Penn State's 'Lift for Life' Takes Charity to New Heights

Dan DiBaccoCorrespondent IJuly 13, 2009

When names like Bobby Engram, Lavar Arrington, Mike Reid, John Cappelletti, and Paul Posluszny are brought up, you know Penn State greats are being talked about. 

But quite possibly no Penn State football player will ever be as influential as Scott Shirley, Damone Jones, and Dave Costlow.

Jones and Costlow were both solid offensive linemen, but had no future in football past Penn State.  Costlow was best known for his Sports Illustrated article which regarded him as one of the smartest college football players in the country in 2003.  And Shirley was a walk-on receiver that never recorded a reception in his time at Penn State.

So why hold them in the same regard as the greats aforementioned?

Scott's father, Don, had a bout with kidney cancer in 1993.  Don was lucky to have found it early enough that it had no terminal effects and was cancer-free after removing his kidney.

Life resumed, and Don continued as a school teacher and baseball coach at Mechanisburg Area High School, while Scott became a rising star at local high school, East Pennsboro.

During the 2002 season, Scott received a phone call after practice from his mother telling him that his father's kidney cancer was back and that it had spread to his lung and liver.

More than 30,000 Americans are diagnosed with kidney cancer every year, but compared to other diseases 30,000 people is minuscule.  And the doctors told the Shirleys that there was no interest in a cure for kidney cancer because too few people are affected by it.

Frustrated by the grim news, Scott began to vent to his teammate (and roommate) Damone Jones.  Damone saw the whole situation as an opportunity to leverage the power that Penn State football and its players have, to do something about the disease that Don and 30,000 other Americans suffer through yearly.

"Why don't we do something about it?" Jones said to Shirley.

So in the summer of 2003, the three teammates Jones, Shirley, and Costlow made their last summer workout into a weight lifting competition to raise money for kidney cancer research.  It quickly became known as "Lift for Life." 

It became an annual voluntary event that most, if not all, Penn State football players participate in.  And every year they raise more money than the last.

Unfortunately Don will never benefit from the money raised.  Don died in November of 2005 from kidney cancer.

Penn State football players annually go to Holuba Hall and suffer through 11 grueling workouts in memory of a man none of them ever knew.  And to further raise awareness, many of them can be seen on Saturdays in the fall wearing green and orange wristbands for kidney cancer.

Wearing the wristbands caused an unlikely circumstance.  Jon and Carol Willey and their two children were watching a Penn State football game at their home in Portland,  Oregon, over 2,500 miles away from Happy Valley, when the wristbands caught Carol's eye.

Her father, cousin, and even her husband Jon had all been diagnosed with kidney cancer.  Jon and her father recovered, but her cousin lost the fight.

While Jon and her father have both overcome it once, Don Shirley is an example of why she wears the wrist band. Raise awareness, for a treatment.

While watching the Penn State game, it was the first time she ever saw someone else wearing the same wrist bands as her and her family.

The Willeys immediately became Penn State fans and got into contact with now graduated receiver Jordan Norwood, who said, "Through Scott Shirley, and through the Willey family, I feel like I do have basically family that are affected." 

Damone Jones puts it the best when he said this: "They're from Oregon. They should be Duck fans, or Beaver fans. But instead they're Penn State fans, because one day three college students decided to give a damn...That's Penn State football."

In honor of his father, Scott founded the organization "Uplifting Athletes."  The organization's focal point: get student-athletes across the country to compete in a workout competition to raise money for rare diseases.

And it's catching on.  "Uplifting Athletes" is now run by student-athletes at Boston College, Colgate, Maryland, and Ohio State.

This year, the cleverly named "Slick Mick and the Magic Tricks," a team composed of Mickey Shuler, Navorro Bowman, Josh Hull, and Sean Lee won the competition.  But all 96 players walked out with their heads held high (if they weren't throwing up) knowing that more than $80,000 was raised.  A "Lift for Life" record.

That $80,000 brings the total raised at Penn State alone to nearly $400,000 over its seven year span.  All for kidney cancer.

"That's Penn State football."  At its finest.