LINCOLN — It was after a bowl practice last December when Nebraska fullback C.J. Zimmerer first remembers recognizing a sort of unexplainable unity between teammate Rex Burkhead and a small boy.
The scene — a tired football player still in full pads suddenly energized as he's smiling and talking with a seemingly fragile child — can be hard to forget. What Zimmerer thought he recognized was compassion sprouting a connection between the souls of two people who would seem to have little in common.
He was struck by it again a few hours later at the team hotel, when Jack Hoffman bounced around the lobby with Burkhead and several Husker teammates.
“A lot of guys caught on to that,” Zimmerer said. “(Rex) goes above and beyond. It was like a fire just spread out through the whole team.”
Rex is 22, in top physical condition with a college degree and a hard-working reputation that's positioned him at the doorstep of opportunity.
Jack is 7, and he has cancer. The boy from Atkinson, Neb., fights every day just to live one more. Most of the tumor in his brain, which doctors spotted about 20 months ago, has been removed, but Jack is in the middle of a 60-week chemotherapy regimen to prevent its further growth.
But Rex and Jack are good friends. And they could be the catalysts for a movement.
That's what Zimmerer wants, anyway.
Zimmerer is president of Nebraska's chapter of Uplifting Athletes, a national nonprofit organization empowering football teams to raise awareness and research dollars for certain rare diseases. He and 46 other Huskers last summer decided that their fundraising efforts would be for pediatric brain cancer. About 10 to 15 more players have joined since.
Their thought: “Even if we don't raise a dollar, if we raise the awareness about the disease, maybe someone else can raise that dollar,” Zimmerer said.
But they did raise money, and a lot more than a dollar. In January, they will award the largest research grant by an Uplifting Athletes chapter. How much, Executive Director Scott Shirley isn't sure yet, but the Huskers' chapter website indicates that they've raised more than $20,000, which will be matched by an anonymous donor.
The players' association with Team Jack, Jack Hoffman's support group, is the reason 18,000 T-shirts recognizing Jack and the disease were printed. Andy Hoffman, Jack's dad, estimates about 14,000 have been sold.
Burkhead and a couple of teammates showed up last summer for Omaha's CureSearch Walk for Children's Cancer, when Team Jack raised more than $11,000. The players also helped raise $5,000 at a Lincoln 5K in October.
“With their support, it's become a grassroots movement, and it's seen some national attention and we've got some major fundraising going,” Andy said. “The impact, I think, it could save Jack's life, and a lot of other kids' lives, too.”
About 4,200 U.S. children are diagnosed with some form of pediatric brain cancer each year, according to the Pediatric Brain Tumor Foundation. There are roughly 130 forms of the cancer altogether. Andy said Jack is undergoing treatment strategies that are 27 years old.
“We just decided we've got to make this important to us,” Andy said. “It's God's grace that he has put people in our life and Jack's life to help.”
And to encourage. And to strengthen. And to love.
It's not just Jack, either.
Keith Zimmer, NU associate athletic director for Life Skills, estimates there have been at least 15 families who've brought a child with cancer to the Nebraska football facility this fall for a tour, lunch or a photo.
Paul Hayes, a 9-year-old from Omaha, and Sammy Nahorny, a 4-year-old from Columbus, joined Jack at the Omaha FBI headquarters two weeks ago. Burkhead and Zimmerer were there for the kids' honorary day as federal agents.
Isaiah Casillas, a 6-year-old from McCook, happened to stop by North Stadium when Jack was around.
|BIG RED TODAY ON FACEBOOK|
|Join the conversation on the Big Red Today Facebook page.|
“They both have brain cancer, and they had smiles on their faces,” Zimmerer said. “They were playing around, their joy spread out throughout our team.”
Zimmerer still has a photo on his phone from Sept. 29, the night when Isaiah and Jack led the Huskers out of the Memorial Stadium tunnel before a home game against Wisconsin.
Isaiah died Dec. 2.
He was laid to rest a week later, wearing his Rex Burkhead jersey. The football team gave the Casillas family a red “No. 1” Husker jersey, with “Isaiah” on the back, signed by Bo Pelini, Quincy Enunwa, Burkhead and Zimmerer.
“Some of these kids, we don't know how much time they have left,” Zimmerer said. “But hopefully, with (our) efforts, we can help change that.”
It's the purpose of Uplifting Athletes. Shirley, the founder, wrote a business plan in 2006 and quit his engineering job a year later. He's a former Penn State player who started an annual fundraising event in college after his father was diagnosed with kidney cancer.
He spoke to Nebraska's team in July — Shirley had awarded his organization's fourth-ever Rare Disease Champion Award to Burkhead five months earlier.
Forty-seven Huskers stayed after that day to start the school's own chapter, the 14th nationally and fifth in the Big Ten. They voted Zimmerer as president. Ron Kellogg was named the VP.
They've been brainstorming ever since, meeting with compliance officials and facility managers, and getting a handle on potential logistical hurdles.
One idea: They wanted to get companies to donate a certain amount, then be rewarded with spots on the sideline for Husker practice. It fell through. But plenty of other ideas—– like a kids day in March — are still on the table.
NU appears to have adopted a similar perspective to that of Shirley, whose father died just before new treatments emerged from research sponsored by Penn State players.
“If we accomplished nothing else,” Shirley said, “we at least are in a position to inspire people with hope.”
Which is what Rex was doing for Jack a year ago, though his gesture of goodwill has transformed into much more since.
Jack told a Big Ten Network film crew earlier this season what he likes most about Rex: “He cares about me.” Rex ran over to the stands at the Big Ten title game to high-five his buddy. Jack attended Rex's graduation ceremony 10 days ago.
It all started because the Hoffmans wanted Jack, at that time nearing a life-threatening surgery, to get his picture taken next to Rex. Something memorable, and meaningful, Andy said.
Rex and Jack took it further, though. And their bond has been contagious.
“It breaks your heart sometimes to see what these kids are going through, and puts into perspective how lucky we are,” Zimmerer said. “We all want to impact someone like Rex has.”
Contact the writer:
402-473-9585, firstname.lastname@example.org; twitter.com/JonNyatawa