The Fight Starts Here

Penn State Nittany Lion football players have surpassed $1 million raised to fight kidney cancer through Uplifting Athletes—a national organization that started right here in Happy Valley.

Each year, hundreds of millions of people across the United States tune in to watch college football games. About twelve years ago, a group of Penn State student-athletes decided to use their public platform to help make a difference for people with rare diseases. 

Players compete in the tire toss

Lift for Life Tire Flip

Cornerback Da'Quan Davis, left, and linebacker Von Walker competed in the tire flip at Lift for Life 2014. The Penn State Uplifting Athletes' annual Lift for Life event raises money for the Kidney Cancer Association. 

Image: Bill Zimmerman

In 2003, then-Penn State Nittany Lion football player Scott Shirley learned that his father had been diagnosed with kidney cancer—a rare disease that affects fewer than 200,000 Americans each year. Rare diseases, as he soon found out, are more difficult to treat because of the lack of financial incentive to make and market new treatments. 

So Shirley and his teammates set out to make a difference by establishing Uplifting Athletes—a student-athlete organization dedicated to raising awareness of and funds to fight rare diseases. Lift for Life®, the group's keynote fundraising event, is a strength and conditioning competition held every summer, open to media and fans. 

The Penn State chapter of Uplifting Athletes is the largest private donor to the Kidney Cancer Association. Funds raised have helped bring seven new treatments to market in the last twelve years.

"Lift for Life is our keynote event supposed to represent the struggle, pushing yourself physically, doing all those things people have to do when fighting cancer," says current student-athlete Ben Kline, who serves as this year's Penn State Uplifting Athletes chapter president. 

Uplifting Athletes Goes National

Several years after graduating from Penn State, Shirley decided he wanted to switch gears from his career in engineering to focus on the expansion of Uplifting Athletes, which launched as a national nonprofit organization in 2007. 

Jesse James on the bench press

Lift for Life Bench Press Competition

Tight end Jesse James competed in the 225-pound bench press at Lift For Life 2014. Founded at Penn State in 2003, Uplifting Athletes now has chapters at 25 universities where football players are raising awareness of rare diseases.

Image: Bill Zimmerman

In a panel discussion as part of the College of Information Sciences and Technology's Start-up Week earlier this year, Shirley said, "I had the opportunity to build ... a nonprofit organization that could impact the lives of 30 million Americans. Through Uplifting Athletes, we could use the platform of college football and make rare disease matter."

He continued, "This career allows me to live at the intersection of purpose and profit."

What started at Penn State has sparked a movement that has grown nationwide, as 24 other college football programs have formed Uplifting Athletes chapters—including half of the Big Ten, the Atlantic Coast Conference, and at least one chapter in each major Football Bowl Subdivision conference. 

Adrian Amos competes in the sled push

Lift for Life Sled Push Competition

Safety Adrian Amos pushed a weighted sled as part of Lift for Life. The 2014 Uplifting Athletes events, including this Lift for Life, raised a record $151,990 for kidney cancer research. 

Image: Bill Zimmerman

Each chapter raises research funds and brings awareness to their chosen rare disease through a Lift for Life fundraiser or other events.

What makes Uplifting Athletes unique is that the university chapters are run by current football student-athletes, providing them with an opportunity to gain management and leadership skills while learning how to leverage their assets and abilities to make a positive and lasting impact.

Participation Continues to Grow at Penn State

"It's great being a Penn State football player, but my favorite memories are off the field," says Kline.

"This is having real-world implications, and it's genuinely helping these people live better lives."—Ben Kline

Under Kline's guidance, along with his leadership team, the Penn State chapter raised a record $151,990 this past year for kidney cancer research. Thanks to the ongoing support of the Penn State and State College communities for the past 12 years, the Penn State chapter has now raised more than $1 million. 

Penn State is the first Uplifting Athletes chapter to reach this milestone.

Jake Kiley cools off at Lift for Life

Cooling Down at Lift for Life

With lots of sun and temperatures in the 80s, fans and players were looking for ways to beat the heat at Lift For Life 2014. Wide receiver Jake Kiley cooled off with some ice and a Gatorade. 

Image: Bill Zimmerman

"This is a day that I've looked forward to for a long time," says Shirley, now the executive director for the Uplifting Athletes national nonprofit organization. "Every year we got a little bit closer, and this milestone seemed to be within reach.

"To me this is just a test of time, and it wasn't a one-hit wonder. The organization just continued to grow year after year." 

"This career allows me to live at the intersection of purpose and profit."—Scott Shirley

In addition, as the largest private donor to the Kidney Cancer Association, the funds raised from the Penn State chapter have helped bring seven new treatments to market in the last twelve years.

"When you have someone whose family has been touched by rare diseases come to you and say, 'What you guys do is so special,' that's just so awesome," says Kline. "This is having real-world implications, and it's genuinely helping these people live better lives."