The center of attention

JACK JOHNSON sits on the shoulders of Ethan Piper and high-fives members of the Norfolk Catholic football team after signing a letter of intent to play for the Nebraska Huskers during a Make-A-Wish Foundation wish granting at Norfolk Catholic High School on Tuesday afternoon.

Jack Johnson is a game changer — especially off the field.

The 8-year-old in Nicole Pfeifer’s second-grade class at Norfolk Catholic signed an “official” letter of intent Tuesday afternoon for an honorary scholarship to play football at the University of Nebraska.

Turning out for an assembly in the school gymnasium were all the students in the Norfolk Catholic grade school, junior high and high school, along with teachers, parents, the Cornhusker mascot Lil’ Red and some NU cheerleaders.

Jack, who has a genetic disorder and is the son of Eric and Michelle Johnson, loves football, especially the Cornhuskers.

“Jack is a fantastic student, always giving his best effort,” Pfeifer said. “His expectations are the same as any student, and he performs like any other second-grader.”

The Norfolk Catholic band played the Nebraska fight song as fans clapped and cheered. NU and Norfolk Catholic cheerleaders later combined to lead the crowd in a repetitious chant of “Go, Jack, Go,” equaling the noise levels reached in the gym during a close basketball game.

Bill Lafleur, Norfolk Catholic grade school principal, said Jack is a model student.

“He has a great impact on the school and the community and is a great example of bringing Jesus’ love to others,” Lafleur said.

“Jack is friendly and outgoing. He is first on the playground and the last to leave. He has a deep love for sports,” said Lafleur, who also played football at Nebraska and punted in the NFL.

Jack was all smiles as 6-foot-4 Ethan Piper hoisted him on his shoulders and walked among other Norfolk Catholic football players after the assembly concluded. The crowd continued to cheer.

The emotion of it brought tears to some parents and teachers.

Nebraska football coach Mike Riley opened the half-hour pep rally, appearing on a large video screen, then offering Jack the honorary scholarship and praising him for his support of Nebraska.

Pfeifer said Jack is one of 20 students in her class, who last year began raising funds for Make-A-Wish. On Friday, the school will have a mission jeans day where students and teachers will be able to skip wearing their uniforms and wear jeans by making a donation to Make-A-Wish.

“Jack lives for P.E. and for recess,” she said. “He is always the first in line. He has that Nebraska football in his hand and is ready to play catch at recess. He also prays for Sam Foltz every day.”

Foltz was the Husker punter who was killed in a car accident in the off season.

After the pep rally, Jack appeared with his family at a press conference where he answered questions from newspaper, radio and TV reporters.

Jack, who also likes baseball, signed autographs during the press conference, including ones for former Nebraska baseball player and current Texas Ranger Jake Dieckman, and former professional player Saul Soltero. Both made the trip to Norfolk for the special event.

During the press conference, Jack sat with his parents, Eric and Michelle; sister CeCe, who is in eighth grade; brother Dylan, who is in fifth-grade; and younger brother, Myles, who is in kindergarten and also has the genetic disorder that Jack deals with.

The disorder is known as “Menkes disease.” It affects copper levels in the body. The younger brothers are believed to be the only boys in Nebraska with it.

Jack was asked if he also would like to play baseball at Nebraska. He said, “Yes.” He also told reporters he wants to play quarterback at Nebraska.

It was the second year in a row that a Norfolk Catholic student signed to play football at Nebraska, with David Engelhaupt signing with last year’s recruiting class.

“Potentially, this is even more exciting than that — if that is possible,” Lafleur said. “We’re all excited for David, but Jack is a special person who is a very special part of our school and comes from a great family. This was just a great day.”

The Make-A-Wish activities will continue Friday and Saturday, with Jack participating in a meet and greet with Husker coaches and players, lunch with members of the team and other activities.

On Saturday, Jack will join the team during the Unity Walk before heading to his skybox to cheer on the Huskers against Maryland.

He told reporters during the press conference that his favorite player is Jordan Westerkamp, and one of the reasons he chose to wear “1” is because of Jordan.

Brigette Young, president, of Make-A-Wish Nebraska, said for a child like Jack who, because of his illness, will never experience being part of his own football game, this wish likely will have a lasting impact.

“We couldn’t be more grateful to have such a wonderful partner in the University of Nebraska Athletics to work with on this,” Young said.

His parents said they were grateful to the school and community for the support. They said they did not know about the wish, only to be at the school for an assembly.

“It is a very humbling experience,” Eric Johnson said. “Being Jack’s dad and watching him go through so many struggles in life, knowing he won’t be able to do all the things that a lot of these athletes in the school will be able to do. This is an amazing school, an amazing community with amazing friends that we have with such an amazing organization like Make-A-Wish that makes these dreams come true for kids who otherwise wouldn’t have these opportunities. It is really special.”

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