USC football players raise money to help fight rare disease

jkendall@thestate.comJuly 11, 2013 

A month ago, Devin Potter’s family never had heard of Uplifting Athletes, and most of South Carolina’s football players had never heard of PMD, the central nervous system disorder that affects Potter’s 18-year-old cousin Aaron Church.

Thursday night, Potter, a freshman running back from Granite Falls, N.C., and his Gamecocks teammates staged the SEC’s first fundraiser for Uplifting Athletes and PMD. Uplifting Athletes is a 10-year-old charitable organization founded by former Penn State football player Scott Shirley.

Shirley’s father, Don, was diagnosed with kidney cancer while his son played for the Nittany Lions. Doctors told Don’s family he would live no more than six months because kidney cancer was considered a rare disease (afflicting fewer than 200,000 Americans) and therefore “lacks the financial incentive to bring to market new treatments,” Scott Shirley said.

Encouraged by a teammate, Shirley soon was organizing the first Lift for Life to fund research into kidney cancer. Since that time, Penn State’s football team has raised $1 million, and Uplifting Athletes has grown to include 21 chapters on football teams across the country. Each chapter selects its own rare disease, and the Gamecocks chose Pelizaeus-Merzbacher disease in honor of Church’s family. Donations will go toward research for PMD.

“I called my aunt, and she was tickled that there was something like this out there,” Potter said. “We have all been tickled. You don’t hear of many things for rare diseases.”

South Carolina’s Uplifting Athletes chapter was organized by fullbacks Connor McLaurin and Jordan Diaz and quarterback Dylan Thompson. The organization did not announce how much money has been raised by the Gamecocks thus far. Fans can donate to South Carolina’s PMD fund at UpliftingAthletes.com.

“In the first year, the goal is really just to have fun and tell the story,” Shirley said. “Once you get the first one under your belt, it’s a lot easier.”

The Gamecocks fit the workout into their regular summer schedule, and the vast majority of the team showed up at the indoor practice facility to participate. South Carolina’s players went through their regular weekly fitness competition, flipping tractor tires, competing in tug of war and racing while pushing weighted sleds among other things as part of a summer-long points competition.

“This was completely voluntary so to have the whole team here was big,” McLaurin said.

Don Shirley died three years after his initial diagnosis.

“At the time, there was only one treatment that gave him a 10 percent chance of five years survival. Since we started our effort, there have been eight new treatments brought to market for his specific disease, and the Kidney Cancer Association credits Uplifting Athletes for being the catalyst for that process,” Shirley said. “We are really just trying to shine a light on rare diseases in general.”

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