Patriots running back Rex Burkhead to honor Jack Hoffman this weekend

Patriots running back Rex Burkhead to honor Jack Hoffman this weekend

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Mark Daniels-MetroWest Daily News - FOXBORO — You could see the smiles on their faces as they raced up and down the Memorial Stadium turf. Jack Hoffman was beaming while wearing his No. 22 Nebraska jersey. Rex Burkhead was just as happy in tow.

The Hoffman family will never forget that day.

On Sept. 15, 2011, Burkhead came into their lives. Jack was 5 years old old at the time and less than a month away from his second brain surgery. He was diagnosed with pediatric brain cancer in April of that year. After having a procedure to remove a small part of the tumor near his brain stem, the following months were hard for the Atkinson, Neb., family.

Jack suffered frequent seizures that spring and summer — up to 11 a day. Before his second surgery, scheduled at Boston Children’s Hospital, all Jack wanted was to meet his favorite football player — Burkhead, a junior at Nebraska. The family expected a picture. Instead, they gained a friend.

Burkhead hung out with the Hoffmans that day. He gave them a tour around the stadium and had lunch with the family. They bonded over Jack’s story. While showing the family around the locker room, Burkhead asked Jack for one of his red wristbands that said, ‘Team Jack-Pray.’ He told the family he’d wear it that weekend against Washington.

“At that point in time, Team Jack was a prayer movement for our son,” Andy Hoffman said. “We were in the throes of battle. These are the darkest days of our life. Our son has unending seizures. He has an inoperable brain tumor. Rex kind of waltzed into our lives at the darkest days of our family’s lives.”

“We just bonded so much at that time,” Burkhead recalled. “We just wanted to stay in touch with each other and continue that relationship. Here we are today.”

Fast forward six years and Burkhead still wears his Team Jack wristbands. That day in 2011 sparked a relationship between Burkhead and the Hoffmans. Jack is still fighting pediatric brain cancer, and the Patriots running back also joined the fight against the disease. This weekend, with the NFL’s ‘My Cause, My Cleats’ initiative, Burkhead will don ‘Team Jack’ cleats.

National story

Burkhead darted through the field and dodged half the Ohio State defense before diving into the end zone. As the back soared over the corner pile-on, you could see the red wristband on his right arm.

Two days before Jack’s second brain surgery, Burkhead made the boy’s story known on a national stage. As Burkhead led Nebraska’s biggest comeback in school history with a game-winning touchdown run, Jack’s story became an inspiration for the Cornhuskers and everyone watching.

“We all had the wristbands,” Burkhead said. “I remember at halftime looking over some of my teammates and looking down at the wristbands, ‘Hey, Jack wouldn’t give up in this situation.’”

About 1,500 miles away, Andy and Bri Hoffman watched in tears in a furnished apartment in Boston. After Burkhead’s score, Sean McDonough and Janine Edwards talked about their son’s story and the wristbands. The announcers noted how Burkhead was going to call the Hoffman’s as soon as Jack got out of surgery.

“This was a really important sequence of events in our lives,” Andy Hoffman said. “We were watching this on ABC national TV live and we were in tears. Sure enough, Jack has surgery Monday, the phone rings on Tuesday and it’s Rex Burkhead checking in on how surgery went. It didn’t stop there.”

“It started out where some friends had some Team Jack-Pray wristbands made right after Jack got diagnosed,” Bri Hoffman said. “We had given Rex a wristband and he said, ‘I’m going to wear it at the game on Saturday.’ I thought to myself, ‘this is a college kid. He’s not going to wear it.’ But he did and he wore it at every game.”

Burkhead started wearing it during his junior year in 2011. He kept it on the next season in Nebraska and then in the NFL with the Cincinnati Bengals. On Wednesday, in the Patriots locker room, he was wearing a black wristband that said “One Team” with a cancer ribbon on it.

Funding a cure

With Burkhead leading the charge, the Hoffman family began to fundraise in the fall of 2012 as Jack was undergoing chemotherapy. Although his second surgery removed most of the tumor and eliminated the seizures, a small spot near his brain stem and cerebral artery began to grow aggressively.

Burkhead and the Hoffmans became determined to try to help find a cure and bring awareness to a disease that’s the leading cause of cancer death among children. That fall, they raised $300,000 and presented it to the Dana Farber Cancer Institute in the form of a research grant.

In 2013, the Team Jack Foundation was formed and Burkhead currently sits on the board.

“It’s just a great cause to be a part of,” Burkhead said. “It’s a rare disease. It doesn’t get much funding. Whatever way I can, just trying to use my platform to try and bring awareness to the disease.”

Burkhead helped put the foundation in the national spotlight. During Nebraska’s 2013 spring game, Jack entered the scrimmage and ran for a 69-yard touchdown. The video has been viewed over 8.8 million times on You Tube. The moment won Jack the ‘Best Moment’ ESPY Award for 2013 and led to a meeting between the boy, Burkhead and then-President Barack Obama.

“We had the foundation before that, but it really shoved it into the spotlight,” Bri Hoffman said. “He ran for that touchdown and a lot of people saw it on the internet. We were thankful that it created awareness of the disease.”

The foundation has now raised over $4 million for pediatric brain cancer research. Every year, Team Jack holds a fundraising gala and last year’s raised over $400,000. Last year, Burkhead also ran his own event, in Plano, Texas, that brought in $45,000.

“Awareness is so important because it equals funding,” Andy Hoffman said, noting Burkhead’s importance. ” He has helped single handedly put this disease on the national agenda.”

In the spotlight

Burkhead will bring Team Jack to the forefront again on Sunday in Buffalo as part of the NFL’s “My Cause, My Cleats” initiative.

The cleats he’ll wear are dressed in scarlet red Nebraska colors and Team Jack can be seen on each side. The left shoe depicts a picture of Jack when he and Burkhead first met. The inside says, “Won’t be beat.” The right shoe has a picture of him now wearing glasses. That inside says, “Can’t be beat.”

“Team Jack is about pediatric brain cancer. For us, this is really about the incredible platform that Rex is giving these kids with brain tumors a voice,” Andy Hoffman said. “He’s doing it in the biggest possible way. We’re just so thankful for that.”

“It’s very uplifting. People don’t realize the power of sports,” Bri Hoffman added.

The relationship has been mutually beneficial. The Hoffmans gained a supporting friend in Burkhead and his family. His stature as a professional athlete has taken this story to new heights. For Burkhead, Jack serves as his motivation.

The 12-year-old continues to come to Boston with his family to get scans on his brain. The family saw Burkhead play against the Chargers on their last visit. Jack still has a residual brain tumor, which doctors continue to monitor. The seizures have returned, but he’s able to go to school and live as a normal sixth-grade boy.

“It’s huge. He’s been such an inspiration to me,” Burkhead said. “I think they look to me to kind of give him a boost of stretch and inspiration when we met that day. I feel like, he’s given me a ton. Just really, anything I may be going through, whether that’s a little injury or something in my life, it’s not nearly as big as what he’s dealing with.”

Mark Daniels writes for the Providence Journal of GateHouse Media. Read original article here