My 2013 Sportsman nominee: Nebraska fan Jack Hoffman
Sports Illustrated announced its choice for 2013's Sportsman of the Year on Dec. 16, 2013. Here's one of the nominations for that honor by an SI writer.
Andy Hoffman had warned Taylor Martinez, the Nebraska quarterback, that his son, Jack, might run the wrong way. The play was designed for the right side of the field, but sure enough, when Martinez took the snap and handed the ball to Jack, the boy started running to to his left. Andy's heart leapt into his throat.
No problem. Martinez placed his hands on Jack's shoulder pads, gently steered him in the proper direction, and Jack was off and running. Andy had attended many football games in Memorial Stadium, but he had never heard such a loud roar. When it came, he relaxed and enjoyed the moment along with everyone else. For a few seconds at least, he could forget that his son had a deadly tumor in his brain.
You know what I'm talking about because you saw it -- on your television, on your phone, on your Facebook page, or countless other pixelated transmitters that beamed Jack Hoffman's run to all four corners of the globe. The YouTube clip alone has been viewed more than eight million times. Many of the comments are in foreign languages. The Nebraska spring football game on April 6 was an unlikely setting for the year's most memorable sports moment, but then again, Jack Hoffman is a most unusual little boy. For crossing that goal line with a smile on his face, for teaching us to believe in the impossible, for showing us how sports can be so big and so small at the same time, and most of all for teaching us how to make something so beautiful out of something so awful, Jack Hoffman is my choice to be SI's 2013 Sportsman of the Year.
For the first six years of his life, Jack was an ordinary boy living an ordinary life in the small town of Atkinson, Neb., where rooting for the Cornhuskers is the local religion. The awfulness arrived on the morning of April 22, 2011 when, for no apparent reason, Jack was non-responsive when his parents tried to talk to him. They rushed him to a local hospital, where he suffered a terrifying grand mal seizure that lasted a half-hour. The seizures continued for several weeks before Jack's doctors were finally able to render a diagnosis: pediatric brain cancer.
Jack's doctors recommended surgery, but it did not go well. The tumor, which was roughly the size of a golf ball, was nearly impossible to reach, so only a small piece could be removed. The Hoffmans flew to Boston Children's Hospital, which has one of the top pediatric care centers in the world. The doctors there suggested a second surgery, but they warned the Hoffmans that it was extremely risky. The Hoffmans decided it was worth a try, but before they sent Jack under the knife again, they wanted to give him a special experience. They wanted him to meet his favorite Cornhusker.
That player was running back Rex Burkhead, who wore No. 22. Burkhead took Jack and his family on a tour of the stadium, and then they all had lunch together. Burkhead couldn't believe how normal Jack seemed. "He was having so much fun," Burkhead said. "He had a smile on his face the whole time. It didn't even seem like he was sick."
From there, a bond formed between Burkhead, the Hoffmans, and the Nebraska football program. Jack survived the second surgery and began a 60-week program of chemotherapy treatments, which were administered through a surgically implanted port. As he continued to fight his deadly disease, the Nebraska football family embraced his cause. The players created a "Team Jack" initiative to help raise money for cancer research, and they all wore commemorative wristbands. In September 2012, Jack walked through the tunnel with Nebraska's players prior to their home game against Wisconsin.
As the spring game approached last April, it was only natural that Jack somehow be included. The idea to put him into the game came from football operations director Jeff Jamrog. After getting the blessing from head coach Bo Pelini, Jamrog called the family and told them what the team planned to do for Jack.
The Hoffmans cobbled together a makeshift uniform, and they made the four-hour drive to Lincoln. Pelini presented Jack to the team before the game, and Jack and his family joined the Huskers on the sideline. As the fourth quarter began, receivers coach Rick Fisher huddled with Jack on the sideline and drew up the play.
With the Red team facing a fourth-and-one on its own 32-yard line, Pelini called time out and sent Jack into the game. Wearing his No. 22 jersey, Jack traipsed onto the field amidst the giants. Once Martinez guided Jack in the proper direction, the boy took off running. With his too-large helmet wobbling on his too-small head, Jack found his stride. By the time he reached the White team's 30-yard line, he was in the clear. The entire team left its bench area and ran behind with him. As Jack crossed the goal line, wide receiver Jamal Turner did a somersault. The players lifted Jack onto their shoulders. The crowd of 60,174 in Memorial Stadium was in full throat.
The Hoffmans knew that what happened had been a big deal, but they didn't realize just how big until they were driving home that evening. Andy's cell phone started blowing up with phone calls and text messages from friends who had seen Jack's touchdown on SportsCenter. One of ESPN's football analysts diagrammed the play on a telestrator. Within hours, the family was fielding calls from all the major morning shows as well as feature producers from multiple networks.
The months that followed were a whirlwind. The Hoffmans sat for dozens of interviews. They traveled to Los Angeles for the ESPYs, where Jack's touchdown won in the category for the Best Moment. (When he stepped on stage to accept the award, Jack was wearing his No. 22 red jersey beneath his suit coat.) The capper was a visit to the White House to meet President Obama. The president schmoozed with the family and Burkhead in the Oval Office for 15 minutes and told them about his brain research initiatives.
As Jack's touchdown has been replayed millions of times, money for pediatric brain research has continued to pour in: $250,000 delivered by the governor to a fundraiser in Atkinson, $40,000 from a local radio station drive. Thousands more have been donated through Team Jack foundation's website. (If you want to donate, you can visit Teamjackfoundation.org). Burkhead, who is now a member of the Cincinnati Bengals, has continued raising money through his own nonprofit foundation. His work earned him the Rare Disease Champion Award from Uplifting Athletes, a national organization. The Nebraska football program has likewise formed its own chapter within Uplifting Athletes.
The incredible response to Jack's touchdown has helped the family to get through some very difficult hours. "There have been a lot of nights when we went to bed and we weren't sure Jack was going to wake up," Andy said. "But this is how rocks get polished. They get beat up by the waves. It takes a beating to create something beautiful. We hope that's what we're being a part of, that God is using Jack to create something beautiful."
Best of all, Jack finally got some good medical news recently. His latest MRI showed a positive response to the chemotherapy treatments. His tumor is technically in remission, but his doctors have warned that approximately half the kids in Jack's situation experience relapses. "We high-fived, but not too hard," Andy said. "We're focused on living one day at a time, one MRI at a time."
Jack is a bona fide celebrity now. When he goes to Nebraska football games, it takes him a little longer to get to his seat because people want to take pictures with him. His run was shown on Memorial Stadium's big screen several times. In October, he served as Grand Marshal for Nebraska's Homecoming parade. Other than that, he lives a relatively normal life. He is expected to go to school and do his homework. He plays soccer, and after he got his chemo port removed, he started playing flag football.
When Jack was hoisted onto the players' shoulders that day, he was given a glorious view. The ensuing reaction has given his family a similar view of the world around them. "Let me tell you, we have a beautiful country," Andy said. "We've spent the last year traveling from Washington, D.C., to L.A. to New York City. I'm from a small town of 1200 people. We're brought up to believe that no one is nicer than people in the Midwest, but I've got to tell you, this country has an amazing heart."
In the end, that is why this is a moment worth celebrating. Usually, we revere our athletes because of what we see in them. It takes a true sportsman to brings out the best in us.