Penn State takes on weighty cause

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
Unfortunately, our country has a pecking order when it comes to diseases, and kidney cancer is low on the depth chart.

More than 30,000 Americans are diagnosed with kidney cancer each year, but because it's a small amount relative to other diseases, the illness is considered rare and lacks the support for research and new treatments. But a group of football players are trying to change things.

Friday afternoon, Penn State will hold the sixth annual Lift For Life event, a weightlifting competition for players designed to raise funds and, perhaps more important, awareness for kidney cancer. Ninety-six Nittany Lions players will participate, with teams of four competing in 11 events ranging from the traditional (leg curls, bench press) to the bizarre (tire flipping). Fans will be able to support their favorite players, who will sign autographs after the competition. Proceeds will go to the Kidney Cancer Association.

So if you're in the vicinity of Holuba Hall -- Penn State's indoor practice facility -- around 2 p.m. today, try to get there. It's worth it.

Former Penn State wide receiver Scott Shirley started the Lift For Life event in 2003, the year after his father, Don, was diagnosed with kidney cancer. Don passed away from the disease in October 2005.

After Don's diagnosis, the Shirley family went from hospital to hospital, seeking some degree of hope. All they got was heartache.

A trip to Johns Hopkins proved to be the final straw.

"It was like going to visit the Wizard of Oz," Shirley said. "If anybody had the answer, Hopkins would. And the doctor came in and said the reality is there's nothing we can do. At that point, we were kind of at the end of road."

Shirley called the Kidney Cancer Association on his way back to State College and learned that because the disease was rare, it lacked the financial backing to push for new treatments. There was only one FDA-approved treatment, and it had just a 10 percent survival rate beyond five years.

Walking into his apartment, Shirley told his roommate and teammate, Damone Jones, the discouraging news.

"I said it's unfortunate 30,000 Americans a year get this disease and they're all told that nothing can be done because there's not enough of them," Shirley said. "Then Damone shrugged his shoulders and said, 'We're Penn State football. If I wipe my [butt] sideways, it's on the front page of the paper.

"Why not take advantage of that?'"

Their teammates, three of whom had fathers fighting the disease, immediately got on board. They decided that a weightlifting competition, open to fans and media members, would be the best way to generate attention. The first event was small, but it has since grown.

So has awareness and progress with the disease. Three new treatments have been approved in the last five years. One of the drugs, Sutent, is being used by Ohio State quarterbacks coach Joe Daniels as he fights kidney cancer.

Daniels and his son, Matt, a walk-on fullback for the Buckeyes, first contacted Shirley two years ago. Matt is organizing an Ohio State chapter of Uplifting Athletes, a nonprofit organization that helps college football players organize to raise awareness about rare diseases.

"It makes sense someone should be there to help diseases that don't have a voice," Matt Daniels said. "This has been his idea since the beginning, even from when he was playing. I really have a lot of respect for him."

Seeing Joe Daniels make progress against kidney cancer has hit home for Shirley, who quit his job as an engineer in August to become the full-time executive director of Uplifting Athletes.

"Unfortunately, my dad didn't live long enough to benefit from those treatments," Shirley said. "Having become good friends with the Daniels family, that's really when it comes full circle for me. ... It's never really been about [Don Shirley] or for him. It happened because of his situation and what I learned and what the team learned about rare diseases. And it's really grown because of the opportunity to impact so many people."

While organizing Lift For Life as players, Shirley and Jones realized they were gaining real-world event-planning experience not usually afforded to football players. The same possibility hooked Penn State sophomore wide receiver Brett Brackett, who serves as president of the Penn State chapter of Uplifting Athletes.

Uplifting Athletes also has a chapter at Colgate, which will hold a Lift For Life event July 25, and hopes to form chapters at Ohio State and Maryland.

"We don't have time during the year for internships," said Brackett, a business major. "Every part of the organization, besides the financial committee, is run by a Penn State football player. It's pretty unique."

Because of the structure, it's not hard to get teammates to pitch in.

"We try to do a lot of outreach things," said Daniels, who is planning a benefit for Uplifting Athletes in Columbus later this month. "When it's a player-initiated thing, players have more pride in that."

There will be plenty of pride in Holuba Hall Friday. After all, competition is competition.
Brackett's scouting report says look out for Team Maryland, which includes Derrick Williams, Navorro Bowman, A.J. Wallace and Aaron Maybin. Another contender is Team The Real Deihl, featuring Brackett and Mark Rubin, both of whom were on last year's winning team.

"A couple teams are pretty stacked," Brackett said.