The 10th Annual Team Jack Gala presented by Fat Brain Toys was held on Saturday, February 25, at The Lincoln Cornhusker Marriott Hotel. Filled with many touching moments, the evening resulted in over $722,000 raised for childhood brain cancer research. Special guests at the event included Nebraska Governor Jim Pillen and the First Lady, UNL representatives Chancellor Ronnie Green, President Ted Carter, Athletic Director Trev Alberts, Head Football Coach Matt Rhule and his assistants, and more. Former Huskers in attendance were Rex Burkhead, Jeremiah Sirles, Kenny Bell, Brandon Reilly, Cam Jurgens, Luke Gifford, Joey Felici, Jake Long, and more!
The evening began with a welcome from long-time Team Jack Foundation Board Member Tiffany Miller and was followed up by the invocation from fellow Board Member Rex Burkhead and his wife, Danielle. Nearly 700 guests enjoyed dinner featuring a delicious ribeye graciously provided by Certified Piedmontese Beef. NBC NASCAR announcer and former Voice of the Huskers and Eagle Raceway, Rick Allen, guided the event as the emcee for the fifth year!
Dr. Sidharth Mahapatra from the University of Nebraska Medical Center and Children’s Hospital & Medical Center in Omaha gave a brief update on the Nebraska Childhood Brain Tumor Program, a Team Jack-Funded program. They are making great progress in Omaha for our regional children, and we look forward to watching the program continue to build! “We’re excited about our future. All of these developing projects, all are working together to either improve how well we take the tumor out, improve the effect of the chemotherapy that we’re giving our kids today, so that no tumor is left behind, and to improve our understanding of these so that we can stay true to our vision to improve the lives of children with medulloblastoma.”
The presenting sponsor Fat Brain Toys, represented by co-founders Mark and Karen Carson, presented the Team Jack Foundation with a check for $100,000, which included funds from their 2022 customer round-up. Since 2017, the Fat Brain Toys customers have combined to donate over $160,000 just by rounding up for Team Jack at checkout. The Fat Brain Toys team, Mark and Karen Carson, and their family not only contribute monetarily, but they show up in droves to set up, decorate and tear down the event. We could not be more grateful for their ongoing support of our cause! Their presentation was highlighted by a video featuring Karen Carson. In the video, Karen called, ran down, and pestered her family and friends for their donations to the Team Jack Gala. When the video ended, Karen quoted last year’s Keynote Speaker, Boomer Esiason, saying, “Money buys science, and science buys life,” inspiring the crowd to open their hearts and wallets to help kids.
Each year at the Gala, one special moment is the Spotlight Story sponsored by The Home Agency. This year’s story featured Izabella Eckhardt from Holstein, Nebraska. Izabella was diagnosed with brain cancer in 2015 at 12 years old. She beat the odds and lived six years cancer free until the summer of 2022 when her cancer returned with no viable treatment options. Bella inspired the crowd with her story, her upbeat attitude, her positive outlook, and her push for more research despite her bleak prognosis. The Jim and Sharri Baldonado family presented a check to Team Jack for $150,000 in Bella’s honor on behalf of their family, The Home Agency, and their clients and friends. Bella finished with this quote, “Make YOUR impact so big in THIS fight that when you are gone, people will remember YOU. Please let MY actions in this fight make an impact so big that it ripples for decades until a cure is found. Please don’t let ME be forgotten…”
The 2022 Teammate of the Year Award was presented to Mark & Mari Burch of Burch & Associates and Mark Burch Motorsports. Mark, Mari, and their family and team have gone all in for Team Jack, and their support continues to grow each year. At the event, the Burch family revealed the car being donated to Team Jack to be given away: a 1972 Chevrolet Corvette Convertible, black with red interior. The car was present in the atrium of the hotel. This will be the sweepstakes car for 2024, with all proceeds benefiting childhood brain cancer research!
Alex Smith, former NFL Quarterback, 2020 NFL Comeback Player of the Year, and ESPN Sports Analyst, was the keynote speaker at the Gala. In a relaxed, question-and-answer format with emcee Rick Allen, Alex walked the crowd through his intense struggle and journey back to football from a horrific leg injury and subsequent life-threatening infection and 17 surgeries. Miraculously, Smith made it back to the NFL after two years and led his team to a 5-1 record during his final season. At the end of his talk, Alex opened up for the first time publicly about his daughter Sloane’s journey with brain cancer. Sloane was diagnosed in May of 2022 with a rare brain tumor. “You never think it’s going to be you. Perspective is so funny…all the things I’d gone through in my career that you think is hard…then you’re faced with something like this. You just kind of live scan to scan. She’s the heartbeat of our family. It’s really special to be here with you guys, given all that.” The day following the Gala, she was having her seventh birthday party, and the following Tuesday would undergo an MRI to determine the status of her residual tumor.
This event would not be possible without our fantastic legion of supporters! Thanks to so many that contributed to our cause to make such an incredible impact. Research funding is the only way that new treatments can be discovered for children with brain cancer. To date, there has never been an FDA drug approved that was specifically developed for childhood brain cancer. However, one treatment the Team Jack Foundation has invested heavily in since 2014 is on the cusp of FDA approval. We are proud of this project and others showing promise in the clinical trial stages. We will continue to fund research until kids beat their diagnosis and live happy and healthy lives without side effects.
Team Jack Foundation Executive Director, Kylie Dockter, said, “Looking back at how this event started and where we are today is incredibly humbling. The fact that our supporters continue to wrap their arms around our cause and trust us to lead the way means so much to us. We want to thank everyone who has contributed to or helped Team Jack in the last ten years. A special thank you to the families affected by brain cancer for allowing us to share their children’s stories to help raise awareness. Our mission to fund impactful childhood brain cancer research remains strong but doesn’t happen without the generosity of our supporters.”