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Scott Shirley hopes Uplifting Athletes will help Nittany Nation begin healing process


By STEFANIE LOH, The Patriot-News

Scott Shirley looks on during Penn State's 9th annual Lift for Life held in Holuba Hall. Players form teams of four to compete in the 11 station event. The event is sponsored by Uplifting Athletes with all proceeds from the day going to kidney cancer research. Shirley founded Uplifting Athletes when he was a student at Penn State.

Scott Shirley looks on during Penn State's 9th annual Lift for Life held in Holuba Hall. Players form teams of four to compete in the 11 station event. The event is sponsored by Uplifting Athletes with all proceeds from the day going to kidney cancer research. Shirley founded Uplifting Athletes when he was a student at Penn State.

Fall 2011 was a difficult time for many Penn State alums, who watched in despair as the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal dominated the nation’s attention and sullied the university’s once pristine reputation.

But it was an especially trying time for former Nittany Lions wide receiver and Mechanicsburg native Scott Shirley, the founder and executive director of Uplifting Athletes, a nonprofit organization dedicated to raising money for rare disease research.

The parallels between his organization and the beleaguered The Second Mile — both nonprofits with significant ties to Penn State — were not lost on Shirley.

The Second Mile’s reputation took an irreparable hit when reports revealed that Sandusky had met many of his victims through the charity, and even as the organization tried to distance itself from Sandusky, Shirley worked tirelessly to ensure that his organization would not suffer any backlash simply by virtue of its Penn State origins.

In the days immediately following news of the scandal, Shirley consulted with public relations and crisis management experts and talked to attorneys he knew “just to get an understanding on how to operate in this environment.”

“Beyond that, communication was key,” Shirley said. “We communicated with our [Uplifting Athletes chapters] and the coaches of those teams to let them know that we would remain neutral [and not be] too quick to say, ‘We will have nothing to do with Penn State’ or to come out and stand behind them.

“Above all else, there had been no due process and I didn’t feel that it was proper for us to take a stand one way or another, and I wanted to ensure that people knew that.”

Uplifting Athletes chapters are student organizations run by college football players at each participating school. Each chapter adopts a rare disease as its cause, and players hold fundraising campaigns to raise awareness for their adopted disease.

Now, as the dust from the initial explosion begins to settle, it appears that Uplifting Athletes has weathered the storm well.

“I was worried, and I still am,” Shirley said. “But on the balance sheet at the end of the year, I think people have been able to separate the affiliation from our higher purpose.

“And it’s been an opportunity for us to take a step back and look at the magnitude of our efforts and realize that it’s truly greater than one institution, and that we’re serving a constituency of 30 million Americans who are affected by rare diseases.”

Count new Penn State head coach Bill O’Brien as one of those 30 million. O’Brien’s son, Jack, was born with lissencephaly, a rare genetic brain malformation.

Shirley says he has yet to meet O’Brien in person but that some of O’Brien’s former players have told him that the coach will likely be very supportive of Uplifting Athletes’ mission.

Shirley would like to continue the traditionally close relationship Uplifting Athletes has had with Penn State, where the flagship chapter was founded, and he’s hoping the organization’s inaugural Gridiron Gala this April will help Nittany Nation close some wounds.

The black-tie optional event to raise money for rare diseases will be held at The State Museum on April 20 and a host of former Penn State football players have been invited along with a list of former college football stars.

“I think it’ll be critical to our organization and may even contribute to the healing process for the local Penn State community,” Shirley said.

As Shirley pointed out, organizations like these are “a reason why people fell in love with Penn State to begin with.”

Read the original article in the Patriot News here.

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Posted by on January 10, 2012 in News, Penn State, Uplifting Athletes

 

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Uplifting Athletes Recaps 2011 and Looks Forward to 2012


Dear Friends of Uplifting Athletes,

I hope that you are enjoying a prosperous start to the New Year. As this is a time for refocusing goals and beginning new endeavors, Uplifting Athletes is also beginning some exciting new projects that we would like to share with you.

This January, we will kick-off our Rare Disease Champion campaign. Now in its 4th year, this special campaign allows us to recognize these true champions that have helped to define Uplifting Athletes and share their inspirational stories with the rest of the world. Also, the planning of our April 20thGridiron Gala” is well underway and it’s going to be amazing!  There are too many details to share in just one blog post, so for now please visit our web site to learn more about what we have in store for this black-tie optional event!

Right now I’d like to take this opportunity to personally thank the outstanding people who helped to make 2011 one of Uplifting Athlete’s best. Please visit the Uplifting Athlete’s blog to read my letter “ Uplifting Athletes Recaps 2011 and Looks Forward to 2012.”

 
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Posted by on January 6, 2012 in Uplifting Athletes

 

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Stronger Every Day: True Leadership


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.

True Leadership

At Boston College, the team rallied around Herzlich. The rest of the ACC followed suit, as Herzlich is shown here accepting a check from his peers at Virginia Tech.

At Boston College, the team rallied around Herzlich. The rest of the ACC followed suit, as Herzlich is shown here accepting a check from his peers at Virginia Tech.

Bill Curry, the longtime coach whose stops included Georgia Tech, Alabama, Kentucky and Georgia State, once told me that true leadership is made up of the unexpected, undeserving, selfless acts of kindness that people cannot deny. Boston College went down to Clemson during the third week of the 2009 season. Before the game, Clemson’s head coach handed Mark Herzlich a $5,000 donation to Boston College’s chapter of Uplifting Athletes. He didn’t make a big deal out of it; he just wanted to help the cause. A few local newspapers picked up the story, and my phone started ringing off the hook.

Virginia Tech wanted to do something to help, so the players on its scout team sold wristbands during a home game to raise money for Uplifting Athletes. Then Florida State presented a check to Uplifting Athletes when “ESPN Gameday” visited Boston College.

The following week, North Carolina State players donated their meal money to start a campus-wide fundraising campaign. Players at the University of Virginia worked with their student government to create the 1100s for Herzlich campaign. The Orange Bowl Committee, Lott Trophy, ACC Officials and Charlie Weis all made donations throughout the season, too. All inspired by a truly selfless act.

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Posted by on December 26, 2011 in Don Shirley, Uplifting Athletes

 

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Stronger Every Day: Humble (New) Beginnings


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

Brett Brackett (left) is a former Nittany Lion President of Penn State’s chapter of Uplifting Athletes. But many other schools were initially reluctant to allow student-athletes to have complete control over such a wide-ranging endeavor.

Brett Brackett (left) was a former Nittany Lion President of Penn State’s chapter of Uplifting Athletes. But many other schools were initially reluctant to allow student-athletes to have complete control over such a wide-ranging endeavor.

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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Posted by on December 24, 2011 in Don Shirley, Uplifting Athletes

 

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Stronger Every Day: A No Risk Decision


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.

A No Risk Decision

The Willie family, shown with former Lion Jordan Norwood, provided more motivation for Shirley and company.

The Willie family, shown with former Lion Jordan Norwood, provided more motivation for Shirley and company.

After the Penn State chapters Lift For Life that year, I got an e-mail from Carol Willie in Oregon. She thanked me for bringing attention to kidney cancer, because both her husband and her father were kidney cancer patients. She went on to tell me that her and her husband had taken their kids, 12-year-old Alison and 7-year-old Eric, cross-country to lobby on Capitol Hill. and they were surprised by what they learned. One of the staffers they met was shocked that the newest drug was not being covered by insurance … until they told him it was for kidney cancer. The staffer quickly explained that it was not a “popular cancer.” Eric offered the staffer a green bracelet (for kidney cancer) before they left, but the staffer politely declined, stating that they could not accept gifts.

Our mission never seemed more clear. There was a need for what we were trying to do. But the new schools that we were working with could not see past the promotional value of an event like Lift For Life. And if it was just a promotional event, they felt like their marketing staffs could do a better job organizing it than the student- athletes. They finally concluded that they could attract more fans by benefiting more- popular causes. I felt totally helpless. My hands were tied by my daily obligations to my job – a job that I thoroughly enjoyed for a company that I loved. But if we didn’t do something fast, other schools were going to be doing similar events for different causes and our mission would be lost.

In August 2007, I called one of my best friends, who worked in Clark’s human resources department, and asked if we could talk. It was like a scene from a movie. We met outside by the monuments and had a heart-to-heart conversation about everything that had transpired. I feared that I would be letting the company down if I left. Even worse, I would be letting her down, since she had personally recruited me to work there. It seemed pretty simple to her, though. It was a no-risk decision. Clark was going to be fine, and so was I. Regardless of the outcome, the learning experience and the networking opportunities were going to help me more in the end. I submitted my two-weeks’ notice the next day, packed my bags and got out of town. Clark even made a generous contribution to help me get started.

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Posted by on December 22, 2011 in Don Shirley, Uplifting Athletes

 

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Stronger Every Day: The Evolution of Uplifting Athletes


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.

The Evolution of Uplifting Athletes

Unlike most other athletic departments, the folks at Colgate quickly embraced Uplifting Athletes.

Unlike most other athletic departments, the folks at Colgate quickly embraced Uplifting Athletes.

A few months later, I started exchanging e-mails with a new donor named David Wozniak. The first message he sent me was actually a thank you for an autographed item he won as a door prize. Through conversation, I learned that Dave had a wealth of experience in branding and advertising. He saw the same potential that we did in all of the facets of our effort and felt compelled to help. At the time, we were trying to promote an eBay auction for an autographed football donated by John Cappelletti. Dave’s insight made a big difference, and working with him was energizing.

My dad watched me graduate – this time with a master’s degree – in December 2004. We transitioned the leadership of our student organization to members of the next class on the football team, and I moved to Washington, D.C., to work as an engineer at Clark Construction Company. Dave Wozniak rolled up his sleeves and helped by mentoring the group that was left in charge. He acquired an intimate understanding of our program, and our third Lift For Life – in 2005 – set a new standard for participation, attendance, media coverage and fundraising.

The more we talked about Lift For Life, the deeper we got into the strategy. We had always had a grand vision for how big this could be. As college kids, it’s pretty easy to dream. Making dreams a reality takes some planning, though. And that’s where Dave excelled. We discussed the fact that kidney cancer was one of nearly 7,000 rare diseases and that all 30 million rare disease patients face similar challenges living in a world of isolation. The idea of creating an organization that could effectively use college football as a platform to make rare diseases a national priority seemed daunting. But the challenge was exciting, too.

In the midst of all this, my father’s cancer came back with a vengeance later that summer. It was difficult for me because I had just started my dream job and was trying to continue to grow our efforts to fund kidney cancer research, but we were running out of time. There were literally not enough hours in the day. The cancer eventually took my father, but it never beat him. What we learned from his fight inspired a movement that will change the world for people in similar situations.

All 30 million of them.

I had always said that this was bigger than him. When he passed away on Oct. 17, 2005, that became the new reality for everyone else who had joined us in our fight.

Over the course of the next year, Dave Wozniak and I spent most of our free time working together, researching, writing and editing a business plan that would evolve our organization and see us through the critical next steps. It had to be a coordinated effort. The brand had to be strong. This was no longer just a lifting competition. Uplifting Athletes was the name agreed upon for what our effort had become. Our mission was to align college football with rare diseases and elevate them as a national priority. The chapters would be run by current football student-athletes, and they would benefit rare disease causes relevant to their teams.

We developed an expansion strategy that was focused on a controlled growth starting with high-profile schools. Penn State became recognized as the first official chapter of Uplifting Athletes, and the group experienced another successful year. On the heels of another great Lift For Life event in State College in 2006, we published our business plan. The time had come to start recruiting new schools. I was still working full-time at Clark, and Dave had a full-time job in Philadelphia, so our sales calls were limited to phone, e-mail or weekends. It proved to be much more difficult than expected, but we made inroads with two of the biggest football programs in the country. Yet Penn State remained our lone chapter in 2007.

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Posted by on December 20, 2011 in Don Shirley, Uplifting Athletes

 

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Stronger Every Day: Our “Aha” Moment


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.

Our “Aha” Moment

The following summer, the same group of guys got back to work. We were moving the event from the weight room into Holuba Hall to accommodate more fans. It was bigger and better in every way. More participants, more volunteers, more money. Kidney cancer patients were calling Deloris to share their stories and to thank us for inspiring them. We even registered Lift For Life as a student organization to provide some continuity in the program, as it was our last summer in State College. We wanted to ensure that the event would always be run by the current players so they could enjoy the same benefits.

One evening after the event, Dave and I were writing thank- you notes with the help of another volunteer, Carrie Konosky, from the Lionettes Dance Team. It was getting late, and we were laughing about the fact that we had raised more than $50,000 for the Kidney Cancer Association but we had never actually met anyone from the organization. We discussed going to visit its office in Chicago, but when the three of us looked at our calendars, the only weekend that we were all available started the next day. So I called the KCA’s director of development and asked if staff members would be around. She said they would but sounded frantic and asked if she could call back. Meanwhile, we all called our parents to let them know we were heading to Chicago. When the KCA called back, we were told the organization was holding its biggest patient conference of the year. We thought it was perfect, but staff members were afraid they wouldn’t get to spend any quality time with us.

Our decision-making process continued on our way to the airport to price flights. Sure enough, last-minute airfare from State College to Chicago was not an option. Turns out that a rental car was. We took a big old Buick from the rental lot back to our apartments. Dave and I did some laundry, and we hit the road around midnight. Mapquest said it was only a lO-hour drive.

About an hour outside of Chicago, the KCA called to see if we were still coming. Fresh off a rest-stop nap in Indiana, we explained that our ETA was around noon. Our timing was perfect, because that’s when the keynote speaker was scheduled to present, and he was no longer able to make it. I was asked to fill in.

I jumped in the backseat, plugged my laptop into my cell phone and started downloading some pictures to build a PowerPoint presentation. We pulled up to the curb, the valet took our car, and the three of us were ushered right up to the stage. The funny thing is, we still had not met anyone from the KCA yet.

The next five or 10 minutes were among the best of my life. We were interrupted three times by standing ovations. The audience lived in the same world that I did – a world in which people tell them as a statement of fact that nothing can be done. Well guess what? We are Penn State and we are doing something. The medical advisory board was moved to tears. They dedicated their careers to a disease that was respected by few. They were no longer alone. We were treated like rock stars the rest of the weekend. Children of the patients wrote us thank-you letters because their parents were inspired with courage, spirit and hope. Our effort was always bigger than me and my father, but this was the first time that I realized just how big it was. We had an obligation to help it reach its full potential.

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Posted by on December 18, 2011 in Don Shirley, Uplifting Athletes

 

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