The Heart of a Raider Returns Home
HILLSBOROUGH, NJ- It was not unusual for most of Mark Hoffer’s family and friends to hear from him daily through texts, emails, or phone calls; he was always checking in with, or on someone. Mark never passed up the opportunity to share something important or funny. It was so unusual that no one heard from him on that Sunday afternoon in September 2018.
Mark Daniel Hoffer was born on December 22, 1987 to Sandy and John Hoffer. His mother shared that he was happy and healthy from the beginning. He always smiled and “would make friends with everyone.” Mark had a very close relationship with his brother, Stephen and sister, Kelly. Even though Stephen was ten years older than Mark, they shared a common interest in music, which was their bond. “We were brothers and a sister who didn’t fight,” said Stephen. Kelly was not just Mark’s sister, she was also his best friend. They bonded over just about everything. Kelly adored Mark and supported everything he did. They were close and rarely did anything without checking in with each other, often sharing thoughts without saying a word. Mark adored Kelly. She was his big sister, but he was bigger.
Mark’s relationship with his father was a close and powerful one that shaped both of their lives. From the time he was little they shared a love of sports, and he was always Dad’s “little buddy.” Mark also had a very close bond with his mother, Sandy. She had his pulse; they shared everything. She held his heart, and he held hers.
The Hillsborough, New Jersey neighborhood where Mark grew up was his playground. There was never a shortage of kids to play with. One of his best friends since preschool, Mike Cavanagh, shared, “He was always big and I was always little, but we were always close. We weren’t in the same class, but, became close friends and all of my friends became his friends.” The Cavanagh house was Mark’s second home. He hung out there, ate there, joined them for Rutgers football games and went on several family vacations with them. If there was something fun going on, Mark was all in. If nothing was going on, Mark brought the fun. “We thought of him like our own son,” Joan Cavanagh shared. Just as his mom said, he made friends with everyone; some he lined up in front of, some he stood up for, and some he carried. Once you were his friend, you were his friend for life.
At five years old, Mark took the field for the first time in the sport that would drive the story of his life - football. Leo Wisneski, one of the Hillsborough Jr Raiders coaches, described him as one of the most coachable players he had ever met. “He was a big kid, and I knew he was a lineman right away. He learned fast because he knew how to listen, and he cared about his fellow players. He made my job easy,” Wisneski said. He has remained close to the family and followed Mark’s football career.
The Jordan family also lived in that neighborhood. Their son, Chris played football with Mark from day one. Chris was a full back and said of Mark, “He made big holes and made me look good.” They shared the field for many years and made wonderful memories. Caryn Jordan, Chris’ mom, shared that Mark was instantly accepting of her son Daniel, who has special needs, “Mark treated Daniel the same as he would anyone else and would always ask how he was doing.” Even from a young age, Mark never saw the differences in people- he always saw the similarities.
The day you chose to play offensive line was the day you chose to live in the shadow.
As a standout in the feeder program, the head football coach at Hillsborough High School, Rick Mantz, couldn’t wait to get Mark on the line. Every down, he gave everything he had. Mark played his heart out, and as time went on, he became the heart of the team. The guys he lined up with were not just his teammates, they were his family.
John and Sandy divorced during Mark’s elementary years, which was difficult for Mark to handle at first; however, it was far from division. Mark’s heart was big enough to allow his stepmother, Danielle, in close. They shared a love of sports and music, but family was the center of their relationship. Danielle loved her stepchildren, Stephen, Kelly and Mark, in the same way she loved her own children, Amanda and Meghan. Mark also loved and was close to his stepfather, Mike Baumel. They too, shared a love of sports, including football and baseball. Boxing was their favorite sport to watch together and Muhammad Ali was their favorite fighter. Mike admired the way Mark cared for his family, and how important being together was to him. All of Mark’s family worked together to keep the family united rather than divided. This blended family was more about union than separation.
You chose to be the first ones blamed and the last ones acknowledged.
Under Friday night lights in the fall, an entire bleacher bench was filled with a seemingly endless line of Mark’s friends and family, including Sandy, his mom and her husband Mike; John, his father and his wife Danielle; and all of his siblings. Although Amanda and Meghan were very young at this time, they were still huge fans of their older brother, and he was so proud of them. Mark took his role as an older brother very seriously - he viewed himself as their protector, guardian and mentor. They all came together to support him and the sport he loved.
Mark’s passion for the game, talent and leadership earned him a spot on the Elon University football team. Signing day was a proud one for his family and for Coach Mantz, who continued to mentor Mark throughout his life. During his first visit to
Elon, he met Matt Leddy, and the two became instant friends. “He was familiar to me,” Leddy said, “an easy going, chill guy who never complained. I was drawn to him.” There were 15 freshman players who banned together that summer and strived to be some of the best players to come through the program. Leddy lived with Mark their junior and senior years. When Leddy was a junior, he hurt his knee and became immobile for three months. Mark made sure he was never alone. When he needed to be somewhere, Mark got him there, no elevator needed. They spent a lot of time watching ‘The Price is Right’, and they may have sacrificed a semester grade over it, but they never sacrificed the friendship. At 6’6”, 300 pounds, Mark’s presence was massive. “He never started the altercation, but always jumped in to shut it down,” Leddy said. He was the protector, both on and off the field.
You give up the stars and the limelight for humility and wins.
After college, Mark began a journey to find a career and a place to call home. Long-time family friend, Steve Nexon, reached out to Mark when a job opportunity became available at the company where he worked. Mark made a lasting impression with everyone he met there. At the same time, he was light-hearted and was always looking for fun ways to connect with his coworkers, and they loved him for it. After a few jobs led him to Florida, back to New Jersey, then to Texas, Mark was able to find another opportunity to bring him closer to some of the family in the Atlanta area. There he resumed working with Steve Nexon at Starr Companies, as an underwriter. Mark always went above and beyond what he was asked to do. He regularly checked in with Steve for advice, football scores or just to tell a funny story. Mark loved his job, and he did it well. Much like his role on the field, Mark encouraged everyone to be team players. He helped new employees get acclimated and supported them throughout the process. He celebrated their successes and rallied with them when things didn’t go well. They didn’t have jerseys on, but they were his team.
The time came for the “big football guy” to meet Brad Smith, his soon to be brother- in-law. Brad was introduced to Kelly through a friend of his, who happened to be Kelly’s cousin. Upon meeting Mark, they bonded instantly and realized there was a chance they had met previously, when Mark visited his cousin’s college where Brad attended. It was no surprise that the two guys had similar tastes in everything from sports, comedy, and food choices, to anything Texas-related. “He was the big football guy that everybody in the family was proud of and wanted to show off,” Brad said. That’s also how he felt after meeting Mark and he began showing him off too. On the night after their first date, Kelly told Brad, the only one he had to impress was Mark; he mattered most. Kelly and Brad later married and had two kids, Vanessa and Jackson, whom Mark loved with all of his heart.
You are sculpted to be men of violence but yet, protectors.
After settling in the Atlanta area in 2015, a coaching opportunity opened up with the Allatoona Bucs Middle School Football Program. Mark gladly accepted it. Football was ingrained in Mark. His brain was wired for it and his body built for it. It didn’t matter that it was a long drive in Atlanta rush hour traffic after he worked long days at Starr. What did matter was that the sixth-grade boys needed a coach; and, honestly, he needed them too. While the drive was far, the field was close to John and Danielle, giving Mark the opportunity for more time with his family while following his passion for coaching football. His youth coach, Leo Wisneski said it was a great honor to see his protégée go on and coach middle school football.
Mark’s coaching style was intuitive and intelligent. He watched, often seeing what the players couldn’t see, or didn’t think to look for at that age. He was calmer than some of his counterparts, but his quiet demeanor was deep and full of passion. His actions spoke louder than words, so he never yelled. Sixth grade standout, Vinnie Canosa, bonded with Coach Mark from day one. Like his coach, he played football from a very young age, and loved the game. “He was a big, nice guy,” Vinnie said, “we didn’t know how to use our hands. He really showed us how.” PROTECT was the word repeated over and over on the field, before and after the game, and one of the many things Vinnie remembers Coach Mark drilling into the O-Line. “He made me a better leader,” he added. Beginning his eighth-grade year, Vinnie was captain and knew what Mark taught him would be the foundation for his future in high school football.
Anyone can run full speed but you are the one who stops his charge.
That Friday night in September 2018, Mark arrived home not feeling well. He told his friends and family he was in for the night. The next day he called his mother and said he still didn’t feel well. He told his friends he was watching football at home. He was unsettled, hadn’t eaten much and overall felt very uncomfortable.
Former girlfriend and still friend, Sarah Darden, checked in on him, asking if he needed anything. He was concerned that he had some kind of stomach bug and didn’t want anyone near him. He spoke to Matt Leddy, as he did every weekend, about college scores, how Rutgers did and what NFL rivalries would fill the rest of his weekend. Mark woke Sunday morning and texted his mom, saying he felt a little better. That was the last she heard from him. All throughout that day, Sandy, Kelly and Danielle reached out but never heard back from him.
There was only silence.
Kelly spent the entire evening texting his friends from her home in Missouri to see if anyone had heard from him. She reached his current girlfriend and asked her to go to his apartment to check on him. When she got there, she found him unresponsive. As John and Danielle arrived at the apartment and received the news, their world stopped spinning. The unbelievable was true. After hearing the news, Sandy and Mike drove through the night from Florida to Atlanta, knowing that they were about to face the worst nightmare of their lives. Kelly, Stephen, Amanda and Meghan were paralyzed with grief and disbelief. The phone calls and texts were heavy as it was impossible to believe Mark was gone. He had passed from acute pancreatitis at only 30 years old. Those hours on Sunday afternoon, until it was confirmed, were the only hours he wasn’t connected to his family or his friends.
You bring the pails and the blue collars to work and clock it in.
The next day, dealing with her own broken heart, Meghan thought of the Allatoona Bucs, Mark’s team, and how they would have to hear the news. She bravely walked out on the field before practice and addressed the boys and the other coaches. Through her pain, she delivered the horrible news. This was her turf too, and she put her grief to work. “My brother talked about you as if you were his own,” she shared before a team of tearful players, knowing it was what Mark would have wanted her to do. Afterward, the Canosa family gathered the Allatoona Bucs together to sign helmets for the Hoffers and Baumels. They also created stickers with MH on them for the boys to wear on their helmets for the remainder of the season.
The funeral services in Atlanta were overwhelming. Family and friends came from all over the country to honor Mark. Everyone had a kind word or story of how Mark positively affected their lives. Mark’s former high school coach, Rick Mantz, now director of High School Relations for Rutgers Football, made the trip to Atlanta and gave an incredibly moving eulogy. He spoke of Mark as a “leader who left it all on the field. The only thing we had to teach him was to be mean,” he said. Coach Mantz was followed by heart wrenching messages from his immediate family and closest friends. The eighth-grade team Mark coached, the Allatoona Bucs, came in their game jerseys and allowed their coach to “walk out of the tunnel” one last time to “We Are The Champions.” There was not a dry eye or hard heart.
You are the determining factor in a game.
Mark’s father, John, was blown away at the outpouring of love and admiration for his son. The hardest day of his life was also his proudest. He continues to search for deep meaning in this past year, giving credit to the three strong women in his life for helping him cope; Sandy, Mark’s mother, Danielle, his wife and Kelly, his daughter. Taking the focus from the loss, to the preservation of his son’s memory and mission in life has brought John comfort, seeing the “measurable good” in the effort. He leaves a clarion call to families who grieve; “talk to your kids, don’t leave anything unsaid and focus on putting more in the positive column than the negative.”
Brad Smith was amazed at how many of Mark’s friends made the long trip to Atlanta and was really touched by the words of one friend, “Mark was such a stand-up guy, never said a negative word about anyone, ever.” Matt Leddy saw many of the girls Mark dated throughout his life, realizing even the break-ups were positive. “He never ended anything with anyone poorly,” Kelly shared. “Once you were friends with my brother, he cared about you forever.”
Sarah Darden was also there that day to share her grief. Though she and Mark were no longer together, they remained friends. They dated for two years, shared a love for college football and spending time with family and friends. Sarah was welcomed into Mark’s family instantly. She saw his gentle strength, and knew he cared deeply and lived fully. Even in their time of disagreements and differences, she saw all the good in Mark. She stays in contact with his family, and still carries a piece of him in her heart.
One story shared by his third-grade teacher, Jennifer Hopson, revealed the depth of Mark’s compassion for people. About five years ago, they reconnected on Facebook. He told her he had recently written about her and the positive impact she had on him, for a contest at his job. She was so touched by that. Of course, she remembered him in class as he was kind to everyone, but what also stayed with her was the involvement his mother, Sandy had at the school. “She was always offering to help in any way possible,” said Hopson. What Sandy invested in Mark was returned, not just to her tenfold but to everyone he met. He invested so much of himself in others.
Taking actionable steps kept Sandy, Danielle and Kelly from falling into a pit of grief. They began working on the best way to memorialize Mark’s impact on the people around him. First, they created the “Coach Hoffer Character Award.” This award will be presented annually to an eighth grade Allatoona football player who mirrors the qualities Mark possessed; character, integrity, honor, respect and kindness. The first recipient of this award, Vinnie Canosa, was invited to the Football University Freshman All American game and made FBU’s Top Gun list in July of 2019. He closed every huddle he led that season with “MARK ON THREE.”
The family also created the Mark Hoffer Memorial Fund, to provide eligible Hillsborough High School football seniors with scholarships. To help support the fund, they held the Inaugural Mark Hoffer Memorial Fund Golf Outing on June 3, 2019. Over 150 golfers, family, friends, teammates and former coaches gathered at Mattawang Golf Club in Belle Mead, New Jersey to play some golf, reminisce and raise some funds. The next evening at the Hillsborough High School Senior Athletes Awards Banquet, Mark’s family presented generous scholarships to two deserving athletes who exemplify Mark’s qualities. The recipients were asked to do something that Mark always did effortlessly; PAY IT FORWARD. Hillsborough High School also presented a player with the “Mark Hoffer - Heart of A Raider” award at the football banquet a few months earlier This award will also be presented annually to continue to honor Mark’s legacy.
While Mark is not here physically, he is in spirit. His brother Stephen visited Vermont this summer for a music festival, one he had hoped to attend with Mark. He remembered and celebrated Mark’s life there. Matt Leddy’s wedding took place in October 2019. Mark’s absence was deeply felt by his family who were there together. This changed the tone of a very sad day, to a happy one for them. Mike Cavanagh says he thinks about Mark every day. The Cavanagh family goes to every Rutgers game they can, home and away, and remember the times Mark joined them or met them on the road. There will always be a seat at the table for Mark in their house. The Jordan family will also miss Mark as deeply as he loved them. Mark was best man at both Mike Cavanagh’s and Chris Jordan’s weddings. Those men will stand up for him for the rest of their lives. Kelly and Brad will keep Mark’s memory alive for their children, Vanessa and Jackson, sharing stories about their uncle with the huge heart and sweet sprit. “He had the ability to connect with any type of person. I pray my children are like him,” Brad said. Stephen will continue his journey, missing his brother, but deepening his faith, cherishing the time they had together. Going forward, Meghan has committed everything she does and will do to the spirit of her brother, honoring his life in hers every day. Amanda has begun a journey of overcoming adversity and lives in the pursuit of excellence, “like Mark would have guided her to.”
Sandy thinks about Mark in everything she does. He was a part of it all and now that part is empty. Friends and family reach out to her daily sharing memories and offering to bear some of her burden. All of his parents think about him and miss him every day. The hope is that they find comfort in his legacy and live in a manner that keeps his memory vibrant, the way he lived. The Mark Hoffer Memorial Fund was created by Sandy, Danielle and Kelly; supported by Mike and John. The fund will continue to recognize football players from Hillsborough High School, awarding scholarships to players who play with their whole heart and give selflessly to their team. The Heart of A Raider award, created by Mark’s alma mater will be given annually, honoring Mark’s legacy. In addition, Mark’s contribution will be enshrined in Atlanta annually, with the Coach Hoffer Character award. Amanda and Meghan will live and lead with full hearts into the next chapters of their lives, letting Mark’s light shine through them.
So when choosing this life, know, it gets real in that A and B gap.
Mark learned about team from his family. Every field he walked onto, he managed, he protected, and he unified. When he went to college, he lived with his teammates and they became part of his family. He made friends with their friends, so the family grew. When the office replaced the field, his coworkers were his teammates. Some he coached, some he blocked for, but all of them felt loved by him. When he returned to the field, he coached with vision, led by example and action. He made sure his team was bonded like brothers, on and off the field. He knew how to reach the boys because his coaches knew how to reach him. Mark unified every team on every field he played on, coached for, and worked for. He always left a program, a place and every relationship better than when he entered it. He lived his life between the A and B gap, and when it got real, he got better and so did everyone around him.
This past football season, now Allatoona High School Freshman Vinnie Canosa, wore the MH football sticker on his helmet and “played for him,” every down, every game into the post-season playoffs. He earned a spot on the Varsity team and will letter as a freshman. The Bucs Middle School team had a strong season but sorely missed Coach Mark’s guidance and teaching. They all felt his presence because he left a little bit of his heart with each of them and a little bit of his soul at the line of scrimmage.
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