Over the coming days and weeks I will be sharing a series of posts that tell the story of Uplifting Athletes–a charitable effort that grew out of the personal tragedy of losing my father, Don Shirley, a respected role model and community hero. In writing these posts, I hope that I might be able to share personal insight into the hurdles that had to be cleared before the growth of Uplifting Athletes could begin. I encourage you to share your own thoughts and experiences with me as I relive this journey.
It’s not often that I take the time – or make the time – to do so, but every now and then, something happens that encourages me to look back and say “wow.” February 28th, 2010 was one of those days. I was at Third Base Restaurant in Austin, watching Texas football players compete against one another in EA Sports NCAA Football ’10 as part of Global Rare Disease Day.
After Longhorns defensive back Clark Ford claimed the campus championship belt in Austin, he was matched up against West Virginia linebacker J.T. Thomas, who was wearing his title belt in Morgantown. The players, fans and media had a blast watching these two college football stars going head-to-head (with 1,400 miles between them) via Xbox LIVE. What made it even more entertaining was the interaction between everyone at the two sites. A Skype video feed on one TV allowed the players and fans to see each other while communicating (trash talking) via Twitter on another screen. For better or worse, Texas and Penn State both got knocked out of the tournament that day before crossing paths. However, it would have really come full circle for me if the teams went head-to-head and the Skype video allowed me to be a part of the event in State College that afternoon, which is where all of this started a few years ago.
The 2010 Uplifting Athletes Video Game Challenge featured 48 college football players from Penn State, Ohio State, Texas, Georgia, Virginia and West Virginia. It required the assistance of about 20 volunteers and coordination between all of the football programs, restaurants and local GameStop stores.
The purpose of the event was no different than any other Uplifting Athletes event – to use college football as a platform to connect fans to the rare disease cause. Our efforts generated buzz locally and nationally. And it was only one of the events we had planned that weekend. Others included an advocacy day in Washington, D.C., a team marathon in Tampa, a Rare Disease Night during winter sports contests (including a blood drive), and the crowning of the Rare Disease Champion, which is awarded annually to a leader in sports who realizes the position they are in to make a positive and lasting impact on the rare disease community. More than 20,000 votes were cast on our Website, with Dickenson quarterback Ian Mitchell winning for his efforts to raise $95,000 in memory of a childhood friend who lost his life to a rare disease.
We would not have dreamed in 2003, the year Uplifting Athletes was established, that any of this was possible. To be honest, we might have even laughed nervously at all of these ideas a year ago. But it was possible, and the potential is endless.
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