ND to host first Uplifting Athletes event

July, 12, 2013
7/12/13
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Between organizing 12 different fundraisers over the next two weeks and handling duties as a new father, Scott Shirley has had his hands full this month. And for the former Penn State wide receiver and founder of Uplifting Athletes, this dizzying run has been all the more gratifying.

Shirley's nonprofit, which aligns college football teams with rare diseases, is approaching 21 chapters in its 10th year. It now has a footprint in each of the major conferences. And it will get another huge lift this weekend, when Notre Dame holds its first fundraiser since officially starting a chapter 14 months ago.

The Irish will host a bowling outing at 10 a.m. Sunday at Strikes & Spares Events Center in Mishawaka, Ind. Proceeds will go toward the chapter's efforts of raising awareness and research funds for osteosarcoma, a rare form of malignant bone cancer beaten by 15-year-old fan Sam Grewe this past February.

The Irish had adopted the Middlebury, Ind., native in April of 2012, with the story of the teenager and his battle against cancer picking up momentum as the team made its run to the national title game.

The event Sunday costs $100 per person, with up to four donors getting paired with two Irish players at a time on each lane.

"The goal in the first year is to make sure everybody has fun and to get it off the ground so we can really just raise awareness about the disease and what we're trying to do, and really create a sense of camaraderie," Shirley said. "Not just to galvanize the team, but all of our chapters."

Shirley had visited the College Football Hall of Fame in South Bend, Ind., two summers ago, meeting building intern and Irish walk-on safety Nick Lezynski. Shirley showed Lezysnki a video promoting Uplifting Athletes and shared his father's battle with kidney cancer, which had inspired him to start the program in 2003.

Shirley's father, Don, was diagnosed in 2002. Shirley's college roommate, Damone Jones, suggested that lending the Penn State name could help in the fight against the disease. Don Shirley passed away in 2005, with Scott then leaving a construction job in 2007 to devote all of his time to Uplifting Athletes.

Lezynski, now Holy Cross' secondary coach, put the wheels in motion with head coach Brian Kelly and football operations director Chad Klunder, helping Uplifting Athletes become recognized as an official club at Notre Dame.

Junior linebacker Joe Schmidt, a former walk-on who earned a scholarship this summer, has championed the cause since, getting a lift from linebacker Danny Spond and several others in organizing an event this weekend that a majority of their teammates can be a part of.

"I think it's huge," Schmidt said of the chapter. "Guys on my team have 10,000, 15,000 followers on Twitter; that kind of power and influence when used for something like this is incredible. It's important we do something like this because rare diseases don't receive good funding. People don't know about rare diseases. There are limited treatment options for patients. I think with college football doing something like this for the rare disease community, it can really change opportunities that people have to get treatment."

Uplifting Athletes hosts a summer retreat each year in Shirley's hometown of Harrisburg, Pa., with chapter leaders coming together to share each school's cause and the ultimate common goal.

This year's retreat was May 25, exactly two weeks after Shirley's wife, Stephanie, gave birth to the couple's first child, Holden.

"As they made their run to the national title game last year there were teams from around the country rooting for the Irish and living vicariously through them," Shirley said. "So even their work on the field I think bolsters our effort as a team."

What started with a weightlifting competition, Lift for Life, at Shirley's alma mater a decade ago has begun to snowball into a cause that more and more schools have bought into, as Uplifting Athletes adds more staff members and its foundation continues to expand its footprint.

"It's awesome," Shirley said. "We're getting a lot of momentum, but I feel like we're going the right way, working with the right kids and with the right schools. Joe's been great. He's getting the kids excited about it. It's a good event to introduce Uplifting Athletes to the South Bend community."

Matt Fortuna | email

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