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.
Humble New Beginnings
As low-risk as the decision was on paper, I didn’t account for the impact on my lifestyle. I went from living my dream to moving back in with my mom at age 27. The hours that I worked were around the clock. Every decision that I made in my personal life was, and still is, based on what’s best for the organization. I’m on the road more than I’m home.
Our budget was so small that convenience was never a factor in my travel. I would drive up to six hours for meetings, book early or late flights, sleep on friends’ couches, take public transportation, work in public libraries, wear hand-me-downs and eat leftovers. My income was cut to about a third, and I had to do my own fundraising to make sure that I could even get paid. All of this has taken a toll on my friendships and relationships. Even though I’m trying to do what everyone considers a good thing. We started to see progress, but not necessarily in ways that we expected. The medical community embraced us. The football community remained suspicious. I was learning what a tough business both sports and non profits could be. Whether either of us knew it or not, we were competing for donations with organizations like the American Cancer Society and the Lance Armstrong Foundation. However, we were serving a unique population – the rare disease community. And we were taking a public relations approach to what many had approached as a scientific problem. Within months, I found myself as a guest at an international consortium on rare diseases. Yet I couldn’t get a football coach to call me back.
The 2008 summer had rolled around, and Penn State stood alone again in terms of staging the Lift For Life competition. I went to Dallas in June to attend the NACDA (National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics) Convention. While I was there, I invited Colgate University’s athletic director, David Roach, to breakfast so we could discuss our challenges with expansion. He suggested that I take a trip to Hamilton, N.Y., when I returned from the convention and meet with a small group of his players. A long flight and a short four-hour drive later, I met with the players in a coffee shop and gave them the same presentation I had given every other school that year.
By the time I got home, their captain had e-mailed me to let me know that they did everything that we required to start a chapter. Everything! In the four hours it took me to drive home. I hadn’t been able to get that far with any other school in the previous 10 months. The momentum soon brought along chapters at Ohio State and Maryland that had been in the works.
Former Penn State and NFL tight end Mickey Shuler donated some office space for me to use as I built our team. We expanded our mission to include more-traditional service programs, such as advocacy, education, outreach and research. I met kidney cancer patients who were surviving on one of the new treatments that had been brought to market since we started our effort in 2003 (now totaling six – Nexavar, Sutent, Torisel, Afinitor, Avastin, Votrient). Things seemed to be going pretty well. Then the bad economy caught up to me.
During the first three months of 2009, the organization didn’t have enough money to pay me. Our board considered laying me off because unemployment would have actually been worth more than my salary in the first place. Fortunately, things started to fall back into place before we had to exercise that option. Then in May, Dave Wozniak forwarded me a headline from ESPN.com about Boston College linebacker Mark Herzlich being diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma.
Brett Brackett, the former president of the Penn State chapter, offered to reach out to Ryan Lindsey, a Boston College wide receiver Brett had met in a high school all-star game. As fate would have it, Ryan had been at Penn State for Global Rare Disease Day, so he was already familiar with Uplifting Athletes. He quickly rallied his teammates around Mark, much as my teammates had done for me. They raised more than $30,000 in 30 days with their inaugural Lift For Life. The best part might have been when their strength coach came up to me immediately after their event and told me that Ryan was probably the last guy they would have picked to do something like this. Uplifting Athletes gave him a sense of purpose and direction, helping him mature overnight.
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