The Rare Disease Champion Award
Click on a finalist to learn more and vote!
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, part of the National College Football Awards Association (NCFAA), is presented to the winner at the Maxwell Football Club Awards Gala at the Tropicana Resort in Atlantic City, NJ, and celebrated at Uplifting Athletes’ Young Investigator Draft in Philadelphia.
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.
Defending Champion: 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.
- Shaquem Griffin UCF
A Florida native, Griffin was born with the rare disorder amniotic band syndrome. As a youngster, Griffin tried to “play through” the pain. But, the pain became unbearable and the decision was made to remove his left hand when he was 4 years old. In every phase of life the former UCF star and NFL draft pick refused to let his rare disease slow him down or hold him back.
- Mitchell Meyers Iowa State
Meyers endured a long and difficult 18-month journey with the rare disease Hodgkin’s lymphoma after the Iowa State defensive end was diagnosed prior to his senior year. Following an up-and-down treatment protocol of more than a year, Meyers returned to school for his senior season in 2017. With an almost completely new coaching staff in place Meyers earned a starting spot at defensive end, played in every game and was chosen as a team captain.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.