Detroit Lions' Matt Nelson bonds with cancer patient: 'Toughest kid I've ever met'

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It wasn’t about the shoes, it was about the gesture. About one friend doing something small, yet significant, for another.

But everyone who was at Quinton’s Bar and Deli in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, that day remembers the smile on Jack Hoeger’s face, the genuine joy he got from slipping Matt Nelson’s size-16 cleats onto his much smaller feet.

Nelson, the Detroit Lions right tackle, and his wife, Hayley, befriended the Hoeger family through the Easy Riders, a local bicycle riding club in Cedar Rapids. Hayley’s father is an avid cyclist, and Nelson, all 6 feet 7 and 315 pounds, has dabbled in the sport since college.

Matt Nelson, right, and Jack Hoeger
Matt Nelson, right, and Jack Hoeger

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Jack Hoeger was diagnosed with a rare form of brain cancer when he was 5. Now 22, Hoeger’s cancer has been in remission for 16 years, but the battle left him with cognitive and physical disabilities, and led his family to start the non-profit I Know Jack Foundation, which funds and supports cancer patients and their families.

The foundation hosts an annual bike ride, sells “Jack Packs” for charity and has a spring gala every year. Nelson, then entering his second NFL season, was meeting the Hoegers and others to donate the cleats he had painted — with the I Know Jack Foundation logo on the side — for the Lions’ "My Cleats, My Cause" game .

Nelson greeted Jack Hoeger that day with his usual high-five, and when he handed over the shoes — Jordan 1 cleats in their original box — Hoeger immediately put them on.

“Jack was like, ‘Oh, my goodness,’” said Jen Hoeger, Jack’s mom. “He was beaming. And unfortunately, I had to be like, ‘Oh buddy, they’re not yours to keep.’ But just that smile on his face, honestly, I can just tell you, he just, like, appreciated (Matt) and just felt that kindness and friendship, I guess.”

Nelson and Hoeger have formed a close bond through the years.

The Nelsons still live in Cedar Rapids in the offseason and see the Hoegers frequently in the spring.

Matt Nelson, left, Matt’s wife Hayley, right, and Jack Hoeger.
Matt Nelson, left, Matt’s wife Hayley, right, and Jack Hoeger.

Nelson said Jack is fond of quoting movies and always upbeat, and when he visits the Hoegers’ home, Jack still runs to show him the replica of Nelson's oversized cleats the Easy Riders made for Jack to wear.

“When Jack sees Matt, Jack’s under 5 foot tall and he looks up and sees someone that’s almost 7 foot, he just gets a smile on his face,” said Duane Jasper, the Easy Riders' organizer and an I Know Jack Foundation board member. “He, I don’t know if worship’s the right word, but he certainly gets a kick out of seeing Matt. And when Matt brought his shoes around, or has his jersey with him, or a helmet that Jack can take a look at, he gets a big kick out of it.”

A biology major who once considered a career in medicine, Nelson was drawn to Jack for his upbeat nature and incredible story.

Jen Hoeger said Jack was a normal-developing 5-year-old in a pre-kindergarten program at his local school when he started having severe headaches. Doctors initially diagnosed Jack with strep throat, but when the headaches persisted, and Jack began having trouble writing a week later, the family set off on a medical odyssey that continues to this day.

After a seizure that left him temporarily paralyzed, Jack was diagnosed with a pseudotumor cerebri, a false brain tumor that is typically caused by the buildup of cerebrospinal fluid, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Strokes .

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Jack’s seizures continued for several months until doctors at the Mayo Clinic did a spinal tap and diagnosed him with a primitive neuroectodermal tumor, or PNET. Unlike most cancers that present as a tumor and are easily identifiable on CT scans, Jen Hoeger said Jack’s was “like frosting on a cake all over the (cerebral) cortex and down the spine.”

“Instead of doing radiation and it’s very specific to a spot, they had to do it almost like a haze,” she said. “And then to his spine as well. And when they did end coming up with a treatment, they did like a mild dose of chemo right away, and then they did a stem cell harvest of his own stem cells. And they were supposed to do three high-dose chemos, but they ran out of stem cells. They didn’t harvest enough. They couldn’t get enough for him, so we didn’t even finish the treatment protocol.”

Jen Hoeger said there were often times “we didn’t think he was going to make it through the treatment.” When Jack was finally deemed in remission, his neuro-oncologist said it was “a miracle.”

The shoes Matt Nelson gave to Jack Hoeger.
The shoes Matt Nelson gave to Jack Hoeger.

In the years since his initial diagnosis, Jen Hoeger said, Jack has had his right frontal lobe removed twice because of seizures and recently received a cochlear implant after he lost his hearing. He requires regular care, but Nelson said Jack is easily the most inspirational person he knows.

“If you want to complain about anything, you just kind of look at him and say, ‘OK, he’s had it way worse than any of us have ever had it, and he doesn’t complain one bit,’” Nelson said. “So it’s just one of those things, I play football for a living. I don’t have a right to complain considering what he’s been through. I mean, everybody does, but then when you bring yourself back down to Earth and think about Jack’s case. Like, he’s been through literally it all and he’s still around, he’s still smiling, he’s still throwing out movie quotes, left, right, center. I mean, jokes, all that sort of stuff. He is just carefree in that sense.”

After seeing how excited Jack was to wear his cleats, Nelson gave the Hoegers a second pair, one they keep in a protective case inside their home.

Jen Hoeger said Jack shows that pair off with pride, a gift from one friend to another that he will never forget.

“I don’t know how to explain it, but when somebody like Matt — and it’s anybody, but especially Matt; they’re kind of the same age-ish, and somebody’s treating him like he’s everybody else that means (so much),” Hoeger said. “Cause he has to go to adult day cares, and he’ll say, ‘I’m 22, why do I have to do this?’ But he just cognitively can’t take care of himself. So to have Matt, somebody like that, respect him like, ‘This is my buddy, you’re my friend.’ That’s pretty amazing.”

Contact Dave Birkett at dbirkett@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Detroit Lions OT Matt Nelson has a special bond with cancer patient