CINCINNATI — Every time running back Rex Burkhead takes a handoff during Cincinnati Bengals rookie minicamp and tucks the ball under his right arm, that red “Team Jack” wristband stands out.
The thin band reminds everyone of a 7-year-old cancer patient back in Nebraska who has changed Burkhead’s life in a lot of ways. Jack Hoffman is on his wrist and in his thoughts as he moves on to the NFL.
“It’s very humbling,” Burkhead said. “I think I’ve gotten more from the relationship than he has, honestly. It’s helped me look at many things in my life in a new perspective. It’s made me not get down on things.
“If I’m going through times that I think are tough, it’s nothing like what he’s going through. I just can’t appreciate enough having the relationship with him.”
Rex and Jack have become quite a pair.
Burkhead got the meet the boy as part of Nebraska’s life skills program. Jack has a tumor located in a part of the brain that’s difficult to reach. His prognosis was grim. His relatives are Cornhusker fans and he looked up to Burkhead.
Could they meet?
They had lunch. Burkhead gave them a tour of the stadium. He promised to stay in touch, mindful of the lesson his parents Robyn and Rick taught him.
“I think they’ve brought me up the right way, made sure I have a level head, never let me get too high on myself,” Burkhead said. “I can’t thank them enough for raising me that way.
“You’re a football player yes, but there’s another side to you and the most important side is how good of a person you are.”
Burkhead is working with the family to promote awareness of pediatric brain cancer and raise funds for research. Jack is doing well, responding to treatment that’s shrinking the tumor. Burkhead talks to Jack’s father, Andy, nearly every day as they work on the campaign.
Their relationship became a national topic when the Cornhuskers decided to let Jack suit up and score a touchdown during their spring game last month. President Obama saw video of the run and invited the Hoffmans and Burkhead to the White House.
The Bengals drafted Burkhead in the sixth round on Saturday, April 27. Two days later, he accompanied the Hoffmans to the White House and met with Obama for about 15 minutes.
“Sitting in the West Wing waiting for the president to come out and get you is a pretty unreal experience,” Burkhead said.
Obama talked to Jack and his family, and spent a little time with Burkhead.
“He said thanks for everything you’ve done for him,” Burkhead said. “He also talked about the Bengals a little bit as well, knew I got picked up by them. He said he’s watched ‘Hard Knocks’ before, so he asked me about camp coming up.”
Andy Hoffman was touched by that moment.
“The best thing is when the president told Rex, ‘Thank you for everything that you’ve done for Jack.’ That was cool,” Hoffman said. “To me, all of the awareness was part of the visit and the goal, but that was a very humbling and rewarding experience — to hear the president of the United States thank Rex. We’ve told him thank you a thousand times, but to have it come from a guy like that is really special.”
Burkhead is taken aback by how so many people have shown an interest in Jack.
“I don’t think when we first started our relationship we ever thought it would be like this,” Burkhead said. “It’s been cool. We’re trying to do as much as we can.”
This weekend, Burkhead has been learning the Bengals playbook and trying to make a good first impression on coaches. The Bengals are looking for a change-of-pace back to complement BenJarvus Green-Ellis. They also drafted Giovani Bernard from North Carolina in the second round.
The lessons he’s learned from Jack are helping him through the competition.
“Just stay positive about things,” he said. “Oftentimes we get caught up in difficult things going on, and we just need to stay the course, stay positive.”
Burkhead has given himself another goal involving the boy: Get him to switch NFL allegiances.
“He’s always been a Packers fan,” Burkhead said. “But hopefully I’ve switched sides for him.”
Notes: The Bengals signed WR Cobi Hamilton — a sixth-round pick from Arkansas — on Saturday. They’ve also signed OT Reid Fragel from Ohio State and center T.J. Johnson from South Carolina, both seventh-round picks.
AP freelance writer Kevin Goheen contributed to this report.