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By Randy York
If you’re a Rex Burkhead fan, you might want to be in your seat 20 minutes early Saturday before Nebraska’s Spring Football Game at Memorial Stadium. About 15 minutes before the 1 p.m. annual Red-White Game kickoff, Burkhead – Nebraska’s first-team All-Big Ten Conference running back – will receive the 2012 Uplifting Athletes Rare Disease Champion Award. Burkhead earned the award following a month-long online voting campaign in February. His friendship and inspirational leadership with Jack Hoffman, a 6-year-old with a rare pediatric brain tumor, were instrumental in his winning the award.
The Rex-and-Jack relationship became a national storyline near the end of Nebraska’s 34-27 win over Ohio State last October in a game that marked the greatest comeback in Nebraska history. The Husker senior-to-be captain and 6-year-old cancer patient maintain a strong bond, and both will be on the sideline Saturday when Scott Shirley, executive director of the Camp Hill, Pa.-based Uplifting Athletes organization, formally presents the award to Burkhead. Nebraska Athletic Director Tom Osborne and Jack Hoffman’s parents, Andy and Bri, also will participate in the presentation.
The announcement of Burkhead’s national honor was made during a special event held at the National Institutes of Health’s annual Rare Disease Day on Feb. 29 in Bethesda, Md. More than 76,000 votes were cast for this year’s award, and Burkhead was a runaway winner among the four major college football finalists. Andy Hoffman, Jack’s father, said Rex made an immediate impact on his son and was instrumental in helping his teammates join the cause by wearing wristbands in honor of Jack. “Rex makes a big difference in our son’s life,” Hoffman said. “We still have a long road ahead of us, but our doctors believe the prognosis is favorable.”
The Uplifting Athletes Award that Burkhead will receive was designed and finished by New Jersey sculptor Brian Hanlon, who has completed more than 200 public art pieces. Hanlon is the official sculptor for the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass. The national Uplifting Athletes sculpture is a metaphorical representation of a football player holding up both arms because he is “uplifting others” through his determination.
“It’s amazing how much Rex and the Nebraska family have lifted up Jack and our family,” Andy Hoffman said Monday. “Jack was diagnosed with his brain tumor a year ago on Good Friday. We count our blessings every day. Jack is still seizure free and is now down to one seizure medicine. For us, the Spring Game comes at a good time. We leave the following Tuesday for more tests at Boston Children’s Hospital. Jack has three appointments and an MRI there a week from Wednesday. We’ve learned to take one day at a time, and we certainly appreciate everyone out there who has lifted up Jack through a leader like Rex. He’s very deserving of this national award.”
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