2012 Rare Disease Champion Finalist
2012 Rare Disease Champion Finalist

Rex Burkhead - Nebraska

It’s not unheard of for Nebraska Running Back Rex Burkhead to have lunch with a stranger since often times, special visitors have lunch with a Cornhusker. It’s part of an outreach program the football team has participated in for community service. For Burkhead, he never could have predicted that lunch would turn into a fulfilling friendship this past summer.

Burkhead met 6-year-old Jack Hoffman on September 15, 2011. It was Hoffman's ultimate dream! Hoffman had been diagnosed with a rare pediatric brain tumor called a low grade glioma just four months earlier after suffering a massive seizure. The only successful treatment is complete tumor removal. Already having had one unsuccessful surgery, it was Jack’s dream to meet his hero, Rex Burkhead.

“I couldn’t believe how positive he was,” Burkhead said. “He didn’t feel sorry for himself, whatsoever.”

Rex showed Jack and his family around the football facility, introduced him to Athletic Director Tom Osborne and presented Jack with an autographed football.

Jack’s father, Andrew Hoffman, says this about the day, “The entire visit with Rex was one of the single greatest experiences of our young family's life.”

Andrew says Rex took an interest in Jack, almost instantly palling around with him. At one point, Jack urged Rex to race him across the football field – Jack edging Rex in the foot chase.

It was as if at least for that day, there was not a care in the world for Jack Hoffman. Not another brain surgery, not the thought of chemotherapy, just a kid hanging out with his football idol.

“I hope I was able to give him strength moving ahead,” Burkhead says. “Hopefully, I boosted his morale that, 'hey, you can beat this.’”

“We were so completely overwhelmed by Rex's graciousness, humility, unselfishness, and concern for Jack,” Andrew said. “The visit was genuine.” 

What Rex instilled in Jack for those couple of hours was hope. After the 2-hour visit, the Hoffman family left Rex some wristbands that say, “Team Jack – Pray.” Much to the delight of Jack, Rex and many of his teammates now wear them on Saturdays. Jack is able to see them on national television.

“It helps me go the extra mile,” Burkhead says. “When I get tired, I think of Jack and work harder.”

Rex has followed up with Jack numerous times on the phone, even calling Jack days before a second scheduled surgery in Boston. The two are planning more face-to-face visits as well. It has meant the world to Jack, knowing that Rex cares so much. The Hoffmans are confident that Rex is making a difference in their son’s life. Although the road ahead is long, they say doctors believe the prognosis is favorable. 

Media attention has also grown; many local and national media outlets have featured the friendship of Jack and Rex, and that’s added attention to the rare disease that, like others, lacks funding. Leading up to September, only about 14,000 people had visited Jack’s CaringBridge website (www.caringbridge.org/visit/jackhoffman). Since then, there have been more than 40,000 visitors. The family ultimately credits Rex with generating substantial interest and awareness for pediatric brain tumor research. 

And to think Jack Hoffman started that day in September wanting to get a picture with Husker running back Rex Burkhead. A picture is worth a thousand words. In this case, their friendship is worth even more.   


See other 2012 Rare Disease Champion Award finalists