Burkhead's friendship with cancer patient inspires NU movement - Omaha.com
Published Tuesday, December 25, 2012 at 12:01 am / Updated at 12:33 pm
FOOTBALL
Burkhead's friendship with cancer patient inspires NU movement
Capital One Bowl
Who: Nebraska vs. Georgia
When: Noon Jan. 1
Where: Florida Citrus Bowl Stadium, Orlando, Fla.
TV: ABC
Radio: 1110 AM KFAB

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, jon.nyatawa@owh.com; twitter.com/JonNyatawa

Contact the writer: Jon Nyatawa

jon.nyatawa@owh.com    |   402-473-9585    |  

Jon Nyatawa has covered local sports, primarily Nebraska football and baseball, for The Omaha World-Herald since 2008.

Read more related stories
2 Norris students found with gun at school, OPS says; police probe incident
Oil industry ad campaign mocks Nebraska cowboys who protested Keystone XL pipeline
In Omaha, bus tour calls for hourly minimum wage over $10
Fremont police searching for missing 56-year-old man
Prosecutor: Baby might be alive if day care employer had spoken up
NRA seeks universal gun law at national meeting
Beau McCoy calls Pete Ricketts a 'convenient conservative' for immigration stance
Omaha senator seeks minimum wage ballot measure
Agreement reached to end dog racing at Bluffs Run at end of 2015
Police probe bank robbery
Man accused of trying to open flying plane's door pleads not guilty
Ben Sasse shifts tactics, calls ad by Shane Osborn 'hypocritical'
Forecast on the upswing after Thursday's rain
EB Harney Street lane closed
Ex-UNMC student loses appeal; claimed program didn't make accommodations for his depression
Grace: Your older self has a request — use sunscreen
At NU's helm, J.B. Milliken built the university by building relationships with state leaders
City's Personnel Board is behind ‘ban-the-box’ proposal
Kelly: Started at a dining room table, Home Instead thriving at 20 with $1B in annual revenue
Richard Paul Dreier, 90, was wounded in attack during WWII
Police issue arrest warrant in teen's shooting death
Kelly: Huskers' glory days of '80s live on — on the small screen and on stage
New public employee pay data: Douglas, Lancaster, Sarpy Counties, plus utilities
Database: How much did Medicare pay your doctor?
Construction to start in May on West Broadway apartment/retail structure
< >
COLUMNISTS »
Breaking Brad: 117-mph riding lawnmowers and 12-scoop banana splits
The Chicago White Sox are selling a 12-scoop banana split inside a full-size batting helmet for $17. You know what you'd call someone in Chicago who'd eat this? "Health nut."
Breaking Brad: Walmart beats Russia, stakes a claim on the moon
Russia is claiming it owns a section of the moon. If you follow the news, you know this probably doesn't end well.
Kelly: Started at a dining room table, Home Instead thriving at 20 with $1B in annual revenue
The idea that Paul Hogan had studied and then hatched at his mother's table was that older people, rather than moving in with relatives or to an assisted-living center, would much prefer to stay home instead.
Kelly: Huskers' glory days of '80s live on — on the small screen and on stage
The 1984 NFL draft was unusual for the Nebraska Cornhuskers, and these days it's remembered in the name of a rock band, the 1984 Draft. Tonight, the band is featured on the NFL Network.
Breaking Brad: Nebraska GOP candidates unified against naked squirrels
Some of these Nebraska campaigns are tilting pretty far right. At a recent forum, there was a consensus that we need to ban public dancing and clothe naked squirrels in public parks.
Deadline Deal thumbnail
7M Grill
Half Off Delicious Comfort Fusion Food & Drinks!
Buy Now
PHOTO GALLERIES »
< >
SPOTLIGHT »
Omaha World-Herald Contests
Enter for a chance to win great prizes.
OWH Store: Buy photos, books and articles
Buy photos, books and articles
Travel Snaps Photo
Going on Vacation? Take the Omaha World-Herald with you and you could the next Travel Snaps winner.
Click here to donate to Goodfellows
The 2011 Goodfellows fund drive provided holiday meals to nearly 5,000 families and their children, and raised more than $500,000 to help families in crisis year round.
WORLD-HERALD ALERTS »
Want to get World-Herald stories sent directly to your home or work computer? Sign up for Omaha.com's News Alerts and you will receive e-mails with the day's top stories.
Can't find what you need? Click here for site map »