UNIVERSITY PARK - College is often said to be the greatest time in a person's life. When Scott Shirley was in college at Penn State, he began working to help save people's lives and ensure that they could live to enjoy great times for many more years.
Shirley's story has been well documented over the years. He was a receiver on the Penn State football team whose father had been diagnosed with kidney cancer, so he founded a nonprofit, student-run organization to raise money to fight the disease.
Seven years later, Shirley watched with great pride as his brainchild took center stage Friday during Penn State's popular Lift for Life fundraising event. The PSU chapter of his Uplifting Athletes organization has now raised nearly half a million dollars, and Nittany Lion football players have become heroes to kidney cancer patients.
Mirror photo by Gary M. Baranec
(From left) Penn State’s Nate Stupar, Quinn Barham and Chris Colasanti take a water break inside a muggy Holuba Hall.
Shirley admits he always had high hopes for the organization, but it took one fascinating turn of events in Chicago in 2004 for him to truly understand how much of an impact Uplifting Athletes could make.
"We were about to send a check for $40,000 to the Kidney Cancer Association, and none of us had ever met anybody there," Shirley said.
Shirley, Uplifting Athletes co-founder and PSU teammate David Costlow and their friend, Carolyn Konosky, decided to take a trip to Chicago for a kidney cancer convention. They rented a car, left State College at 2 a.m. and drove 10 hours through the night.
"We were about an hour away from Chicago and got a call from our contact there to ask if we were still coming," Shirley said. "We said, 'Yeah, why?' And she said, 'Well, it's our biggest patient conference of the year, and our keynote speaker just canceled. So we were wondering if you guys could say something.' I said, 'Of course.'"
Shirley turned on his laptop computer in the back seat, quickly prepared a PowerPoint presentation and finished just before getting to the hotel. The three college students pulled right up, got valet parking and were rushed inside to the convention.
"They ushered us right up on the stage," Shirley said. "We hadn't even met anybody yet, and there we were on stage standing in front of all these kidney cancer patients, all these doctors."
They gave a 10-minute presentation, discussing the money the Penn State football team had raised for kidney cancer and the vision for the future of Uplifting Athletes.
"We were interrupted three times by a standing ovation," Shirley said. "After the fact, the doctors were moved to tears, and we had people telling us that they had never been so inspired with hope because they live in a world where they're usually told that nothing could be done.
"Then walk in three kids off the Penn State campus that have plenty of other things on their minds saying, 'We haven't met any of you, but this is what we're doing.'"
Shirley had always been committed to the cause, in large part to help his own father battle the disease. But that weekend in Chicago changed everything for him and Costlow.
"That's when we realized it was almost our responsibility to take advantage of this position we were in," Shirley said. "It's something we'd always talked about, but I don't think we realized how real that was and how much of a difference we were making.
"After that conference, we were getting thank you letters and e-mails from children of people who were at that conference saying, 'I haven't seen my mother or my father this happy in a long time.'"
Shirley's father, Don, died of kidney cancer in 2005. When he originally was diagnosed, Scott said, there was only one FDA-approved treatment for the disease that provided a 10 percent chance to survive for five years.
"Since we started this program, there have been six new treatments brought to market, with another one right around the corner," Shirley said. "So the outlook for kidney cancer patients has changed dramatically."
Uplifting Athletes now has chapters at five other schools - Ohio State, Maryland, Boston College, Northwestern and Colgate - and Shirley is devoted to it on a full-time basis trying to help it grow even more.
At the heart of the success is the Penn State football team. Players buy into Shirley's vision and give their time and energy to work hard to increase awareness for kidney cancer, which affects about 200,000 Americans.
Lift for Life is always the most grueling workout of the year for the players, but they all say it's worth it.
"It's awesome to be able to be out there and work for the cause," linebacker Chris Colasanti said.
"Participating in this is just amazing," linebacker Nate Stupar said. "I get so many letters during the year that say, 'We saw the wristbands you were wearing during the games [to generate awareness],' and everywhere we go that means so much to them."
Most kids go to college to better themselves and to help prepare them for the so-called real world.
That world is now a lot more bearable for people afflicted with kidney cancer, thanks to the efforts of Shirley and the Penn State football program.
Cory Giger can be reached at 949-7031 and firstname.lastname@example.org.