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Penn State Football: The Uplifting Story of Brett Brackett & Co.

by on February 27, 2020 9:15 PM

Brett Brackett is the quintessential Penn Stater doing good Penn State things with other Penn Staters.

For people who are not Penn Staters.

(Kinda like THON.)

The former Penn State and NFL tight end’s current job title says it all: “Director of Sports Impact for Uplifting Athletes.”

Uplifting Athletes, as you may know, is the national non-profit spurred by the success of Penn State football’s Lift For Life, which was the very successful brainchild of former Nittany Lion football players Scott Shirley and Dave Costlow.

Uplifting Athletes’ goal is “to inspire the rare disease community with hope through the power of sport. It oversees a national network of chapters run by current college football players” at nearly 24 campuses.

Even though Shirley and Costlow have gone on to run, Penn Staters remain at the heart — and provide much of the soul — for Uplifting Athletes.

And that includes, in a big way, Brackett.

He is the general manager of the Philadelphia-based organization, which is headed by Rob Long, a former Syracuse punter diagnosed with an aggressive and rare form of brain cancer, but thanks to surgery and inspired by the lessons he learned from collegiate athletics, Long has been cancer free for nine years.


You may remember Brackett as the first commit to the Penn State football Class of 2006, when he was a 6-foot-6, 232-pound quarterback out of Lawrenceville, N.J. (Quite a class, too: It featured NFL first-rounders Aaron Maybin and Jared Odrick.)

More likely, you’ll recall — as I do — Brackett’s seven-yard TD catch with three seconds remaining in the first half of the Penn State-Northwestern game in Beaver Stadium on November 6, 2010. By then, he was a tight end.

“We were down 21-0 and (quarterback Matt) McGloin hit me with a stick nod going into the back of the end zone and put it right up over Brian Peters, who was a safety for Northwestern at the time and just finished up a great career in the NFL as a linebacker for the Texans,” Brackett said the other day, chatting by phone from his home in Doylestown.

“We went into the half down 21-7 and stormed back in the second half, (winning 35-21) to get Joe (Paterno) his 400th win.”

Brackett, who graduated with degrees in marketing and economics, bounced around a bit in the NFL, seeing time with five different teams. Smart and mature guy, big heart, team player.

Scouting report still holds: These days, he’s a key leader on the Uplifting Athletes team.

Uplifting Athletes’ mission is to raise awareness of and raise money to fight rare diseases, which affect one in 10 Americans (that’s about 11,000 people in the house for a Beaver Stadium Whiteout). In all, there are 7,000 different rare disease types, which are classified as such if they affect less than 200,000 people.

UA uses sports as a key platform for fundraising and awareness raising.

“The sports world has two things the rare diseases community lacks: There’s big money and awareness,” Brackett says. “The rare disease community lacks the financial resources to make and market many new treatments and there’s not a lot of awareness. Through sports, the athletes we work with understand that they can use their resources and celebrity and platforms to really help people.”


Especially at this time of year. Here’s the hook:

Uplifting Athletes is leaning into its football roots and using the focus on the NFL Combine this week and the impending draft in April to further its cause, with two major initiatives:

There is the Reps For Rare Diseases fundraiser being held in conjunction with the Combine currently going on in Indianapolis. A total of 21 Combine participants from college teams around the country are gathering pledges based on the number of reps they do on the bench press.

Former Penn State defensive tackle Rob Windsor is taking part, as is former Nittany Lion wide receiver Juwan Johnson (who was at Oregon in 2019). Johnson has already done 14 reps, while Windsor is slated to go on Friday. To make a pledge, click here for Windsor and click here for Johnson. They are continuing a Penn State tradition started in 2015.

Former Penn State tight end “Jesse James and Scott Shirley put their heads together, and as a result Jesse was the very first person to do the Reps for Rare Disease at the Combine, in 2015,” Brackett said. “Every year since more and more guys have been participating. Every year is pioneered by Penn State guys.

“Anthony Zettel and two guys from Baylor did it in 2016, and in 2017 Garrett Sickels led the charge with 10 guys overall. In 2018 Jason Cabinda jumped on board, and we had Grant Haley, Troy Apke and Mike Gesicki also participate. Last year, we had Trace McSorley — who was a chapter president and deeply rooted in the organization — do it, along with Ryan Bates and Koa Farmer. It’s passed down. It’s a tradition. Like Lift For Life, it’s ingrained in what Penn State is all about.”

Then there’s the draft: Next Saturday night, Uplifting Athletes will be holding its third annual Young Investigator Draft at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia.

“The event is modeled after the NFL Draft where, instead of drafting athletes that will have an impact on the future of the franchise, we are drafting researchers to receive our grants that will accelerate scientific advancements for rare disease treatments and potential cures,” Brackett explained. 

“The Young Investigator Draft is the result of Uplifting Athletes’ ongoing commitment to facilitate the next generation of rare disease researchers. Uplifting Athletes has provided more than $180,000 in funding to rare disease researchers through its first two Young Investigator Drafts.”

The event features stadium tours, raffles, meet-ups with current college athletes, as well as current and former NFL players from the Eagles and Giants, plus food and drinks. For more details and to buy tickets, click here.

For the third year, the event is presented by CSL Behring, a King of Prussia-based global biotech company that manufactures remedies for serious and rare diseases. And, like most things with Uplifting Athletes, there is a Penn State tie.

In 2019, Penn State University named CSL Behring its Corporate Partner of the Year. The company is headed by Paul Perreault, a member of Penn State’s Global Advisory Council. And it was Penn State alum Patrick Mairs who originally got CSL Behring involved in the Young Investigator Draft.

A big Nittany Lion football fan, Mairs saw on social media the impact that Gesicki’s participation in Reps For Rare Diseases had on some affected families. Mairs does communications for CSL Behring and, knowing of its ties with the university as well as the rare disease community, urged the company to sponsor UA’s inaugural draft.

“It’s another example of that Penn State community and connection,” says Brackett. “It all has those Penn State roots. They took a leap of faith to help us make an impact and grow.”


That Penn State is involved is not a rarity in UA’s fight against rare diseases.

From the foundation laid by Shirley and Costlow, to Brackett’s current leadership, there are Penn Staters throughout the organization.

Penn State alum John Trzeciak, who has a pair of PSU degrees and served as a senior executive at Minitab for over two decades, is the foundation’s volunteer business manager. Another alum, Keith Deaven, whose roots include a decade at AOL in its heyday, has been the president of Uplifting Athletes’ Board of directors since 2012,

David Wozniak has served on the board since it was launched as a non-profit in 2007, and has been a driving force in the brand-building and marketing of the organization. Currently a faculty member in the Bellisario College of Communications, Wozniak was a VP at Lincoln Financial Group for 15 years — hence, the Young Investigators Draft tie-in with The Linc.

Board secretary Tiffini Grimes is an associate athletics director and chief diversity office at the University of Alabama, and was at the NCAA and — yes, you guessed it — at Penn State before that.  One of UA’s newest staffers is Levi Norwood, whose brother Jordan played football and father Brian coached football at Penn State. Levi, who is chapter success manager for UA, played both football and basketball at Baylor.

The Uplifting Athletes team also includes current Penn State football players Sean Clifford, Chris Stoll and Joe Calcagno. Clifford is the immediate past president of the Penn State Lift For Life Chapter, while Stoll is the current president. A long snapper, Stoll is assisted by Calcagno, also a long snapper.

“Sean is an incredible dude,” says Brackett, one former PSU QB lauding another. “He’s very driven, but cares so much about helping other people. It was so much fun working with him. Chris and Joe have some big shoes to fill, but they will do a great job.”


For Brackett, his job these days is a meshpoint of three passions: Penn State, football and making a meaningful impact on people’s lives.

“I got involved at Penn State when the Lift For Life there was the only one in the country,” he recalls. “I remember we got this letter from woman out in her own., starting a new job, diagnosed with a rare disease.

“The doctor told her to spend what little time she had left with her family. She was devastated. She did exactly what her doctor told her not to do — she Googled her rare disease. What she found was Penn State Football Lift for Life. She said that immediately she went from feeling alone and not knowing what to do, to feeling like she had 140 people who were in this fight with her and that we were going to help her beat this.

“I never forgot that. To take that opportunity and to make what we do important to somebody else — well, I was hooked. That power of sport is huge and can help people in many different ways.”

In other words — ones that Brackett & Co. live by every day — #WeTackleRare.

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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