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."