On April 22, 2011, Andy Hoffman's healthy 5-year-old son suffered a massive seizure that lasted nearly 30 minutes. Jack Hoffman nearly died of respiratory failure.
Then doctors delivered Andy Hoffman and his wife, Brianna, a grim diagnosis: Their son had a golf-ball sized malignant tumor near the stem of his brain. On May 20, 2011, Jack underwent brain surgery, but surgeons were unable to extract much of the tumor because of its location on his brain.
Over the next several months, Jack suffered as many as a dozen seizures a day, and medicine was doing very little to control them. Doctors told Andy his son needed a second surgery to remove the rest of the tumor, but the procedure was so risky there was a chance Jack wouldn't survive.
"They said your son might not wake up," Andy said. "After several weeks of prayer, we decided to go for it."
Before Jack underwent the second surgery, he and his father compiled a bucket list of things he wanted to do, in case the surgery wasn't a success. High on the list was Jack meeting his hero, then-Nebraska running back Rex Burkhead. The Hoffmans live in Atkinson, Neb., and Andy's brother, Mike, was a walk-on nose guard on Cornhuskers teams that won three national championships during the 1990s.
Several weeks before Jack's second surgery, the Hoffmans drove more than three hours to Lincoln, Neb., where they had lunch with Burkhead and took a tour of Memorial Stadium. Burkhead promised he would stay in touch.
Miraculously, Jack survived a second brain surgery on Oct. 10, 2011. Surgeons at Boston Children's Hospital were able to extract 95 percent of the tumor, and he hasn't suffered another seizure since the procedure. Now, Jack is nearing the end of a 60-week regimen of chemotherapy, and an MRI last week revealed the chemo has dramatically shrunk what's left of the tumor.
Burkhead, who finished his college career with the Cornhuskers last season, has been Jack's biggest fan during his fight. And there was no bigger fan at Nebraska's spring game Saturday than Burkhead, who hopes to be selected in April's NFL draft.
On Friday, as Nebraska's coaches pondered how to spice up their annual spring game, wide receivers coach Rich Fisher suggested getting a fan involved or even a child with the Make-A-Wish Foundation.
"How about Jack?" Cornhuskers coach Bo Pelini asked.
Because of his relationship with Burkhead, Jack has become an integral part of the Nebraska program over the past two years. Burkhead and his teammates wear "Team Jack -- Pray" bracelets and visit him regularly. Last year, Burkhead started a Nebraska chapter of Uplifting Athletes, a nonprofit organization that uses college football players to raise awareness for rare diseases, and helped raise more than $300,000 for pediatric brain tumor research.
Sometimes our kids feel like, 'Wow! Football is tough and it's difficult.' Football is hard. But when you compare it to what a 7-year-old like Jack is going through, it pales in comparison.
”-- Nebraska coach Bo Pelini
On Sept. 29, Jack walked through the tunnel with Nebraska's players before their 30-27 victory over Wisconsin in their Big Ten opener. Before they left the tunnel, Burkhead hoisted Jack to slap a lucky horseshoe, a Cornhuskers tradition. Another boy, 6-year-old Isaiah Casillas of McCook, Neb., joined them on the pregame walk. Tragically, Casillas died of complications from a brain tumor on Dec. 2.
"Jack has taught me a lot about life," Burkhead said. "He's put my life in perspective. To see Jack battle, it's something I never had to go through when I was a kid. But he's still living life and having fun and laughing. Just seeing that is motivation for me. If there's anything in my life that I think is hard, I take a second look at it now."
Andy already was planning to attend Nebraska's spring game with his son. Around 9 p.m. ET Friday, director of football operations Jeff Jamrog called with a special request. Jamrog told Andy that the coaches wanted Jack to suit up and play a down. The icing on the cake: The Cornhuskers would make sure he scored a touchdown.
Jack was already in bed, so his father didn't break the news until Saturday morning. On Friday night, Andy scrambled to put together a Nebraska uniform for his son. Jack has never played organized football, but he has a red No. 22 jersey, which the Hoffmans purchased only minutes before they met Burkhead for the first time. Burkhead's autograph is on the back of the jersey. Andy found a pair of his brother's old Nebraska practice pants in a storage closet, and Jack had a plastic Nebraska helmet and shoulder pads he'd received for Christmas a couple of years ago.
"It was a makeshift uniform," Andy said. "When he woke up Saturday morning, I told him, 'Jack, let me tell you about this phone call I received last night.' He said, 'Oh, that would be cool.' I don't think he fathomed what would happen until the drive down."
When the Hoffmans arrived at Memorial Stadium, they were summoned to a players pregame meeting. During the meeting, Pelini reintroduced Jack to his team.
"This kid is the toughest kid in Nebraska," Pelini told his players. "Today, he's going to fight with you."
Nebraska's players erupted.
During the first half, Jack stood on the sideline with his father in street clothes. During the third quarter, a handful of Nebraska players huddled around Jack while he changed into his football uniform, which he hid in a backpack.
Pelini wasn't sure when he was going to put Jack into the game.
"I told the coaches to ask his dad how far he could run," Pelini said. "Did we need to get the ball to the 10-yard line or 20-yard line? His dad said it didn't matter if it was 90 yards."
When the Red team took possession with less than eight minutes to go in the fourth quarter, Pelini decided it was the right time to put Jack into the game. Before Jack took the field, he huddled with star quarterback Taylor Martinez and a graduate assistant. They showed Jack the play he was going to run.
"Taylor drew a picture for Jack on a marker board so he could see where he was supposed to run," Andy said. "I think that's where the nerves kicked in. I think it went from excitement to a deer-in-the-headlights look."
As Jack prepared for his moment of glory, his dad offered him a few words of advice.
"Don't fumble, don't fall down and don't run out of bounds," Andy told him.
And then Andy turned to Martinez.
"Hey, he might run the wrong way," Andy said. "Just steer him in the right direction if he does."
On second-and-10 from the Red 31, Jack lined up in the backfield. Martinez was in the shotgun, with Jack lined up to his left and fullback C.J. Zimmerer on his right. Martinez took the snap and handed the ball to Jack, who ran to the left -- the wrong way -- before Martinez pointed him back to the right. Jack sprinted around the right end 69 yards for a touchdown.
By the time Jack crossed the goal line, both sidelines emptied to celebrate with him in the end zone. With a crowd of 60,714 cheering, the Cornhuskers hoisted Jack on their shoulders.
"It was all unscripted, other than us letting him score a touchdown," Pelini said. "Our kids running into the end zone, I never told them to do that. When I saw both sidelines empty and saw them celebrating with him, that was special. Our kids have been around this young man and have such a tremendous amount of respect for him and love him. He doesn't say much, but he's an intense kid. Obviously, he's been through so much."
As Jack was running for the end zone, Andy stood on the sideline and couldn't even take photos with his camera because he was so overcome with emotion.
"It was just such a rush," Andy said. "I was proud for a lot of reasons. I was so proud of how he did. He didn't fumble the ball. He ran the right way. I was so proud he didn't let Coach Pelini down. I lost it."
Pelini said the best part was Burkhead was back on campus to witness Jack's run.
"It made it perfect," Pelini said. "You wouldn't want to do it when Rex wasn't around because he's been such a part of his life."
Said Burkhead: "It was awesome. It's something you can't put into words as far as how emotional it was. I was a fan of him. It was great seeing him get to enjoy the Husker experience. As a boy growing up in Nebraska, that's what you dream to do."
More than anything else, Andy is thankful his son's time in the spotlight has raised awareness for pediatric brain tumor research.
"This wasn't a [public relations] stunt," Andy said. "They love Jack and they've given him the red carpet. We just can't say enough for what Coach Pelini and Rex have done for Jack and our family."
Pelini is thankful Jack has taught his players lessons that will stay with them for the rest of their lives.
"It's what we try to teach them every day: that there's a much bigger picture out there other than football," Pelini said. "There just is. Sometimes, that gets lost with everything that goes into college football. There's so much pressure and so much at stake. Sometimes our kids feel like, 'Wow! Football is tough and it's difficult.' Football is hard. But when you compare it to what a 7-year-old like Jack is going through, it pales in comparison. They should look up to the heavens every day and be thankful."