In college football, program-defining moments usually happen in the fall. But on a sunny April afternoon in Lincoln, a 7-year-old boy with cancer tucked the ball under his arm, turned upfield into a stiff headwind and churned his way to Cornhusker immortality.
When Jack Hoffman hit the north end zone in Memorial Stadium, both benches emptied, players lifted him onto their shoulders and we had a spontaneous illustration of all that is good about Nebraska football.
In a year when there's no quarterback controversy, in a year when several returning starters were held out with minor injuries and the offensive philosophy will be pretty much the same as it was last year, more than 60,000 fans still showed up for the annual Red-White Game. They were rewarded because if ever a team used its spring game well, Nebraska found a way this year.
A Big Ten Network audience saw Bo Pelini and the Huskers taking time out to let past and present offensive linemen try their hand at catching punts (looks like 6-foot-8, 315-pound Zach Sterup of Hastings is the best of the bunch). They saw members of NU's fabled 1994 Pipeline on the field, providing a flashback to the hot, humid, historic night in Miami when the smashmouth Huskers beat the trashmouth Miami Hurricanes on their home field to win Tom Osborne's first national title.
They were introduced to the "Will to Win" drill. They saw a Pelini without his game face on, wisecracking and having fun with his team. And yelling a few times – after all, he's still Pelini.
As usual, the NU athletic department did a good job of honoring its other teams on a big stage – this time, it was the women's basketball squad, which made it all the way to the Sweet 16. It devoted attention to good character, introducing the Brook Berringer Citizenship Team during presume ceremonies. Hovering over the proceedings, on the upper facade of the north stadium, a sign commemorated the Huskers' national-best 302 Academic All-Americans.
This day was a celebration of everything that is right about the University of Nebraska, where no tax money or student fees are used for athletics, where the football program supports the other 21 sports except men's basketball and still has enough in the tank to make a big donation every year to academics.
Nebraska used its BTN airtime to shed some light on the East Stadium expansion project. Led by Tom Osborne, the project weds athletics and academics with the advent of the Nebraska Athletic Performance Lab and the Center for Brain, Biology and Behavior, which will put Nebraska at the forefront of the collaborative research movement to prevent serious brain injuries. That's a pretty big step in a day when severe concussions threaten the future NFL football. Someday, the people who kicked Nebraska out of the American Association of Universities will look pretty silly.
Thankfully, the Nebraska athletic program has Osborne's fingerprints all over it. But this is a good moment to remember that in some ways, Pelini has taken what Osborne started and raised the bar, at least when it comes to the character of his players and their off-field lives. Negative off-field incidents involving Nebraska football players have been few and far between since Pelini took over in December 2007. Pelini demands his players attend class, and the football team's cumulative GPA is higher than ever. A family atmosphere pervades North Stadium.
Nebraska has led the way in the development of Uplifting Athletes, devoting its chapter to pediatric brain cancer research. Rex Burkhead, an all-Big Ten running back, was named 2012 Uplifting Athletes Rare Disease Champion. So you might say Burkhead won the Heisman for off-field performance. But he stayed in the background Saturday as TV cameras surrounded Jack, and probably would tell you he's just honored to be Jack's buddy.
The story of Jack Hoffman and his fight against brain cancer is well-known in Nebraska, and now, after footage of his 69-yard touchdown run appeared on BTN and achieved "play of the day" status on ESPN SportsCenter, the word is getting out nationwide. For two years, Jack has been living with MRIs, pathology reports, neuro-surgery appointments and multiple epileptic seizures. His cancer is currently in remission and Jack is taking a two-week break from treatment. He lives in Atkinson, Neb., population 1,245. His dad is a lawyer who helps coach high school mock trial teams and his mom runs the pharmacy department for West Holt Memorial Hospital while helping with her church's youth ministry.
Burkhead, who apparently has a soft spot for heartland families like this, started a movement in the fall of 2011 to help kids like Jack. Burkhead was largely responsible for the proliferation of red wristbands that say simply, "Team Jack – Pray" all over the campus. Burkhead has graduated and hopes to play in the NFL, but fullback C.J. Zimmerer is picking up the mantle. The current president of the Nebraska chapter of Uplifting Athletes, Zimmerer got together with Jeff Jamrog, NU director of football operations, and they came up with the the idea of inviting Jack onto the field.
It was a stroke of genius.
If current news events have left you disgusted and disillusioned, this was a moment to clean your eyes and ears out with, as legendary radio commentator Paul Harvey would've said if he were still with us. My son and I got to see it unfold from halfway up in the south end zone bleachers. It was an electric moment when Jack came onto the field midway through the fourth quarter, accompanied by Taylor Martinez, who along with Zimmerer and a cohort of "blockers," escorted Jack on his historic run.
Jack's last appearance at Memorial Stadium was with his new buddy, 6-year-old Isaiah Casillas in September, when Burkhead and wide receiver Quincy Enunwa hoisted them to touch the horseshoe as they joined the Huskers on their traditional tunnel walk before their Homecoming win over Wisconsin. Isaiah, who lived in McCook, died less than three months later. Those stakes are bigger than the game itself.
Before the scrimmage started, a bunch of kids Jack Hoffman's age got a chance to put items into a time capsule scheduled to be opened in the fall of 2063, to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Memorial Stadium sellout streak. Let's hope those fifty-somethings still have a Nebraska football program worth celebrating.
Formerly the sports editor at the North Platte Bulletin and a sportswriter/columnist for the North Platte Telegraph, Tad Stryker is a longtime Nebraska sports writer, having covered University of Nebraska and high school sports for more than 25 years. He started writing for this website in 2008. You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org