A year after 'The Run,' Jack Hoffman not interested in spotlight

2014-04-11T20:00:00Z 2014-08-06T18:04:04Z A year after 'The Run,' Jack Hoffman not interested in spotlightBy CHRIS DUNKER / Lincoln Journal Star JournalStar.com

ATKINSON -- Nothing in the way Jack Hoffman bounces on the trampoline reveals the brain tumor that nearly claimed his life.

The 8-year-old flips and flops with abandon in the half-dozen games he and his younger sisters, Ava and Reese, create on the fly on a spring afternoon.

And nothing in the way he acts reveals that his life is any different after last year's touchdown dash in the Huskers' Red-White Spring Game.

For a kid whose face was splashed on TV screens across the world, who hung out with President Obama in the Oval Office and accepted an ESPY in front of the best athletes and biggest stars in the sports world, Jack is an "exceedingly normal" second-grader growing up in Holt County.

Don’t bother telling him his shoes are untied until P.E. class is over. Don’t mind the mess on his desk. Don’t expect him to stand still in line with the other boys in Becky Corkle’s class.

"He is just like all the other second-grade boys," Corkle said this week. "This is a normal place for him."

Atkinson, a town of 1,245 surrounded by ranches, is the type of community-oriented place that keeps an 8-year-old grounded, said Mayor Paul Corkle, Becky's father-in-law -- even the town's most famous resident.

"He's our most renowned now, that's for sure," the mayor said.

* * *

Team Jack was around long before little Jack Hoffman stepped onto the field at Memorial Stadium in the fourth quarter of last year's Spring Game.

But the foundation formed by Andy and Bri Hoffman, after their oldest child was diagnosed with pediatric brain cancer, will forever have a connection to the Huskers' annual scrimmage.

Jack's brain tumor was discovered after an April 22, 2011, seizure.

Rex Burkhead was just a young running back at Nebraska when he became involved with Team Jack. A hospital visit blossomed into a friendship, Jack's dad said.

Burkhead was photographed wearing a Team Jack bracelet while celebrating a touchdown -- a framed copy hangs in the Hoffman's home -- putting a spotlight on the local charity. National organizations like Uplifting Athletes took notice.

Two years ago, the night before the 2012 Spring Game at a banquet honoring Burkhead as an Uplifting Athletes Rare Disease Champion, the Hoffmans met Scott Shirley, who first formed the group at Penn State in 2003 after his father was diagnosed with kidney cancer.

Shirley said his father died six months before a new treatment developed through research funded by Uplifting Athletes was available.

The message resonated with the Hoffmans.

“His words to me -- and I’ll never forget it -- were, ‘You’ve got to go, Andy. You can make a difference not only in Jack’s life but in all the lives of children affected by brain cancer.’”

Following Burkhead’s award, the Nebraska football team adopted pediatric brain cancer as its cause and formed its own Uplifting Athletes chapter in June 2012. Over the next few months, Team Jack sold 30,000 T-shirts and picked up donations from Pinnacle Bank and others totaling $275,000, which went directly to the Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, a leader in childhood brain cancer research.

It was a good state, a benchmark for future fundraising and awareness campaigns.

Then there was “The Run.”

* * *

At the 2013 Red-White Game, Bo Pelini went deep to the bench for a late-game substitute at running back.

With a scarlet jersey, No. 22 -- Burkhead’s number -- Jack settled in next to quarterback Taylor Martinez, taking a handoff and veering to his left before reversing field and finding a row of blockers.

The roar in Memorial Stadium rose for 69 yards, reaching crescendo as Jack burst into the end zone.

Hearts crawled into throats and shivers ran down spines.

Some fans cried.

Video of "The Run," the kind of moment that elevates sports above wins and losses, spread across the Internet before the Hoffmans could start for home.

During the four-hour drive, the answering machine filled with messages from well-wishers and national media outlets requesting interviews. ESPN aired "The Run" in its rotation of top stories throughout the weekend.

“That took things to the next level,” Andy Hoffman said this week. “When your son scores a touchdown on Saturday in Memorial Stadium, and then your family foundation’s homepage is being flashed on CNN on Monday, it makes a difference.”

Jack's parents tried to make sense of everything that followed. One of their goals in launching Team Jack was national awareness of pediatric brain cancer.

Maybe, they thought, this was all part of the plan. Maybe Jack's efforts on the field could be used for something greater.

“We saw it as the answer to our prayers, as the way God is going to help us ring the bell,” his dad said.

* * *

In his second-grade class, Jack is busy determining which article should appear before what noun in a sentence.

Distinguishing between “a” and “an” might not be the highlight of the school day, but Jack mows through the task at hand from his desk in the back row.

When he finishes, he pulls out a chapter book -- the “Stink” series by Megan McDonald -- and fills his time reading.

His routine at school is no different than anyone else’s, West Holt Superintendent Bill McAllister says.

“Jack is another student here.”

Corkle said the most attention Jack has drawn to his condition was earlier this school year, when doctors said his cancer was in remission.

It was a huge day for Jack, as the port in his side could finally be removed.

“He brought the port to school, and he was pretty pleased with it,” Corkle recalled. “The day after his surgery, he was back playing soccer at recess.”

And all those opportunities that scoring a touchdown in a Husker jersey provided -- meeting famous people and visiting far-off places -- rarely come up.

“If we talk about Washington, D.C., he’ll talk about monuments he saw there,” Corkle said. “It’s no different than anyone else who went on a family vacation to Mount Rushmore and talks about it in class.”

* * *

Currently, less than 4 percent of all funding for cancer research goes to studying childhood brain cancer, the leading cause of cancer-related deaths in children younger than 15.

With so little funding available, the last time the Federal Drug Administration approved a drug to fight childhood cancer was before many on the current Huskers were born.

“It’s a matter of economics, more patients are seeking cures to lung and breast cancer than there are childhood cancers,” Andy Hoffman said.

Team Jack has raised more than $1.5 million, while larger organizations like St. Baldrick's have poured $27 million into research to find a cure for childhood cancer.

In March, Congress gave bipartisan support to the Gabriella Miller Kids First Research Act, named for the 10-year-old Virginia girl who died from an inoperable brain tumor in 2013. It earmarks $126 million for childhood cancer research at the National Institutes of Health.

Andy Hoffman said Team Jack will continue to work alongside other groups.

“It takes a village, it takes a community, it takes a country,” he said.

* * *

A face in a movement gaining traction across the country, none of the brushes with celebrities and famous athletes, nor the television appearances, has much effect on Jack.

"Can you do a flip? My friend showed me how," Jack says, demonstrating on the trampoline. "Just land on your knees and do it."

In what must be pretty cool lunch-table stories, Jack recalls NBA superstar LeBron James -- a fellow ESPY winner in 2013 -- nodding at him and refers to Huskers Taylor and Kenny by only their first names.

He's just not that into talking about it.

Like many of his friends, Jack walks home from school with backpack slung over his shoulder.

At home, on the living room mantle, is memorabilia charting the evolution of Team Jack, including the ESPY for “Best Moment” in sports.

The award could have gone to Andy Murray for becoming the first British man to win Wimbledon in 77 years, or to Alex Morgan’s game-winning header in the U.S. Women’s Soccer Team’s Olympic semifinal victory or to Indianapolis Colts coach Chuck Pagano for his return to the sidelines after being diagnosed with leukemia.

Instead, it went to the boy who captured a state’s imagination and brought an important cause to the spotlight through the vehicle of sports.

The award rests not far from a football signed by President Obama.

Yet on show-and-tell day in Mrs. Corkle's class, Jack hauled in his Nintendo DS and a 10-month-old Labrador puppy -- his Make-A-Wish gift.

“I wanted to see the ESPY," she said. "But the DS and the dog are the things that are important to him, just like all second-grade boys.”

Reach the writer at 402-473-7120 or cdunker@journalstar.com. On Twitter @ChrisDunkerLJS.

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