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February 22, 2014

Nittany Lions help make wishes come true

Donovan Smith makes for a pretty inviting target, and during last year's IFC/Panhellenic Dance Marathon, the brawny Penn State offensive tackle was on the receiving end of a point-blank squirt gun blast.

"It just came out of nowhere," Smith said. "I got a face full of water. I didn't know where it came from."

On Saturday afternoon, during a tour of the Lasch Building in which Make-A-Wish families were given a chance to explore the locker room, weight room and other football facilities, Smith got another look at his assailant.

"My man Mason, he's growing up and getting bigger," Smith said. "It's good to see the kids growing up strong."

About 30 families participated in the THON Make-A-Wish event, part of the annual THON festivities, which raise money for the Four Diamonds Fund and its efforts to fight pediatric cancer. Some of the kids, like Mason, had been there in previous years and were getting another chance to spend time with their favorite players. Others were seeing the Lasch Building for the first time.

"It's awesome. You build relationships with these kids who come back year after year, so you get to see them grow up," said senior guard Miles Dieffenbach, one of the tour guides on Saturday afternoon. "These families and kids have been through a lot, and for us to be able to affect them, it's awesome. You build a relationship with these kids, and it's something I look forward to every year."

Kids and their parents fanned out throughout the locker room. Some kids tried on helmets, while others played catch or collected autographs. A line quickly formed in front of quarterback Christian Hackenberg, who was anything but incognito despite wearing a Detroit Tigers ball cap.

While players entertained their guests, equipment manager Spider Caldwell stood at a table bearing all manner of football gear, including a old-fashioned leather helmet. As the kids stopped by, Caldwell explained what the equipment was used for. One young visitor tried on the leather helmet, then, encouraged by the crowd, extended his arm and struck a Heisman Trophy pose.

After escorting the Make-A-Wish families through the Lasch Building, the Nittany Lion players headed to the Bryce Jordan Center for Athlete Hour, a show of support for the families and for the dancers.

There are four Penn State varsity athletes representing the Student Athletic Advisory Board in THON this year: Maggie Harding (women's volleyball), Natalie Buttinger (field hockey), Erin Kehoe (women's soccer) and Christian Kaschak (men's soccer). By the time it ends on Sunday night, they will have been on their feet for 46 consecutive hours. There's no sitting during THON, and no sleeping either.

In order to participate in THON, dancers must raise at least $2,000. The event, which raised $12.3 million last year for the Four Diamonds Fund, is the culmination of a year-round effort by Penn State students.

"THON is a 24/7 thing. I remember before I even came here, I'd see THON on TV and it was a big thing back home on the news stations," said linebacker Nyeem Wartman, a Philadelphia native. "It really shows you the character of Penn State. It's so nice that the whole campus comes together all year for this 48-hour span, to give back. It's really special."


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