Notre Dame Football: Sam Grewe

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."

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When Scott Shirley visited the College Football Hall of Fame last summer, the Hall's executive director figured Shirley would like to meet the building's new intern.

Lisa Klunder introduced Shirley -- a former Penn State wide receiver -- to Nick Lezynski, who happened to be entering his final year as a walk-on defensive back at Notre Dame. Shirley and Lezynksi hit it off from the get-go, grabbing lunch before Shirley showed Lezysnki a video promoting Uplifting Athletes, a nonprofit he founded to align college football with rare diseases. He told Lezynski the story of his father's battle with kidney cancer, which ultimately led to the start of Uplifting Athletes in 2003.

"I thought it was really cool, and something that Notre Dame, being a Catholic school and service-based, would be great for," Lezynski, now Holy Cross' secondary coach, said. "We needed to do something like that. So I was just really moved by Scott's story and thought it was cool that it came from him, not a rep. I saw in his eyes the passion and it was exciting.

"He kind of asked me if I would be interested in starting it up. I was coming back for my fifth season this past fall. Unfortunately I couldn't be involved for the long-term at Notre Dame because I'd be graduating and gone from Notre Dame, at least for the time being, so my role turned into how can we get it started at Notre Dame so I can recruit a few guys on the team to hand it off to to kind of help me get the ball rolling and hopefully expand it when it got officially started."

In May, Notre Dame became one of four schools to officially add an Uplifting Athletes chapter, along with Fordham, Illinois and St. Francis. Thirteen schools currently have chapters, each aligning itself with a rare disease and running fundraisers to promote the cause.

Notre Dame chose Ewing's sarcoma, in honor of fan Sam Grewe. Ewing's sarcoma is a rare malignant bone cancer that affects children.

Scott Shirley's father, Don, was diagnosed with kidney cancer in 2002. Scott's Penn State roommate, Damone Jones, suggested that lending the Penn State name could help the effort to combat the disease. Don passed away in 2005, and Scott left a construction job in 2007 to make Uplifting Athletes his full-time job.

Scott said the process of starting a new chapter is different at every school, admitting he was surprised it was not as simple as repeating the process over and over again at every school. On average, it has taken 18 months from the initial conversation with someone at the school to eventually starting the new chapter.

"When we started, that first conversation, we were naive enough college kids that we figured within two-to-three years it'd be on ESPN, coast to coast," Shirley laughed. "In a lot of respects I'm really kind of amazed and humbled by how far it's come. It's essentially doubled in size every year for four years. It looks like that could continue.

"At the other end we thought at one point this would be a movement that sweeps the nation. We've seen both ends of spectrum. We're excited about the future of the organization and the impact we can continue to have and think it's really unlimited."

Lezynski had approached head coach Brian Kelly and director of football operations Chad Klunder, Lisa's husband, with the idea, and he and other players helped it become an official club at the school, which is how each chapter gets started. With assists from current players Joe Schmidt and Danny Spond, who agreed to be officers of the Notre Dame chapter, Lezynski was able to help facilitate the process.

As the steady growth continues, Shirley hopes that Uplifting Athletes can eventually be identified with college football the way that several big causes are attached with other sports.

"Our first goal is to really make rare diseases college football's cause," Shirley said. "Once that happens just like the NFL and the United Way, or The Jimmy V Foundation and college basketball, then we can evaluate how to extend. But our focus right now is college football."
Notre Dame is one of four new schools to start chapters of Uplifting Athletes, a nonprofit in which college football teams fight rare diseases by raising awareness.

The Irish have chosen Ewing's sarcoma in honor of fan Sam Grewe. Ewing's sarcoma is a rare malignant bone cancer that affects children.

St. Francis, Illinois, Fordham are the other schools to start new chapters, joining Boston College, Colgate, Kent State, Maryland, North Carolina State, Northwestern, Ohio State, Penn State and Princeton.

No word yet on events scheduled for Notre Dame, but this is a great initiative by the school. I covered Penn State's "Lift for Life" many times -- when players would take part in intensive weight-lifting competitions before hundreds of fans and sign autographs after -- and it was always a nice summer event geared at a great cause.

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