By Greg Bates
Jack Hoffman stole the hearts of everyone that day.
The 7-year-old from Nebraska who was battling pediatric brain cancer was a guest of the University of Nebraska football team during its spring scrimmage in 2013.
Decked out in a Cornhuskers uniform, Hoffman ran onto the field in the fourth quarter, lined up in the backfield and took a handoff. Hoffman’s offensive teammates paved the way for him and the defensive players fanned on every tackle as he rumbled for a 69-yard touchdown. Once the youngster reached the end zone, he was hoisted up on the shoulders of a couple players.
The crowd rose to its feet to cheer him on. Jack’s dad, Andy, was choked up on the sideline. In that moment, the little fighter had won his battle with the insidious disease.
Hoffman’s triumphant jaunt instantaneously went viral. That night, he was in the No. 1 spot on SportsCenter Top 10.
Chris Carlin caught the video on ESPN and realized the impact of the moment.
“When I saw that I thought it was really cool, but maybe we could do something more, and we wanted to see how we could get involved,” said Carlin, who is the senior marketing and social media manager at Upper Deck.
“One thing that I always found is that there are a lot of negative stories about this industry, unfortunately. A counterfeit issue or a show dealer taking advantage of a kid, things like that. We had kind of just been talking about what are some ways we could tell some of the positive stories that are out there and how can we make ourselves part of the conversation and doing something positive to help customers and sports. It was just trying to figure out how we could become part of a story while using the power of our brand to really amplify the good works that other charities are doing.”
Upper Deck decided it could be most impactful by starting the “Heroic Inspirations” program where the company would design and produce a trading card of a special individual and then advertise and promote the card. All the proceeds from the card would benefit a charity linked to that individual.
In April 2013, Upper Deck announced it would release a Star Rookie trading card of Hoffman with a photo of him during his memorable touchdown run.
“We started it with the simple premise that we’re not in this for money or publicity – if that comes, great – but we’re in this just to help tell some great stories and help out some charities,” Carlin said. “If we can help change some lives for some kids, we’re all about that as well.”
The program has certainly changed lives along the way. Hoffman’s charity, Team Jack Foundation, has gotten nearly $100,000 from card sales.
“It’s our chance to give back,” Upper Deck President Jason Masherah said. “I look at it and I kind of preach to everybody within the building that we’re really in a position of privilege. We have a great industry, a fun industry. We’re connected to the biggest brands, both sports and entertainment and athletes in the world, and anytime we get a chance to give back and do something for the community and our collectors, it’s a big opportunity.
“We’ve chosen to do that in a variety of unique ways and it works out really well. It makes everybody glad that we can connect in such a special way to this community and society at large.”
Since the Heroic Inspirations program got underway, Upper Deck has released more than a dozen cards of kids and adults. Carlin isn’t able to specifically say how many people have cards because some of the recipients or athletes tied to the venture wanted it kept private.
Upper Deck followed up the Hoffman card that same month by releasing a card of Daniel “Doc” Jacobs. The Iraq War veteran, Purple Heart recipient and double amputee received a spring training tryout with the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Upper Deck has also highlighted people such as Lauren Hill, who played college basketball despite having an inoperable brain tumor, and Josh Harding, a former NHL goalie who is battling multiple sclerosis.
“I think the variety really tells the circumstances of our society as a whole,” Masherah said. “We’re a diverse population whether it’s women, men, youth, older – there’s a lot of different stories and it was a lot of interesting stories.”
Even though Upper Deck will choose individuals of any age, kids are always a sentimental pick.
“I think many people always lean toward kids, especially kids who overcome huge odds, and then our veterans,” Masherah said. “It’s stories like Doc’s that are just amazing. And those always hit home, especially being here in San Diego with such a huge military population.”
The Heroic Inspirations program has always been a very important endeavor to Upper Deck. It’s certainly a different approach to what’s been done in the card industry.
“Pretty much every manufacturer for the last 50, 60 years, their focus has been, ‘All right, let’s put out a set, let’s make some money and let’s move on to the next set,’ ” Carlin said. “This is a whole different concept where it’s, ‘Let’s take some of the money that we’ve made and some of the acclaim that we have as a brand and try to use that to help without really worrying about what we get out of it – but just trying to do the right thing.’ ”
Upper Deck comes up with its card recipients in various ways. Carlin and Masherah are always on the lookout of the next candidate and the Upper Deck employees pass along their ideas. Card collectors have also been instrumental in recommending individuals.
When Upper Deck comes up with a person to highlight for the program, it needs to receive that person’s permission. Once Upper Deck gets the thumbs up, it still has some obstacles to jump. For cards of kids, the company has to make sure it doesn’t violate any rules and possibly make the person ineligible for college sports down the line. Upper Deck works closely with schools and the NCAA to make them aware the individual isn’t making a penny off the proceeds.
No plans of slowing down
Print runs for the cards vary on who person is and also how much the charity is going to be involved in getting the cards out. Upper Deck has produced runs as small as 500 cards for a child and his family.
Hill, who passed away in April 2015, and Hoffman had by far the highest number of cards produced because they were such captivating stories, noted Carlin. Cards are still available of both individuals on their charities’ websites: http://teamjack.ideal-stores.com/shopexd.asp?id=31838 and https://thecurestartsnow.webconnex.com/lauren.
Upper Deck’s goal is to release one card per quarter. However, the company will never turn down the opportunity to tell a great story. But it doesn’t want to flood the market.
“Just like anything, if you do it too often the message gets lost,” Masherah said. “It would be a disservice to any one of these individuals or groups to take away how special the message is in each case. It has to be a chosen few. I’d love to do more of the Heroic Inspirations, but there are other ways for us to help and give back.”
Upper Deck plans to continue to move forward and make the Heroic Inspirations program a success.
“It’s not going to stop, it’s not going to slow down,” Carlin said. “I think we’ll probably look to do something with these charities where it is a set of cards and let them know how we can really make them some money while also helping the kids that are involved feel really, really special. There’s some really good opportunities there.”
Greg Bates is a freelance contributor to SCD. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.