Rex Burkhead got his chance to play an NFL game in front of his buddy Jack Hoffman last week.
The grim diagnosis came Wednesday with the black MRI. The therapy started the next night with a bolt of white and orange wearing No. 33.
"There's nothing more therapeutic," says Andy Hoffman,
"than going to a football game where you can watch Rex Burkhead pound the rock."
And pound the rock Burkhead did in the Bengals' preseason opener in Kansas City. Burkhead, the Bengals' second-year running back, took it five times for 21 yards and eight-year-old Jack Hoffman particularly liked the spin move that spiced his buddy's 4.2 yards per carry average, as well as that seven-yard catch on a screen pass.
"But he was really watching him on special teams, too," Andy Hoffman says. "It's easy for a little boy eight or nine to watch that because he's kind of isolated on an island out there."
The Hoffmans had the Kansas City trip mapped out for a month. First, they had to keep an appointment at Boston's Children's Hospital on Aug. 6. But the next day when they landed in Omaha, Neb., they would only be a three-hour drive from the Bengals and Jack Hoffman would finally see his friend play in the NFL for the first time.
It would be a reunion only for fantasy football. The two met three years ago when Jack had just been diagnosed with pediatric brain cancer and Burkhead was the University of Nebraska's most popular player. Their unbreakable bond had been cemented over a make-a-wish lunch and best displayed in Jack's 69-yard touchdown run in the Cornhusker's 2013 spring scrimmage while wearing Burkhead's No. 22. Two weeks later the Bengals took Burkhead in the sixth round and President Obama hosted them in the Oval Office to salute their work for the disease.
Burkhead has stayed in touch and stayed on the case as a new member of the Team Jack Board of Directors. He regularly calls, but last Wednesday Burkhead phoned for a number of reasons. Not the least of which was to make sure the Hoffmans were all set for Kansas City.
Andy also gave him the news that had been feared. The tumor that had been zapped by 60 weeks of poison and been dormant for eight months was back.
"It's one of those things" says Andy, sounding so casual only because he's so used to Jack performing miracles. "It's acting up and requires treatment."
They're not sure which treatment is next. There is the grueling chemotherapy with the port implanted under the skin. There is the oral chemotherapy. There is an international clinical trial in Boston that looks appealing, but it means a one-month stay as well as monthly visits.
"All of the treatments require a plane ride," Andy says. "It may as well be somewhere that's familiar."
But the therapy started in Kansas City Thursday night, where the Hoffmans watched the game with Burkhead's parents. After fielding punts in pregame warmups, Burkhead saw the waves in the stands and came over to hug Jack just before the opening kickoff.
Then after the game the Hoffmans followed the Burkheads into the waiting area for the Bengals' buses and spent about a half-hour talking to Burkhead.
"I can't tell you what that meant. For Jack to see his friend play in an NFL game and to spend that much time with him after…what a special opportunity you remember always."
Jack got a bonus because quarterback Andy Dalton came over and introduced himself. Dalton told Jack he'd been thinking of him and was praying for him and lingered with his new friend.
"It just wasn't take a picture and roll on out of there," Andy Hoffman says. "He spent a good five to 10 minutes talking to us and he was a very gracious young man. He couldn't have been nicer. I tell you what, if you've got people like Rex Burkhead and Andy Dalton on your team, you're going to have people cheering for you."
Burkhead only played in one game last year and he's involved in a Titanic roster fight this year this year. But he returned a little bigger, a little faster, a little smarter and he's looked very good in training camp. He's new offensive coordinator Hue Jackson's kind of guy. Smart. Tough. Versatile. But with three preseason games left, that is all to be played out.
Certainly we know where Jack Hoffman's loyalties are.
"People write a lot about Rex Burkhead," Andy Hoffman says. "But the thing you can never put a value on or quantity is the size of his heart and work ethic. That's the X factor for Rex."
It is also what Jack Hoffman has going for him. He wasn't supposed to be able to walk, never mind sprinting 69 yards. Making a football team? He got the news that would rock most of us into oblivion, but here he is getting ready for the first day of third grade Friday. And then there is the Sept. 6 Nebraska game at home against McNeese State. It is Pediatric Brain Cancer Awareness Day and the Hoffmans are joining several other families that day to keep the fight going.
"Jack very much just wants to be a little boy. It's a distraction, but it doesn't consume him," Andy Hoffman says. "He's the one that picks us up and keeps us going. He's excited about football season and he's looking forward to seeing his friends at school."
It is not lost on Andy Hoffman that Burkhead is the reason for Sept. 6. Once he met Jack, he formed the athletes' chapter for Team Jack, the group raising money awareness for pediatric brain cancer, and it has meant everything.
"Rex made Jack a permanent teammate at Nebraska. That shows you how much they think of Rex," Andy Hoffman says. "Those guys are tremendous. They've been tremendous to Jack and hugely supportive of the cause."
Burkhead is still very visible in the cause. You know what a signed No. 33 Bengals jersey goes for in the state of Nebraska? You can start at $500. But you can't put a price on his double dose of therapy.
There is no telling the next time Jack will see his buddy play again. It looks like he'll be doing more traveling than Rex. But Andy sees an interesting date.
Oct. 5. Sunday night. Against the Patriots in Foxboro, Mass. A No. 33 spin move away from Boston.
"We could make the appointments for Monday and Tuesday," Andy Hoffman says. "I'll have to circle that one."