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.
Success With Honor
Damone and I started brainstorming in the locker room, and the team rallied around the idea of taking our summer lifting competition, opening it up to the public and using it as an opportunity to raise some money and tell our story about kidney cancer as a rare disease. So we talked with the coaches and approached administrators. They encouraged us to run with it.
At the same time, my family had been referred by the Kidney Cancer Association to a specialist at UPMC. The doctor suggested surgery, and we did not hesitate. It was a complicated procedure, as the tumor touched five vital organs and was starting to encroach on his vena cava. Surgeons had to remove two ribs and go through the diaphragm just to access it. A second procedure removed half of his left lung because the cancer had metastasized before it was found.
My family spent Easter together in the hospital. While I was there, teammate Dave Costlow called to see how things were going. He had heard about what Damone and I were trying to organize and offered to help. Dave saw it not only as an opportunity to leverage our position as college football players but also as an opportunity to get some real-world management experience, since our year-round commitment to football made it difficult to participate in off- campus internship opportunities. So Damone, Dave and I approached Deloris Brobeck, football’s academic services assistant, because we knew we were going to need some help. She knew we were up to something when we walked into her office with smiles from ear to ear. Nine years later, Lift For Life is still her baby!
We quickly realized that the benefits far exceeded our expectations. Teammates were lining up to help. Our organizing committee would meet at night in the Lasch Building, sitting around a table trying to figure out how to do what we wanted to do. It really was like running a small business. We were responsible for the promotions, operations, finance, etc. If there was something that we didn’t know how to do, we asked a teammate who was in that major. If he didn’t know how to do it, he asked one of his professors. They then referred us to industry professionals who could help. This was turning into something special almost overnight.
My dad was recovering as expected, too. He was jogging before he was supposed to be able to walk. He watched me play my final Blue-White Game that spring. After the game, Mark Brennan, then of Blue White Illustrated, approached me in the media room to ask about this Lift For Life he had heard rumors about. We still didn’t have a great plan – just a cool idea. Apparently, it was cool enough to make his next column. And cool enough that we received our first donation from Carlton and Sandy Miller. If we weren’t committed before, we were now. There was no turning back.
The first annual Lift For Life took place in July 2003. About half of our team voluntarily signed up for one of strength coach John Thomas’ toughest workouts imaginable. A handful of friends, family members and fans showed up to make their donations and show their support. The media enjoyed this rare opportunity to cover Penn State football in the middle of the summer. Our efforts raised more than $10,000 for the Kidney Cancer Association. But more than anything, we were excited about the potential that this had in every respect.
None of this would have happened if I had not been fortunate enough to be a part of the Penn State football program. The recruiting philosophy leads to a certain type of person playing at Penn State, and consequently brought Damone, Dave and myself together. The coaches and administration trusted our abilities to do things right and believed that we could succeed on our own. The fans supported us from the beginning, and the media helped us tell our story. The inaugural Lift For Life was living proof that “Success With Honor” is more than a tagline for the athletic department. It was and is what makes me proud to be a Nittany Lion.
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