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July 12, 2013At first, it was a way to meet his new teammates. Maybe he would get on the good side of a few upperclassmen, or familiarize himself with the campus. And maybe, while he was at it, he would change a few lives.
A top offensive line recruit coming out of West Scranton (Pa.) High, Eric Shrive was just another true freshman when he arrived at Penn State in 2009. Eager to get involved in campus life, he decided to join the Nittany Lions' chapter of Uplifting Athletes, a national nonprofit organization that raises funds, educates the public and advocates for research into rare diseases - diseases that affect fewer than 200,000 Americans. Penn State's chapter focuses specifically on kidney cancer.
"I thought it was something cool to get to know the older guys on the team," Shrive recalled, "so that's why I got involved."
Four years and $100,000 later, Shrive has become one of the organization's mainstays. On March 1 in Atlantic City, as part of the Maxwell Football Club National Awards Gala, Shrive received the Uplifting Athletes Rare Disease Champion Award for 2013. It was a history-making accomplishment, as Shrive became the first active member of Uplifting Athletes to be presented with the award. The following day, he was honored again at the Uplifting Athletes Gridiron Gala in Harrisburg.
On Friday night, he and his fellow Nittany Lions - save for the freshmen - will take to the Penn State Lacrosse Field for the 11th Annual Lift for Life, which is the main event for Penn State's chapter of Uplifting Athletes. And Shrive will be at the forefront.
Offensive linemen aren't typically quite so visible, and Shrive is not a media room fixture, having seen limited playing time since arriving at Penn State. But he's making an enormous impact through his charitable ventures.
"It's something special to look back on and say we were able to help this," Shrive said in February. "We have a lot of kidney cancer supporters and a lot of people who suffer from kidney cancer that we help. I think it would be great to change a disease."
Wide receiver Brett Brackett was president of the chapter when Shrive joined Uplifting Athletes as a freshman, and Shrive credits him with initially sparking and maintaining his interest in the organization. But it was another former Penn State wide receiver who made the opportunity possible.
In the fall of 2002, during his redshirt junior season, Scott Shirley walked into his apartment, shoulders sunk, with an obvious look of sadness on his face. From the couch, roommate Damone Jones, an offensive tackle, asked what was wrong. Shirley had to tell him.
His father, Don, had just been diagnosed with kidney cancer, an especially deadly disease that was resistant to chemotherapy, radiation, hormone therapy and most other treatments that were available at the time. Because the cancer was so uncommon - there were fewer than 45,000 Americans with kidney cancer in 2002 - only one treatment regimen existed. And that regimen offered patients only a 10 percent chance of living five years. Don Shirley was not expected to live even that long; doctors were telling him he had six months.
"We got in to see the top cancer doctor in [Johns] Hopkins," Scott Shirley told BWI in February. "He didn't even close the door of the waiting room. He just stuck his head in and said, 'The reality is that there's nothing we can do. Go home and enjoy the time that you have with him.' "
The emotion poured out as Shirley told Jones the news. And it was compounded by the realization that there was no way to combat the disease. Limited kidney cancer diagnoses meant there were limited treatments. And limited treatments meant limited hope. That is what bothered Shirley the most.
Jones listened as his roommate talked, but he offered much more than just a sympathetic ear. "Why don't we do something?" Jones said. "We're Penn State football players. For better or worse, people pay attention to what we do and what we say. If I do something stupid, it's on the front page of the paper, so let's take advantage of that and give the attention to people who need it more than we do."
So they got to work, gathering for brainstorming sessions that sometimes took place in the team's locker room. To stimulate some creativity, they asked themselves a question: What do football players do best? Other than play football, of course, they lift weights. So they began to organize the weightlifting competition that would later become known as Lift for Life. The objective was to persuade teammates to garner as many sponsors as possible leading up to the event, then get those teammates to lift as many weights as possible. They hoped to attract media attention, draw some fans, then donate all the proceeds to charity, in this case the Kidney Cancer Association.
"We quickly realized that the benefits were going to be bigger than what we anticipated," Shirley recalled. "We had guys come up to our locker asking how they can help. They wanted to get involved, so it gave us the ability to actively engage our teammates. It had the benefits of team building, leadership development and community service. As we sat at a table and planned that first lift, we started to feel that we were running our own business."
Ten years later, Shirley is executive director and chairman on the board of Uplifting Athletes. He began working full-time for the nonprofit in 2007 after serving as a project engineer with the Washington, D.C.-based Clark Construction Group. (He received his master's degree in engineering from Penn State in 2004.)
Uplifting Athletes has grown to include 14 participating football programs and counting, including chapters at Ohio State, Illinois, Northwestern and Nebraska. Each school raises money for a different rare disease, and Shirley said he hopes to increase the total number of participating schools to 20 by this summer.
The biggest beneficiaries of the work done by Uplifting Athletes are, of course, the patients. But the student-athletes who get involved gain from it, too.
Chapters are organized like a corporation, complete with a president (Shrive, in Penn State's case), a vice president (Adam Gress), a head of operations (Ty Howle), a secretary (DaQuan Davis) and fundraising chairman (Adam Breneman). When Shirley launched the organization, he said the business experience it provided - tracking down donations, fundraising, encouraging teammates to join the cause - would help the athletes transition into the working world. "It really kind of filled a void that we had with our year-round commitment to football and not being able to get the off-campus summer internships," he explained.
Shrive, who is majoring in hotel/restaurant institutional management, said it provides some of the best real-world business experience he can get while fulfilling the role of a scholarship football player. And since he's often interacting with business owners, it also affords him opportunities to expand his career network for after football. Shrive and Shirley communicate on at least a weekly basis, and he's in daily contact with Shirley's assistant. Face-to-face meetings, text messages, phone calls, emails. Shrive said they're constantly bouncing ideas off each other, looking for new ways to raise money and create awareness. It's similar, he said, to what he expects he will encounter during his next career.
"That's one of the reasons that I'm involved as much as I am," Shrive said. "Because I see not only how good it is for the resume, but also the business experience that I can take from it."
He's seen it work in other ways, too. After he joined Uplifting Athletes as an ambitious freshman, Shrive saw kidney cancer hit his own family. An uncle - Shrive asked that he not be named - was diagnosed with the disease. He said his uncle is recovering, thanks in part to treatment options that have been developed in the past decade.
Since Shirley, a former walk-on from East Pennsboro High in Enola, Pa., founded Uplifting Athletes in 2003, the Penn State chapter has raised more than $700,000, with those funds going to the Kidney Cancer Association for research. That total will only increase after Friday's event. Shirley said that since that first Lift for Life, six additional kidney cancer treatments have been developed. It's still not curable - Don Shirley lost his battle with the disease in October 2005 - but people are living longer. And while the association has other sources of support, Penn State's chapter has played a large role in funding the research that led to the discovery of the new treatments, Scott Shirley said.
"The Kidney Cancer Association credits us with being a catalyst to that progress," he said.
More than ten percent of that 10-year $700,000 sum was raised during the past four years. By one person.
In February Shrive was honored as the top student-athlete fundraiser in Uplifting Athletes history, having elicited $70,000 in pledges. In 2012 alone, he raised $32,868 as part of the team-record total of $110,374. And he should at least match that total this year.
"He's raised more [in his career] than what the entire team did during the first two years that I was involved," Shirley laughed. During the first Lift for Life, held in July 2003, the players raised $13,000. In the second year, they raised $38,000.
Shrive said he relies on the help of an expanding network of family members, friends and businesspeople, many of whom are located in Scranton. He also gets some of the Scranton media on his side, so he likes to consider it a collective effort with help from his hometown and, of course, the Nittany Lion fan base. However he chooses to do it, it works.
"I love setting a ridiculous goal and just going after it," he said. "Then getting people behind me. It says something special about Penn State, because the fans are willing to get behind us."
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