It has been more than six years since what his family refers to as “the run.” Jack, now an eighth-grader, stands 5-8 these days. This month, he made his true debut on the gridiron, playing center for West Holt Junior High in Atkinson, Neb.
“I know a lot of kids like me that would kill to play in a football game,” the 13-year-old said in an interview. “It was really nerve-racking — I was about the same level of scared that I was for the run — but once you get playing, you forget all the scaredness.”
The West Holt Huskies won, 38-0, on Sept. 16, and the game went smoothly for Jack, who continues to undergo treatment for a tumor next to his brain stem. He started chemotherapy after his 2011 diagnosis and participated in a clinical trial when it began to grow again in 2014, according to his father, Andy.
When the tumor showed signs of coming out of dormancy last year, Jack started on another clinical trial that has proved successful for patients with melanoma, which exhibits a similar mutation to his cancer. The targeted therapy has helped, according to his dad — a recent MRI revealed the tumor is stable — but he is still required to take about 21 pills per day, including medication to treat epilepsy.
The side effects are minimal, however, and he’s able to play sports with his classmates.
“A lot of people don’t realize when he did that 69-yard run that he was between standard chemo treatments; it happened to be an off week.” Andy Hoffman said. “You can have a functional life with standard chemo, but [the clinical trial] is good stuff. His day-to-day health, he’s like you and me.”
Jack’s touchdown run was a joint effort by Nebraska’s players and staff, including running back Rex Burkhead, who now plays for the New England Patriots. Burkhead had befriended Jack and become an advocate for the Team Jack Foundation, which has raised more than $8 million for pediatric brain research.
As a lifelong Cornhuskers fan, Jack was thrilled to be an unofficial member of his favorite team. And even at age 7, he yearned to be on the field. Nebraska’s players and coaches wanted to make it happen, too. It was just a matter of when.
“It was spur of the moment,” Taylor Martinez, the starting quarterback for the Cornhuskers at the time, recalled in an interview, adding there was no specific plan for Jack to enter the game that day.
When it became clear it was happening, the Cornhuskers drew up a simple play that would have him run to the right and beeline toward the end zone.
Martinez called out a cadence and carefully handed the ball to Jack, who wore a much smaller version of Burkhead’s No. 22 jersey. The 7-year-old ran in the wrong direction at first, but Martinez grabbed him to readjust his route. Then he took off for nearly 70 yards.
“It was an unbelievable experience. I’m getting chills talking about it,” Martinez said. “Never before have I heard a crowd erupt like that.”
The run resonated with others, too. Jack won an ESPY award in 2013 for “Best Moment” and got to meet President Barack Obama in the Oval Office. Six years later, Martinez said he’s not surprised to see Jack live out his dream for the Huskies. Jack plays center, Martinez noted, which requires toughness, smarts and an acute ability to read the opposing defense.
“The look in his eyes as we were drawing up the play for him, you could see he’s a fighter and would continue to fight every day and get out there on the football field,” Martinez said. “I didn’t have any doubt he’d be back out there again.”
Jack is not treated differently than any other teenager in Atkinson, his father and coach said, and his peers already have watched him play basketball and baseball and run track. He always wanted to play football, but the decision to participate in a much more physical sport required careful consideration.
“The contact was the concern, the helmet-to-helmet, the concussions,” his father said. “Many of Jack’s doctors said, ‘We don’t think anyone should play football.' "
But that notice came with an asterisk: Jack was told he could play as long as his parents approved. Andy Hoffman discussed the issue at length with his wife. They ultimately determined their son should make the call.
Andy Hoffman was not sure whether Jack would see the field in his first game. But at 170 pounds, No. 75 stood taller than many of the other players whenever he prepared to snap the ball.
It was a surreal moment for his father, who became depressed upon Jack’s diagnosis in 2011. Fearing the worst outcome at the time, Andy Hoffman could only think about the things his son might never be able to do: Drive a car. Go to prom. Play sports.
“Football was always one of those things,” Andy Hoffman said. “You think about those things and how thankful you are to the good Lord, it’s such a blessing.”
While he was elated to finally watch his son play, Andy Hoffman said he couldn’t stop looking for signs. Jack had suffered seizures in other sports — such as a moment in sixth grade when, disoriented, he walked in the wrong direction as nine other basketball players raced down the court.
But Andy Hoffman finds comfort in his son’s teammates and coaches, who he says are able to intervene when necessary.
“This community has wrapped its arms around him. They know when he’s going to have a seizure,” Andy Hoffman said. “They’ll grab him by the hand and take care of him — that’s part of the decision to let him play, knowing his teammates are sweethearts and have his back.”
Andy Hoffman is also cognizant that Jack’s story is not the reality for many parents of children with pediatric cancer. Nearly 16,000 children are diagnosed with cancer in the United States each year, according to the American Childhood Cancer Organization. Twenty percent of children with cancer do not survive, and Andy Hoffman is frustrated by how many of them are unable to participate fully in normal childhood activities.
“We have forgotten about our kids with cancer. That’s not a red issue or a blue issue; that’s a humanity issue,” he said. “Jack should not be the exception; this should be the rule for kids [with] brain cancer, period.”
West Holt Coach Andy Osborne summed up Jack’s style of play in a single word: “animal.”
“We’ve got some running backs that enjoy having him at center,” Osborne said with a laugh, emphasizing Jack’s size. “The kids weren’t the only ones excited when he was ruled okay to play. There’s nothing more a coach likes than a kid from the opposing team being driven down the line.”
But what Hoffman brings to the team goes far beyond his blocking technique, Osborne said. In many ways, his peers have rallied around him.
In the Huskies’ first full-contact practice about two weeks before their opening game, it was up to the students to decide who would lead the team break. It’s an important job that includes a comment on the day’s practice and notes on how the team must improve.
When the Huskies huddled up and put their hands in the middle, Jack’s teammates called on him to lead the charge. He was named team captain for their first game.
Recalling the practice, Jack said he enjoys being a leader — for the most part. He has learned quickly that the role comes with “a lot of pressure."
He looks forward to taking on that challenge, too.