If anyone wondered if Team Jack is a national cause and a national movement, wonder no more. Pro Football Hall-of-Famer Jim Kelly, named this week one of USA Today’s Top 10 QBs of All Time, was the keynote speaker at last Saturday night’s third annual Team Jack Gala. The Lincoln Embassy Suites event helped raise $400,000 for Team Jack’s top priority – pediatric brain cancer research.
Credit a spirited, successful night from Kelly, who delivered his 33-minute speech in a Q&A format because he’s battling cancer himself. Damon Benning, a running back on Nebraska’s 1994 and ’95 national championship teams, was the emcee asking the questions and was as captivated as anyone, hanging onto every note, quote and anecdote Kelly used to define his life.
Kelly was a riveting force for a critical cause on a magical night. He capped the fundraising haul by purchasing a cummerbund and tie from award-winning artist Jeff Hansen’s father and then donating $1,000 to the Team Jack fund himself. It was truly a moment that helped Andy Hoffman, father of Husker hero Jack Hoffman, realize the national impact Team Jack is making.
“What’s so exciting is that donations have grown from $15 for a t-shirt to $40,000 from single donors on a single night,” Hoffman told me. “In a night where those kind of donations are received, it’s impossible to put into words the impact that something like this can have on this disease. It renders a person speechless.”
The generosity on display “was unlike anything I’ve ever seen,” Hoffman said. “I’ve been to cancer fundraisers in Philadelphia, Florida, Boston and Los Angeles, but Saturday’s support was unrivaled. Lincoln should be proud. Husker fans should be proud. Brain cancer families should be proud. Saturday night, Lincoln, Nebraska, made a huge impact on the fight against the leading childhood cancer cause of death.”
A Gala’s Poignant Night Does Not Even Include Jack’s Fabled Touchdown
If I were a betting man, I would go all in that Kelly was especially charismatic after watching the positivity of the children in the room and several videos that were so poignant that most of the 700 people packed into the banquet room probably never realized that Jack’s famous 69-yard touchdown run in Nebraska’s 2013 Spring Game wasn’t even part of evening.
“We’re so proud that this is a Nebraska cause and a Nebraska movement,” Hoffman said. “While we’re committed to funding national clinical trials and laboratory research, we also recently committed $1.5 million to the University of Nebraska’s Fred & Pamela Buffett Cancer Center to assist in the development of a pediatric brain tumor program.”
That commitment is in conjunction with the Nebraska State Legislature matching $1.5 million for a total of $3 million dedicated to children with brain tumors.
Team Jack and the state’s investment in a program will have a national impact because it will help provide another site for clinical trials, laboratory research and banking research specimens. More importantly, “it will bring cutting-edge treatment to kids who live here in Nebraska,” Hoffman said. “Our children with brain tumors will have access to the best of care.”
Hoffman is convinced that Saturday night’s generosity highlighted the importance of the role that sports and especially football play in helping fight rare diseases like pediatric brain cancer.
Burkhead’s Champions Award from Uplifting Athletes Created a Ripple Effect
Rex Burkhead, of course, is the Husker who became the Uplifting Athletes’ 2012 Rare Disease Champion Award recipient, creating a ripple effect that paved the way for Jack and Rex's invitation to the White House. When Burkhead was launching his NFL career with the Cincinnati Bengals, Jack was also invited to Hollywood where he graciously accepted an ESPY award.
“I’m so proud of our past Huskers and the current team for taking the time to say ‘Yes’,” said Keith Zimmer, Nebraska’s senior associate athletic director for Life Skills and the N-Club. “What often starts as a simple act of kindness can blossom into something that binds people together for a greater cause and truly shows the inherent power of sport.”
Other Nebraska NFL players who attended Saturday night’s gala included Chris Kelsey, Jeremiah Sirles and Kenny Bell, plus seven-year pro Danny Woodhead and College Football Hall of Famer Tommie Frazier. Current Huskers who attended the gala were Tommy Armstrong Jr., Jordan Westerkamp, Nate Gerry, and brothers Trey Foster and Jerald Foster.
Kimberly Westerkamp, Jordan’s mother, became one of the night’s biggest stars with a $27,000 winning bid for art entitled “Winning Streak”. After that bidding ended, award-winning artist Jeff Hanson offered to paint another for anyone who would match the same bid. One gentleman quickly took him up on the offer, giving Hanson the opportunity to paint another piece of acrylic of the donor's choice on heavily textured canvas.
Including paintings, bow ties and cummerbunds, Hanson generated $56,000 for Team Jack. "Pretty amazing!" Team Jack Chair Marilyn Mecham said. "It was a remarkable event, thanks to Jim, Jeff and our Team Jack kids." Hanson, 22, is visually impaired from an optic-nerve tumor related to neurofibromatosis. At Saturday’s gala, he announced that his artwork has reached a $2 million milestone to benefit various causes.
Banker: Whenever You See These Kids, You Want to Give Them a Hug or a Kiss
Nebraska Defensive Coordinator Mark Banker attended Team Jack’s Gala, knowing Husker football’s Uplifting Athletes chapter shares a relationship with Team Jack and raises money for pediatric brain cancer research. Banker was deeply touched watching a slideshow featuring children that had gone through their adolescent years and became survivors, but continue to fight. “When you see individuals who contract the disease at age 1½ and aren't with us anymore at age 8, that really struck home,” Banker said.
So did the outpouring of people who financially donated to the cause. “Listening to everybody talk and share what they’ve done to raise money and awareness was inspiring,” Banker said. “Jim Kelly was excellent. He’s a gregarious character who injects his own personal stories all the way from his upbringing with his own siblings to being married and having a family and a child they lost when he was 8-years-old. He had his own fight with cancer, plus his son’s fight with a different disease. The way he put his whole message together inspired everyone in the room. It was very impactful. When you give those kids a hug or a kiss on the cheek, it means everything in the world to them because they take absolutely nothing for granted.”
Kelly and his wife had a son who was diagnosed with a brain-related disease when he was only four months old. For 18 months, he and his wife woke up every morning thinking “this is the day that the good Lord is going to take our son,” Kelly said. “It was not easy. My mother once said, ‘it's time for ya'll to start treating him like he’s alive and living’. That was the day that we changed. We started to put him on a snowmobile. We put him on horseback, even though he had no motor skills. He had oxygen. He ate through a feeding tube, but we gave him that quality of life that he deserved."
Kelly Prayed Every Night for God's Blessing to Include Son at Pro FB HOF
As time went on, the love that the Kelly’s had with their son and the difference they made led to their own foundation and all the things they continue to do. In 2002, Kelly learned he was a Pro Football Hall of Fame candidate. “I'm in New Orleans, and I get picked to go into the Hall of Fame,” he said. “From that day on until August, I prayed every single night for God's blessing that my son would be there that day. My prayers were answered. My son was there on one of the most exciting days of my life.”
Parents realizing they have a special needs child is not easy on a marriage. “But I tell you what,” Kelly said. “I needed to do one thing in my life. I needed to humble myself to realize that I understood what my wife was going through. I wasn't the husband that I should have been. I wasn't the father I should have been. I needed to change my life, and I did in 2007 because I wanted to see my son and walk through my front door and have two daughters look at their daddy with respect and treat my wife like she’s supposed to be treated.”
During that process, Kelly had an epiphany. “I am a chosen father with a little boy named Hunter because I can make a difference,” he said. “I knew that if I didn't change my life that things were only going to get worse. I thank the good Lord each and every day for what I’ve been given because my journey is still not over.”
Devine Revelation: Kelly Processes His Life and Embraces Simple Philosophy
About five years ago, Kelly had back surgery and had two plates and screws put in. Five months later, he had double hernia surgery. Six months after that, he had neck surgery with another plate and six more screws. A year later, he felt pain in his mouth that required major surgery. He was diagnosed with cancer and his entire upper jaw was removed. Even though he believes there’s a reason for everything, Kelly was shocked once again with a second diagnosed cancer.
At that juncture, in the hospital, he decided to have a little fun instead of worry. “This is something that everyone should really pay attention to – as I lie in my hospital room, after the second fight with cancer, I went through 35 radiation treatments. I went through chemo and all of that. As I laid in my hospital room, not one time did my daughters or my wife or my brothers ever walk into my room with a frown on their face. They walked in with an attitude that they would make my day better by their very presence and I tell you what – it’s all about attitude and I didn't know how bad I was."
Jim Kelly's Family Chose Not to Share His Slim 10-Percent Chance to Live
“I found out how bad I was after I heard my brother when we were about ready to do the Today Show, and he told the reporter that they gave me less than a 10-percent chance to live,” Kelly said. “I looked at my brother and said ‘Why didn't you tell me?’ He said ‘you really want to know?’ The way you were fighting and the way your attitude was, we didn’t want to change one thing. That made me think about all the times my wife and my daughters made a big difference for me in the hospital.”
At this point, you could hear a pin drop in a room with 700 engaged listeners.
“As we sit here and look at some of these kids today – as parents, relatives, friends and supporters, you can make a difference with your attitude, even if you’re talking to someone in a hospital room,” Kelly said. “It made a difference in my life and it made me want to continue to fight each and every day.”
In his hospital bed, Kelly scratched out a phrase on a piece of paper to start and end every day with 11 words – Make a difference today for someone who’s fighting for their tomorrow.
Two Foundations Striving to Make a Difference Appreciate Power of Supporters
“That’s what everyone in this room is doing, and this is what Team Jack is all about,” Kelly said. “We’re making a difference with each of our own foundations. I understand what volunteers are all about. I understand what every supporter is. We see these young boys and young girls and what they go through, and we thank the dear Lord each and every day for what we have.
“I thank the good Lord every day that my late son Hunter changed my life for the good. It's about making a difference. As professional athletes, everyone should give back and want to give back. Yes, there were times where I was mad. I was frustrated and ‘Why me?’ went through my head. I understand why I’m here in Lincoln, Nebraska, because hopefully what we’re doing tonight will help some of these kids have a chance to dream like I was able to dream as a little boy.”
At this point, my wife tells me Kelly's speech – using a Q&A format – may be the best one she’s ever heard. I couldn’t disagree, and all 700 people in a crowded room must have felt the same way because they were all standing and all applauding with tears in the eyes of the vast majority of people I saw at our table and those tables closest to us.
An emotional moment like that needed an instantly uplifting transition, and Kelly, a legendary quarterback for the Miami Hurricanes in college and the Buffalo Bills in the NFL, had the perfect answer – a fun-filled trivia test and for each person who delivered the right answer first, he threw a spiral pass straight to their table from the banquet’s platform.
My favorite moment in that entertaining segment was Kelly explaining how his family watches the movie Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer every Christmas. He asked 700 people who Rudolph’s father was. A 30-yard pass away, KLIN Radio’s Kevin Thomas stood up and yelled out “Donner”!
“We have a winner!” Kelley said before launching one of his five personally autographed footballs as coveted door prizes for those brave enough to catch a spiral from a living legend.
Nebraska Uplifting Athletes Road Race Sunday, July 17, Outside the Stadium
Thomas has attended all three galas and knows the next major opportunity for Nebraska fans to light the torch for kids who have pediatric brain cancer. The 4th Annual Nebraska Football Uplifting Athletes Road Race will be held on Sunday, July 17, in Lincoln outside of Memorial Stadium. Jack Hoffman (pictured above at the gala) plans to participate in the race again.
The Fun Run will begin at 8 a.m. CST. The 5K will start at approximately 8:30 a.m. CST. The start of the race will be at the Stadium Drive loop just outside the 501 Building on University of Nebraska-Lincoln city campus. Proceeds from race registration will benefit the Nebraska Chapter of Uplifting Athletes and their efforts to impact the rare disease community.
Here’s the link to register: Nebraska Football Uplifting Athletes Road Race 2016
Even if you don’t want to participate as an individual or on a team, you can donate here to help a Nebraska cause and a Nebraska movement become a national cause and a national movement.
Thanks to Team Jack, Kids Are Getting, Using Cancer Drugs in Clinical Trials
“Not many know this, but kids are getting cancer drugs right now and are being used in clinical trials because of Team Jack,” Andy Hoffman told me late Tuesday afternoon. “In collaboration with the University of Nebraska, Team Jack knows Nebraska is a special place. We matched the Buffett Cancer Center with $1.5 million to fight for these kids. We’re keeping up with our Big Ten cohorts and are going to have a national impact. Nebraska will be one of only 67 institutes in the world to fight this disease.”
All of that because Jack Hoffman set a Nebraska Spring Game touchdown run that is approaching 9 million views on this particular YouTube, the quickest match with the multiple millions connecting other YouTube versions.
Now officially nationally prominent, Team Jack is proud to follow the dream that Jim Kelly has adopted while battling cancer himself and creating a phrase that's truly inspirational for everyone – Make a difference today for someone fighting for their tomorrow!
Written by: Randy York N-Sider
Official Blog of the Huskers
All photos, courtesy Kyle Bruggeman