chemotherapy treatment for his current protocol. And the remaining part of the tumor is stable.
“Now we’ll find out in October if he’s in remission,” Andy Hoffman said.
They still don’t know, of course, if he’ll ever get to play organized football.
“I mean, he’s got pins in his head,” Andy said.
But he already holds a place in the lore of Nebraska football — and beyond.