Across year-end top ten lists from YouTube, USA Today, the Huffington Post, and others, Jack Hoffman has been making steady appearances. On April 6, 2013, Jack Hoffman, a seven-year old with brain cancer, donned a red #22 jersey to make a 69-yard touchdown during the Spring Game scrimmage for the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Husker football team.
Since the Spring Game, the touchdown has garnered more than 8 million views on YouTube. It has been named the best moment by USA Today and the Big Ten and earned Jack an ESPY. While the touchdown itself allowed Jack to live his dream of playing with the Huskers, Jack and his family have also been using the opportunity to increase awareness of pediatric brain cancer and raise money for medical research. So far, The Team Jack Foundation has raised $1 million for cancer research through donations, the sale of Team Jack t-shirts and bracelets, and galas and bowling fundraisers.
More important than making the top ten year end lists, Jack’s touchdown is significant because it has been fully integrated into the values, traditions, and meaning of what it means to be a Husker fan. Jack’s touchdown, and the Husker football team’s welcoming of Jack, has become a way to define what it means to be a Husker, identify Husker values, and prioritize those values.
After the Spring Game, fans pointed to Jack to define what it means to be a Husker and to share pride in that identity.
Throughout these tweets, fans share their pride in the Nebraska football program and allude to something special being shown with Jack’s touchdown. Jeff Koterba articulates what these fans leave unspoken: that Jack’s touchdown showed Husker values at work.
In Koterba’s cartoon, Husker football players are no longer students, athletes, or celebrities, but rather are representatives of the values upheld by Husker Nation. The editorial states, “It’s easy in today’s high-stakes world of big-time college athletics to overlook things like sportsmanship, generosity and inspiration. All suited up Saturday in Memorial Stadium.” Indeed, the cartoon shows what happens when Huskers values are enacted through the Husker football players on the field and the Husker fans in the crowd roaring as Jack crossed into the end zone.
Husker fans like Sean Carey and Tyler Quick assert that these values are more important than any winning streak. For Huskers, sportsmanship, generosity, inspiration, hope, heart, and soul are prioritized over winning.
Andrew Dillon goes so far as to say that Jack Hoffman may be the greatest running back of all time. By doing so, he contributes to prioritizing the values Jack embodies over winning football games.
Andrew shifts the criteria for best running back from touchdown statistics to the values Jack embodies. Jack’s single touchdown may be more important than Mike Rozier’s 29 touchdowns and 2,148 rushing yards.
Husker fans have fully embraced Jack’s touchdown. For Huskers, it is a point of pride, shows what it means to be a Husker, and demonstrates that values like sportsmanship, hope, and inspiration are more important than winning. Of course, these values have long been a part of the Husker fan community. Tom Osborne, the Husker’s head football coach from 1973-1997, famously embraced a coaching philosophy that emphasized more than winning: a game well played. But after Tom Osborne stepped aside as head football coach, Husker Nation underwent a minor identity crisis.
Frank Solich was hired in 1998 and found moderate success, but after a 7-7 season in 2002 and firing many of the assistant coaches afterwards, only one third of Nebraskans polled thought his team “represented real Nebraska football” (Aden, pg. 57). When Bill Callahan took over in 2004, he introduced big changes that yielded minimal success: he gutted Nebraska’s walk-on program and introduced a west-coast offense. Callahan was eventually fired in 2007 (Aden, pg. 58). These Solich and Callahan years shook the foundations of Husker Nation. Nebraska’s current coach, Bo Pelini, has been unable to repair all the damage—indeed, such a task may take years.
This makes Jack Hoffman’s touchdown even more important for the Husker fan community. His touchdown provided an opportunity for fans, players, and coaches to recommit themselves to particular values and reconnect those values to Husker fandom. When Jack made that touchdown, Huskers were reminded of what it takes to be a Husker and why that’s so special.