Our Past, Present & Future

The mission of Uplifting Athletes is to inspire the rare disease community with hope through the power of sport. Our vision is to empower people to take action against rare diseases and inspire the medical community to find cures. A rare disease is one that affects fewer than 200,000 Americans and typically lacks financial incentive to make and market new treatments.

All pediatric cancers have different molecular pathologies and treatment protocols and therefore are classified as rare. With a network of university chapters run by current college football student-athletes that spans all major conferences, Uplifting Athletes has had an economic impact of more than $400 million on the rare disease community.

Our effort started in 2003 when our founder, Scott Shirley was playing football for Penn State and learned that his father was diagnosed with kidney cancer. His family was told that kidney cancer doesn’t typically respond to chemo or radiation and the doctors only gave Mr. Shirley six months to live. Furthermore, it was classified as “rare” since the mortality rate was so high and therefore there was not a large enough patient community to attract research and development.

When a teammate learned of these challenges, he suggested that they do something since they were in a position to shine their spotlight on those who needed a voice. The Nittany Lion football team rallied around the idea of leveraging a summer strength and conditioning competition into a fund raising event called Lift For Life® by opening it up to their fans and the media. They soon realized that the benefits of this new organization were far greater than they had imagined.

The football student-athletes who were involved with leading this effort essentially created internship experiences for themselves by reaching out to industry professional mentors. The benefits of an on campus summer internships are well documented, but are often void from the college experience of student-athletes because of their year-round commitment to the sport. They also realized their teammates were actively engaged because this was something the team had ownership over, not a community service project that was planned by someone else. Finally, they learned that kidney cancer is one of more than 7,000 rare diseases (such as cystic fibrosis, Ewing's sarcoma or Fanconi anemia), affecting more than 30-million Americans. And in a short time they were making a big difference.