On Saturday, inside Memorial Stadium, 130 people sat together to support a cause. They represented 25 families who share a vision to increase pediatric brain cancer awareness and came to Memorial Stadium to thank Bo Pelini, the Husker football team and its Uplifting Athletes organization for creating a force that is so strong that nearly $2 million has been raised to fight the disease they battle every day.
Jack Hoffman has carried the torch for Nebraska’s well-known, grassroots effort to raise awareness for pediatric brain cancer research. “But it all goes back to a 20-year-old college student-athlete who took the time to care,” said Andy Hoffman, Jack’s dad whose family shares the hardship of a deadly disease and the resolve to do whatever’s humanly possible to change the game for other kids.
“Rex is really the root of this overall effort,” Andy Hoffman said. “It all started when he agreed to let Jack into his life. I don’t think any of this awareness game would be happening if Rex didn’t say yes to our request to meet him. So many people want to credit Team Jack, but it all goes back to Rex, Coach Bo, the football team and Nebraska’s Life Skills Department. They’re the ones who brought it all together.”
Andy Hoffman: We’re All in This Together
“We don’t think of ourselves as being anything other than fellow brain tumor parents,” Andy said. “We don’t feel a special or elevated status. We are just grateful to the Nebraska Athletic Department and to the football players who formed an Uplifting Athletes chapter to do what they can to help. One of my greatest personal joys in the last three years has been the way dozens of Nebraska families have come together because a football program has opened up our collective hearts so we can share our collective experiences.”
A case in point happened two weeks ago when parents of Nebraska pediatric brain cancer patients met at Boston Children’s Hospital to share their thoughts and raise each other’s spirits. Jack’s mom, Brianna, was in Boston for 8-year-old Jack’s new rounds of treatment to fight his inoperable brain tumor. Brent Gehring, a former Bellevue high school basketball coach, quit his job after Emma, his 2-year-old daughter, was diagnosed with the same disease. They were in Boston at the same time for a surgical procedure that would precede Emma’s fourth round of chemotherapy.
Like the Hoffmans, Brent and Kathryn Gehring “go into battle mode every day because there really is no other option,” Brent said. “It gives me chills talking about what Nebraska football has done to help kids suffering from this life-threatening disease. They’ve quickly adopted the cause and the awareness they’ve helped create is incomparable to anywhere else across the country.”
Keith Zimmer, Nebraska’s longtime associate athletic director for Life Skills, says Burkhead’s strong personal relationship with Jack produced all kinds of pivotal moments that included Jack winning an ESPY Award in Los Angeles and led to Jack’s family and Rex being invited to visit the White House.
Major public experiences created a special awareness for pediatric brain cancer, and Saturday was another example with two dozen Nebraska families accepting Nebraska Life Skills’ invitation to watch the Huskers’ defeat McNeese State, 31-24 on electrifying play from Heisman Trophy candidate Ameer Abdullah. After the game, the Team Jack family invited all other participating families to a postgame tailgate reception in downtown Lincoln where they shared dinner and continued to lift up each other. “We’re all in this together,” Andy said.
“Today is a celebration of what started as something pretty innocent and quickly became something that can help countless kids with important funds for research,” Zimmer said. “I think the big thing to underscore everything that’s happened is fairly simple. Nebraska football was the driving force for Team Jack and created worldwide visibility. Jack is not only the poster child for Team Jack, he’s become the world’s poster child for pediatric brain cancer awareness.”
After Losing Isaiah, Dad Helps Inspire Others
Jack also has become an honorary captain of Zimmer’s ability to connect Nebraska’s Life Skills program to other families going through the same experiences Jack has. Among the families in Memorial Stadium today are the parents and sisters of Isaiah Casillas, a 6-year-old who shared a special Tunnel Walk experience with buddy Jack two years ago before a Husker win over Wisconsin. Isaiah died two months later from the disease and Pat Casillas, his dad, is forever grateful for Coach Pelini’s compassion, genuineness and leadership by example.
“It was a tough experience for us and the disease is still scary for so many others,” said Pat Casillas, whose family moved from McCook to Lincoln 18 months ago. “We know how many of these kids are fighting for their lives, and even though it’s hard for us to go back to our own experience, we want to be there to help inspire other families. We want to hold up Coach Pelini and Team Jack for inspiring so many of us to fight. Sometimes, it’s hard for us to step up to the plate, but we know we have to keep moving the ball, just like a football team does.”
Zimmer could not agree more. “Our effort is far-reaching, and Team Jack was the catalyst,” he said. “Rex inspired other players to step up and do what they can. That’s why Uplifting Athletes was born here. We all remember Rex winning the national award for his contributions to fighting a rare disease. The passion really is far-reaching. So many of our players want to answer the call and be servant leaders. I give Coach Pelini credit. Nebraska Athletics has taught these football players that there’s something bigger than they are and when they’re in position to make a difference, they answer the call…not only with brain cancer patients, but with the elderly, school kids, Make a Wish kids…you name it, they’re there and they should be saluted for that.”
Count Andy Hoffman, wife Brianna Hoffman and Becky Mayes as leaders who simply cannot salute the Huskers enough. During the game, after all 25 families were honored at Memorial Stadium, Nebraska Life Skills Coordinator Jordan Wilson joined Lincoln Track Club Co-Directors Glen Moss and Nancy Sutton-Moss, plus Husker receiver and Uplifting Athletes Nebraska Chapter President Sam Burtch, in presenting a $30,000 check to Mayes, who works for Uplifting Athletes. The check represented the proceeds from the 2014 Uplifting Athletes’ Road Race last July in collaboration with the Lincoln Track Club. The funds are designated to benefit pediatric research nationwide. “We started our chapter of Uplifting Athletes to do what we can do to help kids,” Burtch said Saturday. “For us, it’s all about helping others and to have the whole Husker family behind us means a lot. We will continue to do everything we can.”
Andy Hoffman agreed. “We invited all the brain tumor families and the Life Skills Department for this special gathering after the game because they’ve had an unbelievable impact on people’s lives,” he said. “What life skills does to inspire players is phenomenal because the players go on to support other foundations and philanthropies and every time they do, there’s a ripple effect. I think it’s all a reflection of the Athletic Department and the kinds of individuals they recruit. When you get the right kids and combine their talents with the ingredients life skills provides, gigantic things happen. That’s what’s so great about Nebraskans. They not only create awareness…they get things done!”