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About The Award

An awareness campaign powered by Uplifting Athletes, the Rare Disease Champion is determined by college football fans and the rare disease community through online voting. The award is presented to the winner at the Maxwell Football Club Awards Gala in Atlantic City, NJ, and celebrated at Uplifting Athletes’ Gridiron Gala in Harrisburg, PA.

Sculpted by world renowned artist Brian Hanlon, the Rare Disease Champion trophy is in the likeness of Mark Herzlich, the former Boston College and current New York Giants linebacker who provided the inspiration for the award after overcoming a life-threatening battle with the rare disease Ewing’s sarcoma in 2009.

Uplifting Athletes

2018 Winner: Shaquem Griffin

Griffin was born with amniotic band syndrome, a rare disorder that led to the removal of his left hand when he was 4-years old. But the Knights linebacker never let his rare disorder stand in the way of pursuing his dreams on and off the football field.

The combination of speed, power and athleticism completely overshadowed the absence of a left hand. In 2016, his first season as a full-time starter, Griffin soared well beyond expectations and earned the American Athletic Conference (AAC) Defensive Player of the Year honor. He backed it up with a stellar 2017 as part of the Knights’ run to a conference championship and undefeated season that included a bowl victory over Auburn.

Griffin had a meteoric rise as an NFL draft prospect following a spectacular performance at the NFL Combine. He was drafted in the fifth round by the Seattle Seahawks and was reunited with his twin brother Shaquill. 

Past Champions

  • 2016

    Jake Olson
    USC

    Born with retinoblastoma, a cancer of the eyes, the life-long Trojans fan watched as much USC football as possible before losing his sight in 2009. This never slowed Olson down, as he learned to be a long snapper in high school and in 2015 he earned a spot on the roster of his beloved USC Trojans.

    Read his uplifting story here!

  • 2015

    Sammie Coates
    Auburn

    After establishing himself as one of the top deep threat receivers in the country, Coates won the 2015 Rare Disease Champion Award after forming a close friendship with Kenzie Ray, a young leukemia patient and Auburn fan, and giving her support and hope throughout her chemotherapy treatment.

    Read his uplifting story here!

  • 2014

    C.J. Zimmerer
    Nebraska

    The 2014 champion played a pivotal role in the planning and execution of the 69-yard TD run by Jack Hoffman during the Huskers’ 2013 spring game. He was also President of the Nebraska Chapter and was selected as a member of the AFCA Allstate Good Works Team.

    Read his uplifting story here!

  • 2013

    Eric Shrive
    Penn State

    The 2013 Rare Disease Champion was an offensive lineman for the Nittany Lions. During Shrive's 5-year career at Penn State he was always involved with the Uplifting Athletes Chapter and raised more than $100,000 for kidney cancer research.

    Read his uplifting story here!

  • 2012

    Rex Burkhead
    Nebraska

    A veteran for the Cincinnati Bengals and a strong supporter of the Team Jack Foundation, Burkhead’s relationship with a 6-year-old Jack Hoffman, who suffers from a pediatric brain tumor, inspired his Husker teammates to fight back by raising awareness and providing support for him and his family.

    Read his uplifting story here!

  • 2011

    Jordan Culbreath
    Princeton

    Culbreath’s personal battle with aplastic anemia served as an inspiration for his teammates and an inspiration to the rare disease community. The running back lost missed his junior season when he was diagnosed, but battled back to play his final season for the Tigers.

    Read his uplifting story here!

  • 2010

    Ian Mitchell
    Dickinson College

    Dickinson College’s Ian Mitchell was named the 2010 Rare Disease Champion. Mitchell raised more than $95,000 in his collegiate career in honor of a childhood friend who passed away from a rare form of bone cancer.

    Read his uplifting story here!

  • 2009

    Grant Teaff
    AFCA

    The 2009 recipient was Grant Teaff of the American Football Coaches Association (AFCA), selected for its nation-wide effort to raise awareness about Duchenne Muscular Distrophy through their one-day event “Coach to Cure MD”, which raised more than $230,000 in 2008.