Published Wednesday, April 17, 2013 at 10:33 pm / Updated at 12:14 am
JACK HOFFMAN
Shatel: Cameras catch little of Jack's long journey

He's world famous for his 69-yard touchdown run at the Nebraska spring game, a magic carpet ride that nobody who saw will ever forget.

But what the world doesn't see is brave Jack Hoffman leaving Atkinson, Neb., at 6:30 a.m. every Friday, for the less-than-magical four-hour ride to his chemotherapy session at Children's Hospital in Omaha.

They see him hanging out with Rex Burkhead and the Huskers. And what little boy in Nebraska wouldn't want to be Jack Hoffman?

But what they don't see is what's beneath the Husker shirt — a port, surgically implanted in his side. Where they hook up an IV and pump that chemo poison into his body.

They saw him doing the Tunnel Walk with the Huskers, but that was a good Saturday last fall. Most weekends, Jack is too sick from his Friday chemo to do anything a kid might want to do.

They see him getting interviewed on ESPN. They see people wearing his “Team Jack” T-shirts, getting his trading card.

But anyone who would want to trade spots doesn't see the epileptic seizures that Jack has had, and the way his brain tumor affects his speech, his balance. They can't know that his father plans to take him to an optometrist, because this evil brain cancer might one day impact his eyesight.

The Jack Hoffman story is an amazing story, one being embraced by the national media, a story that gets bigger and more amazing by the day. Jack on a trading card? Absolutely cool.

But behind the story is a normal small-town kid, and his normal small-town Nebraska family, trying to balance celebrity status with being small-town Nebraska folks.

When ESPN visits Atkinson, Neb., it can be a little overwhelming.

“It's a mixed blessing,” said Andy Hoffman, Jack's dad, from his law office in Atkinson on Wednesday morning. “Jack deals with it all the time, the family deals with it.

“But you don't live in Atkinson because you desire the spotlight. I mean, we live in a cow pasture up here. We live here because we like living in obscurity.”

But there's no such thing as obscurity when you hook up with a Husker football legend named Rex Burkhead, and when head coach Bo Pelini and the team fall head over heels for you.

The cameras and media are suckers for stories and kids that touch the heart. So at some point Andy and his wife, Bri, decided to not only ride the wave, but turn it into a positive.

They came up with the “Team Jack” campaign, which included a website, a twitter presence, and a worthy cause: banging the drum to upgrade the treatment for pediatric cancer.

The Hoffmans didn't know much about the topic until they were rudely introduced. Now, Andy estimated that they have turned over $300,000 to pediatric cancer research, raised from T-shirt sales and donations.

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On Wednesday, Andy sent me an email of a study that showed most of the 13,500 cases of pediatric cancer diagnosed each year have a therapy more than 25 years old.

“I don't know why God chose Jack to have this,” Andy said. “But I do know that we can do something good out of it, and that's promote the improvement of treatments of this disease.

“This isn't about Jack. It's not about us. It's about the old archaic treatment regimens that America needs to do something about. God picked our family to deal with this. And we're going to do the right thing.

“This is an awareness ride, and we're trying to bring the entire childhood cancer community along.”

There are cynics out there. I hear them. They wonder if there's too much attention paid to one little boy, when there are thousands out there going through the same thing. They wonder if a 7-year-old is being exploited for the sake of a good story.

And sure, Burkhead and Nebraska's football and athletic program have received solid gold halos from the national media for their part in befriending Jack.

But you'll never convince me Burkhead, Pelini and his staff and players had anything but good, geninue intentions when it came to Jack. Burkhead is not a publicity seeker; quite the opposite, actually. Same with Pelini. This came straight from the heart.

In fact, last week Pelini told me he almost didn't OK Jack's run in the spring game because of the potential intrusion on the lives of the boy and his family.

Aren't you glad he did?

“Jack is not a braggart,” Andy said. “He hardly talks about this. He can be kind of embarrassed by all the attention. Last week, I turned down some interviews. We'd had enough.

“Jack gets it. He connects. He knows that he can help another boy not get his head cut open and have them put a drill down there and make it so you look like a boxer (shaved head) for three weeks. He gets that he can help other kids.

“He's had to grow up in a hurry.”

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Andy talks about the process. He's recited it over and over.

Even after two surgeries, an MRI last April showed tumor growth near the stem of Jack's brain. So they began a chemo schedule.

Every Friday, for four straight weeks, Jack comes to Omaha for six-hour treatments. They put five medicines in his body. Sometimes he gets a fever because his young body rejects the toxins.

He gets two weeks off, then it starts again. The Hoffmans hope in June the doctors will tell them to come back every three months. Then, six. Then, once a year.

“But the doctors have said once this goes away, they may see us again in two or three years,” Andy said.

And that's the thing about this story. It will go away eventually. The national media, and here at home in Nebraska, eventually will turn to something else. That's how it works.

But Jack's fight will still be going on then, and only God knows how long.

If Jack is being exploited, may it never end. May we never stop telling his story or helping him and his family try to rid the world of the most unfair disease of all: kid cancer.

May we always be reminded, and remind others, of the tale of a young man with a fighter's heart. And a hero even — especially — when he's not in a Husker uniform.

“We don't want this to be a woe-is-us story,” Andy said. “We're just glad to get to tell it. We almost lost him. We're glad he's here.”

Andy's voice cracked. He sobbed. He's told this story, talked about his brave little son, to total strangers. The more he does it, the more it hits him. This isn't about being a celebrity. Up in small-town Nebraska, it's about a father who wishes there were something he could do to take away his son's pain.

The one thing he can do is try to give his son a normal life. So he and Bri decided they would not talk about the disease, the stories, the attention, in front of Jack. After he's in bed, the parents go down to the basement and fill “Team Jack” T-shirt orders from the website.

“We've done all we can to try and insulate him,” Andy said. “Last night, we sat at dinner and asked the kids to tell us three things about school that day. Then we had popcorn and a movie night.

“We weren't talking about the trading card. We were watching the Smurfs.”

Contact the writer:

402-444-1025, tom.shatel@owh.com; twitter.com/tomshatelOWH

Contact the writer: Tom Shatel

tom.shatel@owh.com    |   402-444-1025    |  

Tom Shatel is a sports columnist who covers the city, regional and state scene.

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