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Penn State Football: 10 Uplifting Questions with Lift For Life Founder Scott Shirley

by on July 14, 2016 9:45 PM

Penn State’s Lift For Life was a million-dollar idea that came at the expense of one man’s life.

In the fall of 2002, Don Shirley was diagnosed with kidney cancer. A Mechanicsburg High School teacher and baseball coach, Shirley was given six months to live.

Kidney cancer was a rarity in that it didn’t respond to chemotherapy or radiation, resulting in a high mortality rate. As such, there was not a large enough patient community to attract research and development.

Shirley’s son Scott was a Nittany Lion football player at the time. So he and his teammates knew about attracting the spotlight.

Motivated by Don’s plight, in 2003 they turned their summer strength and conditioning program into a fundraiser for kidney cancer research. And a platform to educate the public about the disease.

They called it “Lift For Life.” Since then, that singular event has turned into an annual summer ritual on the Penn State campus, run entirely by current Penn State’s football players. It has also spawned a national organization called Uplifting Athletes, a coalition of chapters of college football players holding events and raising money and awareness about rare diseases across the country.

Don Shirley lost his fight with cancer in 2005, but in 2007 Scott Shirley quit his job as a civil engineer to found and run Uplifting Athletes. Thus far, the organization has raised over $7 million, with an economic impact of $400 million, while touching and improving hundreds of lives. Lift For Life has netted over $1 million alone.

On Saturday, the Nittany Lion football players will hold their 14th annual Lift For Life event at the lacrosse fields south of Beaver Stadium along University Drive on the Penn State campus. The event includes all kinds of competition featuring the 2016 Penn State team.

It starts at 11 a.m. and runs until 1:30 p.m. A $10 donation is suggested for adults (kids are $5), and will run concurrently with a kids football clinic, which costs $15 and includes a LFL T-shirt for every participant.

We caught up with Scott Shirley earlier this week to talk about Lift For Life and Uplifting Athletes. That interview follows.


1. What’s it like for you being on the field while Lift For Life is going on?

Shirley: “It’s always a special benchmark for me because it’s that one time of the year when I can think back to where we were one year, three years, five years, 10 years ago from today. It’s remarkable to measure the progress against those milestones.

“It’s also really emotional for me purely from a Penn State perspective and a Penn State heart because a lot of life-changing events have come around at the same time every summer. I remember discussing the Freeh Report with the media during it several years ago. As a result, I think Lift for Life has played a key role in the healing process. And with the recent release of the unsealed documents, I don’t think this year is going to be an exception to that.”

2. Does that put a bigger spotlight on the Penn State football players and what they are doing with Lift For Life?

Shirley: “I’ve always said that I didn’t think Uplifting Athletes would have happened if I had gone to play football at any other school.The program Joe (Paterno) built attracted the types of kids like (Lift For Life founders) Dave Costlow, Damone Jones and I. It put us in a locker room where guys really took ownership of this idea.

“This wasn’t the result of one person or two people or an apartment full of guys. It took support from every guy in the locker room, from the coaches and the administration, and ultimately from the fans. Without the kind of spark that was here at Penn State it never gets off the ground. That’s a testament to the program that is Penn State football.”

3. How important has been it to maintain that connect with Penn State football as new leaders keep taking ownership of and responsibility for the event?

Shirley: “That’s part of the fun of it. I’m more than 10 years removed from it, yet it’s nice to stay connected it the program and hopefully be a positive force and a positive influence as we’ve experienced ups and downs over the years.

“Lift For Life and Uplifting Athletes are important to continuing the tradition of not just Lift For Life, but the tradition of attracting that type of kid. The transition years are always interesting, because it might be one step back, but then it’s always two steps forward. If you look at the guys who have come before (2016 LFL leaders) Garrett (Sickels) and Trace (McSorley), I remember thinking, ‘How are we ever going to replace Brett Brackett?’ Then a Mike Farrell comes along, then an Eric Shrive comes along and a Ben Kline comes along. It just gets better and better. That proves that Penn State really has something special.”

4. From your front-row seat, what has been the impact of Lift For Life on the Penn State football players who put it on?

Shirley: “Big and in so many ways. From guys taking interest in a major they wouldn’t have known about because of their involvement to guys getting job opportunities to guys developing lifelong friendships – with patients and each other.

“I met with (Big Ten commissioner) Jim Delany about expanding the Uplifting Athletes idea in 2006 or 2007. And he said, ‘You know, Scott, the problem is that student-athletes only have the time for three things: time for school, their sport and their social life. They don’t have time for a fourth thing.’ And I said, ‘With all due respect, you can survey any of the guys who’ve been involved with Lift For Life at Penn State, and they wouldn’t say it was a fourth thing. It’s how they’re choosing to use their social time.’

“We hosted a leadership retreat at Northwestern in May and we had 35 guys from schools across the country who were very like-minded and are now best friends as a result of spending that time together. At the same time, they’re trying to solve a real-world problem.”

5. Uplifting Athletes is headed in a new direction these days. What’s going on?

Shirley: “A big part of the Lift For Life program at Penn State has been tied to kidney cancer as a result of my dad’s battle with it and my family’s experience. But these days it’s really part of a bigger cause and bigger context of rare diseases.

“We went through a strategic planning process after last year’s Lift For Life to try to figure out what Uplifting Athletes is uniquely positioned to do across our network of chapters. We have half the Big Ten, half the ACC and at least one school in every major conference. We’ve raised $7 million as an organization, with an economic impact of over $400 million.

“We redesigned our organization so that chapters can still share an inspiration, but the funds that a chapter raises are no longer exclusive to a specific rare disease. There are 7,000 rare diseases that affect 30 million Americans. The challenge has been that the rare disease community has been fragmented, without a critical mass since everyone is fighting a specific disease.

“Now, we are no longer alienating the other 6,999 rare diseases. We aggregate all the money raised by the chapters and make a bigger, more meaningful grant for research. We’ve created five sub-types of rare disease categories – cancers, blood disorders, autoimmune disorders, genetic disorders, and neurological and muscular disorders. Now, we can issue bigger, more meaningful grants in those categories.”

6. How does this impact Penn State’s prior emphasis on rare kidney disorders?

Shirley: “The money that Lift For Life raises still benefits rare kidney patients, but it’s not going exclusively to kidney cancer research. We’re going upstream and trying to address the problem more at the root by dividing the rare disease landscape in these five groups.”

7. Beyond Penn State’s Lift For Life, what’s the most well-known impact of Uplifting Athletes?

Shirley: “There’s the Team Jack phenomenon at Nebraska. There was that little boy (Jack Hoffman) with brain cancer who scored a touchdown in 2010 in Nebraska’s spring game. [Click here to watch.] That was designed by the Nebraska chapter of Uplifting Athletes.

“As a result of that, it drives public support, it drives private support, it drives local, state and federal support. And the University of Nebraska has made a commitment to make its health system a magnet in the Midwest for pediatric cancer much like Four Diamonds and Penn State Hershey have done in this region. Before that, if you lived in Nebraska and you had pediatric brain cancer, you had to go to Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston.

“What we’ve been able to do is leverage the power of sport and leverage the popularity of college football to help bring the resources to the state of Nebraska so that those families there can get world-class treatment in their community.”

8. What else is on the horizon for Uplifting Athletes?

Shirley: “Another result is what happened with Jack is that we have now designed ‘Uplifting Experiences.’ Rare disease patients, through our network of chapters, can have these life-changing experiences. That had been more of a by-product of our mission, but we want to be much more intentional in creating those opportunities moving forward.”

9. Does your Penn State education and your early professional life as a civil engineer come into play as head of Uplifting Athletes?

Shirley: “The discipline and the thought process and the analytical approach definitely help. The re-design of our programming has been the result of that. We did donor surveys and scouting reports of other charities, looking at charities that we really admire. That process is very much a part of my engineering DNA.

“I started a few years ago and we run that as a separate company, but it’s in the same non-profit mindset. It’s performance-based fundraising that empowers athletes and teams to raise money by simply playing the game they love. What that means is that if you’re a Red Sox fan, you can PledgeIt for every home run David Ortiz hits this season. Every game helps raise money to benefit UNICEF and Boston-area youth by his performance.”

10. If Penn State fans can’t make the Life For Life event on Saturday but want to donate, how do they do that?

Shirley: “Fans can make a donation to Lift for Life by visiting the Uplifting Athletes’ Penn State chapter fundraising site at

Mike Poorman has covered Penn State football since 1979, and for since the 2009 season. His column appears on Mondays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter at His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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