Team Jack Foundation


Team Jack Foundation funding research for pediatric brain cancer

Jack Hoffman’s life changed forever on Good Friday nearly six years ago. What happened to the then 5-year-old boy also changed his parents’ lives forever. What has happened since is changing thousands upon thousands of lives.

The Hoffmans at Memorial Stadium. Brianna and Andy Hoffman with their children, from left, Jack, 11; Ava, 9; and Reese, 6.

The Hoffmans at Memorial Stadium. Brianna and Andy Hoffman with their children, from left, Jack, 11; Ava, 9; and Reese, 6.

On April 22, 2011, Jack Hoffman was at the breakfast table of his Atkinson, Nebraska, home staring into space; not day-dreaming about playing in the backyard, but totally unresponsive and sitting stiff as a board. Yelling his name into his face produced no response. His mom, Brianna (Stiner) Hoffman grabbed her son and drove to the nearby hospital.

His father, Andrew, soon followed after making provisions for their daughters, Ava, then 3, and Reese, a newborn.

At West Holt Memorial Hospital, Jack suffered a grand mal seizure that lasted 30 minutes. In the weeks that would follow, Andy and Bri Hoffman would learn their son had a brain tumor the size of a golf ball. “It was paralyzing when we first heard Jack had a tumor. A lot of kids don’t survive this disease,” said Andy Hoffman, a 2000 State graduate in political science.

The good news is that Jack has survived. “Jack is not a good poster child for the disease because of how good he is doing,” Andy said.

Long-term, doctors are optimistic about Jack’s future, said Bri Hoffman, a 2003 Pharm.D. graduate who was working as pharmacist-in-charge at West Holt Pharmacy in 2011. Andy Hoffman clarifies that Jack is “never going to be out the woods. We live life one MRI at a time.” But the Hoffmans don’t spend those 90 days between magnetic resonance imagings fretting about what might be.

At least not what might be in terms of their son’s now-stable tumor.

A foundation is formed

Team-Jack-Logo-no-tagline-EPSInstead, they focus on what might be when a future couple hears that their child has brain cancer. “I hope 50 years from now when a father hears that diagnosis, there is a ‘but we have an awesome cure. Here’s the pill,’” Andy said.

Andy’s hope is not some “buy a Powerball ticket and cross your fingers” hope. It’s the mission of Team Jack, which was formed shortly after Jack’s initial diagnosis as a prayer support group and has since become a national leader in raising funds for pediatric brain cancer research. Team Jack has developed a huge following—more than 77,000 on Facebook. In fact, it’s not a stretch to say Team Jack is the second-most popular team in Nebraska.

Andy noted the involvement of a member of Nebraska’s most popular team gave Team Jack the platform it has today.

For boys who grow up in Nebraska, being a fan of Huskers football is as natural as believing in Santa Claus. The chance to go to a

Huskers’ game is as exciting as Christmas. Jack’s opportunity came in fall 2010 for his fifth birthday, when his parents took him to his first Cornhuskers game, which was against SDSU.

As a bonus, they bought him a No. 22 Rex Burkhead jersey. The star running back immediately became Jack’s favorite Husker.

Start of an arduous journey

But a few months later, Jack was wearing a hospital gown instead of his Husker jersey.

Jack nearly died April 22, 2011. It took three attempts to intubate the boy at the local hospital, which was necessary because the seizure had critically interrupted the breathing process. Andy repeatedly whispered, “Jesus loves you” while his son was in the emergency room, awaiting transfer to the Children’s Hospital and Medical Center in Omaha.

No instant answers were available there. It took weeks before the diagnosis of brain cancer was made. The diagnosis was quickly followed by brain surgery.

The May 20, 2011, surgery removed only a small portion of the tumor and doctors said the remainder, near the brain stem, was inoperable. Jack went home with the cancer cells still growing and from that spring through the fall he suffered frequent seizures—sometimes up to 11 per day—from secondary epilepsy.

The Hoffmans were determined to find someplace that could do more for their boy. They sought a second opinion at Children’s Hospital in Boston.

Doing so was a big step for Andy and Bri. “We’re rural Americans,” said Andy, who was raised on a farm at Spencer, Neb., and played a year of college football before being sidelined by injury. Bri is from Burke. They met at a street dance in Bonesteel, about halfway between the two towns that shadow the Nebraska-South Dakota state line.

“For us to go to Boston took quite a bit of courage,” Andy said.

Finding hope in Boston

Their courage was rewarded as pediatric neurosurgeon Liliana Goumnervoa said she could safely resect the remaining tumor and achieve seizure relief by using intraoperative electrocorticography during the surgery. However, they had to measure that optimism against the words of an Omaha doctor who said Jack wouldn’t awaken from a second brain surgery.

The Hoffmans decided to trust the expert and their Creator. Surgery was scheduled for Oct. 10, 2011, less than five months after the first surgery.

Boston would soon be the family home for 30 days, but before leaving all that is familiar, they reached out to the University of Nebraska Athletic Department to see if Rex Burkhead would meet with Jack.

Jack Hoffman with his idol, former Nebraska running back Rex Burkhead.

Jack Hoffman with his idol, former Nebraska running back Rex Burkhead.

He would and rather than just signing a photo and walking away, Burkhead spent hours with the family on Thursday, Sept. 15, two days before a big game against the Washington Huskies. Burkhead gave the family a tour, had lunch with them, just hung out and accepted Jack’s challenge to race the length of Memorial Stadium field and back.

Jack gave Burkhead a wristband that said “Team Jack – Pray.” A friendship was created with the 21-year-old Burkhead and 6-year-old Jack.

Burkhead wore the wristband in that week’s game as well as the rest of the season and the next season. He was chosen as one of Uplifting Athletes Champions of 2011-12 for helping to draw attention to rare pediatric diseases. Two weeks after meeting Jack, the Husker arranged for his little fan to be on the sidelines for a game.

The Team Jack logo—a picture of a football player with his hand on a child—is a silhouette of a picture of Jack and Rex from that game, Andy explained.

That mountaintop experience was followed by another. The Oct. 20, 2011, surgery resulted in the removal of 95 percent of the golf ball-sized tumor with a small spot near the brain stem and cerebral artery remaining. The pioneering doctor used an MRI during the operation and was able to control the seizures as a part of the same operation.

Alas, the battles didn’t end. The remaining cancer cells quickly reproduced, requiring weekly chemotherapy treatments from May 2012 through June 2013 in Omaha, about 3½ hours away.

A simple phone call

However, Jack wasn’t forgotten by Burkhead and his Nebraska teammates and coaches. At 9:30 p.m. April 5, 2013, Nebraska’s director of football operations called the Hoffmans and asked if Jack would like to score a touchdown at the Red and White intrasquad game the next day. Keep in mind, this is Nebraska. The spring game draws 60,000 fans.

Those there witnessed in person what that night was the Play of Day on ESPN’s Sports Center.

Jack, who was on a two-week hiatus from chemotherapy and playing his first down of organized football, took a fourth-and-one handoff from starting quarterback Taylor Martinez. He started left, got redirected by Martinez, followed a wall of blockers meeting token resistance and finished 69 yards later with a sprint into the end zone, where both squads mobbed him and put the boy on their shoulders.

The misty-eyed, goose-bump moment was as much a defining day in the Hoffmans’ lives as was Jack’s original seizure just less than two years earlier.

Welcome to the spotlight

“I don’t think we recognized what this would mean,” said Andy.

Bri and Jack cheered on the Jackrabbits against Youngstown State in 2008.

Bri and Jack cheered on the Jackrabbits against Youngstown State in 2008.

Bri, who didn’t change her work plans after the late-hour call, watched her son’s run on TV. The Big Ten Network televised the game. “I thought it was cool, but I had no idea what it would do.”

The Hoffmans got home from Sunday church to find the media firestorm was raging. “There were messages from CNN, Good Morning America, ESPN … just a slew of national media. By Tuesday, a six-person interview team from ESPN was in our living room. They did a six-minute feature on Jack,” who was a bit overwhelmed by it all, Andy said.

There were 20 interviews in the week after Jack’s TD run and an invitation to the White House. Jack met President Obama in the Oval Office April 29.

Igniting a fire already burning

The Hoffmans didn’t avail themselves to the limelight to fatten Jack’s scrapbook or create Make-a-Wish moments for the little guy. They did it for the Team Jack Foundation, which was actively raising funds for pediatric brain cancer research before the 7-year-old created Memorial Stadium magic that is still talked about in his home state.

In August 2012, the Hoffmans got a $25,000 unsecured loan from their banker to have 6,500 T-shirts printed for a Team Jack fundraiser.

Andy worked with a friend, Mike Flood, the owner of a Norfolk, Nebraska, radio station that was part of the Husker radio network. He got support from the other affiliates, who agreed to line up vendors in their communities to sell the $10 shirts. Week one produced $500 in sales—well below the projections just needed to breakeven.

However, that quickly changed. By the end of September, 10,000 shirts had been sold. By the end of the 2012, sales had hit $300,000.

After the touchdown run, “T-shirt sales exploded. Upper Deck issued a rookie card in honor of Jack. We sold three on eBay for $10,000 each,” said Andy, who created the Team Jack Foundation because the family found it unacceptable that some cancer foundations were seeing 30 to 50 percent of donations go into overhead.

“We want to raise as much money as we can as fast as we can,” said Andy, who serves as an unpaid member of the Team Jack Foundation board.

Foundation efforts top $3 million

Team Jack has lit up the fundraising scoreboard to the tune of $3 million since it added a philanthropic focus in late 2012. Its first award of $275,000 to the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston was almost three months before what Andy now simply calls “the run.” In 2014 it made a $300,000 commitment to leverage a clinical trial on a new cancer-fighting drug.

Children with brain tumors, former Huskers and keynote speaker and cancer survivor Jim Kelly (center, back) gather at the 2016 Team Jack Gala.

Children with brain tumors, former Huskers and keynote speaker and cancer survivor Jim Kelly (center, back) gather at the 2016 Team Jack Gala.

There are almost as many ways to support Team Jack as there are types of brain cancer (300).

More than what Andy can personally oversee.

Team Jack has three paid staff members: Executive Director Kylie (Tielke) Dockter, an Atkinson native who became the foundation’s first employee when she joined in August 2013 as chief development director; part-timer Lindsey (Mlnarik) Nemetz, of Atkinson, who joined the foundation in October 2014 as its events coordinator; and marketing director Kaitlyn Butterfield, also an Atkinson native, who joined in September 2016.

T-shirts remain a big fundraiser. They produced $600,000 in sales in 2013, but the foundation’s major event is an annual gala held in February or March.

This year’s event is Feb. 25 at the Embassy Suites in downtown Lincoln, Neb., with all-pro defensive back and cancer survivor Eric Berry as the keynote speaker. The night, which includes live and silent auctions, has been a $1 million fundraiser in the past. “It’s an event we worked really hard to perfect,” Andy said.

Previous keynoters were NFL quarterback Jim Kelly (2016), Olympic gold medalist Scott Hamilton (2015) and Burkhead and coach Bo Pellini (2014).

The foundation’s most recent honor was receiving the Betty Jane France Humanitarian Award from the NASCAR Foundation Sept. 29, 2016. It is a $100,000 award that was received based on online voting over three other foundations that assist children. Andy used email blasts to prompt the Husker Nation to cast a ballot daily.

The Hoffmans were in New York City for that award and on the first weekend of December were in Las Vegas as part of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Awards.

“I’m embarrassed by it to a certain degree,” Andy said of his frequent steps into the spotlight. “The award really is a reflection of everybody who has donated. Why are you in the running? Because of the dollars that were raised. It’s the people’s award. It’s the volunteers who send out mailers, the people who call in during our radiothons.”

Roots remain in Atkinson

While Andy has been coast to coast for Team Jack, the foundation’s base is in a suite attached to his law office on the edge of a farming town of 1,200 residents.

Hoffman with Burkhead as a Cincinnati Bengal.

Hoffman with Burkhead as a Cincinnati Bengal.

It’s from that office that 6,000 to 7,000 mailers are sent each year. It’s not done by an advertising or fundraising agency, but “old ladies in a town of no stoplights who volunteer to insert, seal and sort envelopes. It was on one of those volunteer days that we got a check for $175,000 from an estate that received our mailer,” Andy said.

He was emotional as he shared the result of the volunteers’ work. “The Midwest is an amazing place. Team Jack couldn’t happen anywhere else. But there are good people everywhere,” he said.

They can be found on Team Jack’s scientific advisory board, which has world-class doctors from prestigious places like the brain tumor centers at the University of California, San Francisco and Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. They can be found at ESPN studios, where Jack and announcer Stuart Scott shared cancer stories and a big hug.

“Of all the celebrities we’ve met, a person is a person no matter how popular they are, just like Dr. Seuss said,” Andy said.

Those celebrities do have huge platforms and Andy is happy to see those platforms used to aid Team Jack in promoting pediatric cancer research. In 2017, he has his sights set on advocating for more federal dollars for pediatric cancer research. Only 4 percent of federal cancer funding is solely dedicated to childhood cancer research.

‘Wants to be like everyone else’

Meanwhile, Jack tries to avoid the limelight and interviews like needles and hospital rooms. He likes recess, lunch, summer baseball, hunting and water skiing.

“He wants to be just like everyone else,” Bri noted.

That’s what Mom and Dad want, too. Life certainly is different for a family dealing with pediatric cancer that also rubs shoulders with celebrities to advance the national fight against the disease. But there also is homework to be done, cookies to be baked, two growing daughters, now 6 and 9, to focus on, school concerts to attend and, yes, discipline to administer.

Just like every other household.

“We live life like Jack is going to go to college and have a career. We’re not going to let this disease beat us twice,” Andy said.

Dave Graves

How to join the team:
Team Jack welcomes support in moving the ball forward in the fight against pediatric brain cancer. Donations can be made through its website— or by mailing checks to Box 975, Atkinson, Nebraska, 68173. The foundation also offers advice to those wanting to sponsor a fundraising event or to volunteer with the foundation.

1 Comment

  1. To the Team Jack Foundation,
    I have so much respect for what you have done to help Jack and the many other kids with brain tumors. Jack’s touchdown run in the Spring Game is the TD that means the most to me of any season. My family wishes Jack nothing but the best and I would say, “Stay Positive”. Jack has had to grow up quickly and we’re all cheering him on. Be grateful for modern medicine and someday a total cure will be found for everyone who suffers from this. The Huskers love you Jack and everyone who knows your story.

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