Big Rex, Little Jack and their Worldwide Fan Club
Rex Burkhead signs a jersey for Jack Hoffman. Courtesy photo.
It wasn’t just his 1,357 rushing yards that earned Rex Burkhead the first-ever Husker of the Year award by Huskers Illustrated.
Sometimes, when everyone gets all wrapped up in championship games, bowl games and 10-win seasons, they miss things that transcend football. Eclipsing records is nice, but transforming lives is infinitely more important. The 2011 Nebraska football season’s most incredible story wasn’t the Huskers’ greatest comeback win in school history over Ohio State. It wasn’t the near shutout of Michigan State. It wasn’t even the far-reaching attention on a Nebraska running backs coach leading a pre-game prayer for Penn State players and coaches while the entire nation watched on television.
No, the most incredible Nebraska football story of the year was Big Rex, Little Jack and the worldwide fan club they unintentionally created when they turned a meeting and simple lunch together last September into a friendship that has life-long ramifications and a worldwide support group that keeps growing and growing and growing.
Big Rex is Rex Burkhead, Nebraska’s All-Big Ten Conference and Academic All-America running back who has, much to his chagrin, been called Superman because of his extraordinary powers, on and off the field.
Little Jack is Jack Hoffman, a 6-year-old boy with brain cancer from Atkinson, Neb.
Their worldwide fan club, a.k.a. Team Jack, is anywhere and everywhere you can imagine, and it waits for Andy Hoffman, Jack’s father, to post updates on the Team Jack Facebook page. On Sunday, Jan. 8, Andy posted this message on that site: “Three months ago today, on Oct. 8th, Jack suffered 4 seizures. He hasn’t suffered one since!! Today is Day 92 and counting. We leave for Omaha tomorrow after work, then fly out Tuesday morning for Boston. We have 4 appointments and an MRI Wednesday (Jack’s 8th MRI in 8 months). Fly home on Thursday. We are getting nervous, but trusting the Lord. Thank you for continuing to pray for Jack.”
Three hours after that post, there were 303 “Likes” and 31 comments. People continued to post throughout the day, and most of the likes and comments are from people Andy Hoffman and his wife Bri have never met. They are just random Husker fans, proving once again that Team Jack Facebook has “viral” status, as defined by Facebook.
“You cannot imagine how uplifting this is,” Andy Hoffman said. “While the local support has been awesome, it’s overwhelming to feel the support of a country and sometimes, the support of people outside the country. And it’s all thanks to Rex.”
Rex Burkhead is honored asHuskers Illustrated's first-ever Husker of the Year.
Ah yes, the incredible Rex Burkhead and the incredible story he has helped create since Keith Zimmer, Nebraska’s associate athletic director for Life Skills, asked him if he would like to meet Jack, show him around and have lunch with him the week before Nebraska played at Wyoming. Rex wore a red “Team Jack-Pray” wristband that particular game. He had an awesome game and wore it the rest of the season. Countless teammates and their parents also wore Team Jack wristbands and joined the movement that now includes 3,000 Team Jack Facebook members and 45,000 visits to the Caring Bridge Website that also chronicles his progress.
For obvious reasons, most big-name-athlete-sick-child meetings are heart-felt and well-intentioned but rarely result in much more than photographs, autographs and a sincere desire to keep kids in their thoughts and prayers. The relationship between Rex and Jack is genuine. It went beyond that and has surpassed all normal boundaries. Even Rex’s mom, dad and grandparents are faithful followers of Team Jack. Even though Rex and Jack have spent almost all of their time together outside a camera’s eye, both were willing to go against that policy when Jack and his parents visited a pre-Capital One Bowl team practice in December.
“Rex seems to enjoy the innocence and non-suffocating personality of Jack, and Jack just loves Rex because he’s great to him and has taken a sincere interest in him,” Jack’s father said. “Jack got very excited every time Rex wore that wristband. Jack thinks about Rex all the time. He’ll carve a pumpkin in his name and put a No. 22 jersey on every picture he ever colors in school. Rex has been that uplifting for Jack.”
That’s because a very shy Jack hit it off immediately with the soft-spoken Rex. “I think Rex was surprised to see a little boy facing so much and still be in such great spirits,” Andy said. “Jack realizes how big a deal this is in his life. He knows he’s been blessed with a great thing, and he’s just very humble about it all. What Rex Burkhead has done for our family cannot accurately be put into words. There are no words. It’s been emotionally and spiritually uplifting not only for Jack, but his sisters and his parents. Jack is not an attention-getter. He’s very modest, quiet and easy to love with all your heart.”
Rex is so open and so warm that Jack quickly warmed up to him and came out of his shell. “That was a beautiful thing to watch and continues to be,” Jack’s father said. “In fact, Jack was more excited about seeing Rex in Orlando than he was about going to Disney World.”
And why wouldn’t he be? He got to stay in the same hotel with Superman.
To help children like Jack, visit AChildrensBrainTumorCure.org.
Burkhead in 2011
* Rushed for 1,357 yards, seventh most in school history, on 284 carries, second most in school history behind only Lawrence Phillips (286 in 1994).
* Moved up to 12th all-time at Nebraska in rushing with 2,654 yards, 89 short of the top 10.
* Scored 17 touchdowns, 15 rushing and two receiving.
* First-team All-Big Ten
* First-team Academic All-American
* Season co-captain
* Co-Team MVP
* Co-Lifter of the Year
* Doak Walker Award semifinalist
* School-record 38 carries vs Iowa
* Tied school record with TDs in 10 consecutive games
* Academic All-District VII
* Academic All-Big Ten