Beyond The Trophy: Devin O’Connor, North Carolina State

Devin O’Connor

College: North Carolina State University

Height, weight, class, position: 6-3, 236, sophomore, tight end

High School: Cartersville HS in Cartersville, Georgia

About Devin O’Connor: The former Defensive Player of the Year in high school took a real risk going to NC State. With little or no interest from college football programs at any level, O’Connor still went to Raleigh to chase his dream of becoming a Division 1 college football player. And he achieved his dream while also making a position change from defense to offense. After trying out in 2012 and redshirting, O’Connor started to make an impact on the scout team in 2013 and was rewarded with action in nine games on special teams. Later in the year he saw snaps in two games at tight end. The prior to camp this fall, the incoming President of the NC State Chapter, was rewarded with a full scholarship. Recently, O’Connor was recognized as a member of the ACC Academic Honor Roll for 2013.

As a player, what is your favorite part of the game day experience at your home stadium?

O’CONNOR: I would say my favorite part about the NC State game day experience is the walk of champions once we arrive at the stadium. Sometimes as a player, I get too caught up in the stress of executing my job on the field that I forget that I am playing a game that I have loved since I was a young child. Witnessing the love and support of the fans reminds me of the reasons I love football. My stress and nerves disappear at this moment and I am ready to play.

What drove you to get involved with Uplifting Athletes, and what, if anything, has this experience done for you?

O’CONNOR: I believe that I was given the opportunity to play at NC State for a reason. As a Division 1 football player, you have a platform of influence. Unfortunately, there is a lot negative influence that is seen on the news from football players lately. I want to use my platform for good. Uplifting Athletes is a wonderful opportunity for positive influence. Raising awareness for rare diseases may save someone’s life one day. That is more rewarding than anything that I will accomplish on the field.

What is your most memorable experience as a college football player?

O’CONNOR: My most memorable moment as a college football player is when [NC State head coach Dave Doeren] rewarded me a scholarship this past summer. I tried out for the team two years ago my freshman year. Many people didn’t think that I would be able to accomplish my dream of playing D1 football. I even questioned myself during many stages of my journey. Receiving the scholarship was proof to me that God rewards those who remain faithful and work hard. I will never forget that moment.

What is the toughest team you’ve faced or regularly play, and what makes them so difficult?

O’CONNOR: Florida State is the most difficult team that I’ve played. They are very fast.Their speed is on another level compared to other teams that we play. Florida State has very talented athletes in every position on the field. You have to bring you’re “A” game for them every time.

 What is your chosen major, and what if anything have you used from that major as a contribution to your Uplifting Athletes Chapter?

O’CONNOR: I am in the Textile school studying Brand management and marketing. I am fairly new to Uplifting Athletes but hopefully I can bring some effective marketing strategies for the NC State Chapter.

Besides one of your teammates, name a college football player you enjoy watching?

O’CONNOR: Even though he is in some trouble right now, I love watching [Georgia running back]Todd Gurley play. He is a very explosive and fun player to watch.

 What is your favorite road stadium to play in and why?

O’CONNOR: My favorite road stadium to play in is Death Valley at Clemson. It is a very hostile environment and it forces your team to be tight and together if you want to be successful. It is also two hours from my home in Georgia so much of my family is able to come watch me play.

In your words, what are some of the things you are looking for in life after football?

O’CONNOR: I am a very adventurous guy. I love the outdoors and do much backpacking and camping when I have time. Honestly, after college I plan on travelling around the US and Canada seeing natural wonders like Yosemite Valley, Zion National Park, Glacier National Park, and maybe complete the Appalachian Trail. I want to go wherever the wind takes me living only off the things I can carry on my back or in my car. I am really excited for all aspects of what the future holds. I am completely open to whatever God wants for me. I have already witnessed a taste of what it is like to trust in this because of where I am today playing for NC State with so many great opportunities in front of me. I know that there will be many hard times, but I believe it’s all in the outlook. I try to take on everyday like its my last, so if I wake up the next morning I am simply grateful for the fact that I am given another opportunity to live. With this outlook, nothing can keep you down for long.

Colgate hosts 7-year-old cancer survivor Colin Hayward at Ependymoma Awareness Game


On Saturday, October 4, the Colgate Chapter of Uplifting Athletes hosted their second annual Ependymoma Awareness Game. 7-year-old ependymoma survivor Colin Hayward was once again Colgate’s special guest.

This time Colin and his family led the team onto the turf at Andy Kerr Stadium.

“We’ve been fortunate to be involved with a lot of sporting events over the years,” said Colin’s father, Ian. “But running out onto the field with the team was one of the most exciting things we’ve ever been a part of.”

Ependymoma is a rare form of cancer of the brain and spinal cord. Diagnosed at age 2, Colin has been completely paralyzed for much of his life. But after years of treatment, Colin was healthy enough to spend Saturday running around the sidelines and interacting with the Colgate football players.

Every time Colin saw Jimmy DeCicco, the former president of the Colgate Chapter, Colin greeted him with a big hug.

On the field at halftime, Ian was joined by his wife Tamiko and his sons Colin and Aiden.

“With the collaboration that Colgate has had with Uplifting Athletes, you help to give a kid like Colin a fighting chance,” said Ian to the crowd. “We are so very lucky to have the support of these fans and a great football team like Colgate.”

Colgate is currently hosting a season-long Touchdown Pledge Drive to raise research funds and awareness for ependymoma. To pledge a donation for every touchdown they score, please visit

Beyond The Trophy: Sal Conaboy, University of Maryland


Name: Sal Conaboy

College: University of Maryland

Height, weight, class, position: 6-3, 295 pounds, senior, center

High School: Abington Heights in Clark Summit, Pa.

About Sal Conaboy: After taking a redshirt, Conaboy has racked up 20 starts in three seasons for the Terrapins – including 13 last season as the No. 1 center for an offensive line that powered a Maryland offense that rang up more than 3,000 yards passing. The President of the Maryland Chapter, Conaboy was an All-Academic ACC selection as a junior and received the football program Public Service Award for his service to the community as a student-athlete. Prior to this season Conaboy, who is the starting center again for the 4-2 Terrapins, did an internship with the U.S. Marshall’s Service. A Pennsylvania first-team All-State selection in 2009, Conaboy was also a member of the Pennsylvania Big 33 squad his senior season.

As a player, what is your favorite part of the game day experience at your home stadium?

CONABOY: Running out of the locker room, rubbing Testudo’s nose and hearing the fans cheering. There is no greater feeling!

What drove you to get involved with Uplifting Athletes, and what, if anything, has this experience done for you?

CONABOY: When I first got to UMD Uplifting Athletes was just starting off with our team. It was great for me to see all the older guys work so hard for such a great cause. I knew I had to get involved and was passionate about seeing Uplifting Athletes grow in our program and getting the players involved. Being involved with Uplifting Athletes has taught me that the game of football means a lot more and can do a lot more than what some people might think. It is our responsibility to help people who are less fortunate and collegiate student athletes are in a great position to do just that.

What is your most memorable experience as a college football player?

CONABOY: My most memorable experience is when we played Virginia Tech last year and won in overtime..

What is your chosen major, and what if anything have you used from that major as a contribution to your Uplifting Athletes Chapter?

CONABOY: My undergrad is in Criminal Justice and I am currently pursuing a Masters in Supply Chain Management. I can’t think of anything specifically but the main thing that comes to mind is organization and communication.

Who is your favorite NFL player and why?

CONABOY: My favorite NFL player to watch is Jason Kelce. I think he’s a talented center and I am able to learn a lot from watching him play.

What is your favorite road stadium to play in and why?

CONABOY: I enjoyed playing at Clemson. They always have a good crowd and the fans really get into it.

In your words, what are some of the things you are looking for in life after football?

CONABOY: After football I hope to get into law enforcement.

Mark Herzlich celebrates 5-year anniversary of cancer-free announcement

Mark Herzlich

This Sunday vs. the Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants linebacker Mark Herzlich will look to record the 100th tackle of his NFL career. Five years ago this month, he overcame the toughest hit of his life.

In 2009, the Boston College student-athlete was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer. Doctors put his odds of survival as low as ten percent and he was told that his football career was all but over. But after undergoing an intense treatment program, Herzlich appeared on ESPN’s College GameDay on October 3, 2009 to share the news that he was cancer-free:

After returning to the field with Boston College for his senior year, Herzlich earned a spot on the Giants’ roster as an undrafted free agent and is currently playing his fourth season in the NFL. Now the published author of “What It Takes: Fighting for My Life and My Love of the Game,” Herzlich also serves as the Honorary Chairman for Uplifting Athletes.

On behalf of the rare disease community that we serve, Uplifting Athletes would like to congratulate Mark on reaching this five-year milestone. Thank you for remaining an inspiration to us all!

Beyond The Trophy: Stephen Hodge, Fordham University


Name: Stephen Hodge

College: Fordham University

Height, weight, class, position: 6-2, 212, senior, linebacker

High School: Shawnee HS in Medford, N.J.

About Stephen Hodge: A tackling machine, Hodge has appeared in at least 11 games in each of first three seasons with the Rams. As a junior he led the nation among FCS schools in solo tackles with 94 and was named the Patriot League Defensive Player of the Year. A preseason All-American this year, the President of the Fordham Chapter is a legacy at Fordham as his older brother Chris played for the Rams from 2001-03. This would have been his third year as a starter for a Rams squad that won the Patriot League title in 2013 and earned an FCS postseason berth. A two-time member of the Patriot League academic honor roll, Hodge has missed all of this season with an injury.

As a player, what is your favorite part of the game day experience at your home stadium?

HODGE: Favorite experience that I enjoy most is ringing our victory bell after every home win. It is an awesome tradition.

What drove you to get involved with Uplifting Athletes, and what, if anything, has this experience done for you?

HODGE: My past teammates such as Andrew Milmore, Tom Fisher, and Vince Antinozzi informed me of their experience and how awesome the whole process was. I’ve been blessed with a lot and it feels good to give back.

What is your most memorable experience as a college football player?

HODGE: Definitely beating Temple last year on a last-second play. I had about 200 people their because the game was in Philadelphia. Plus I got to play at Lincoln Financial Field, home of my favorite NFL team, the Eagles. It was sort of like a perfect storm. Oh yeah, my sister also got engaged that day, too. She kind of stole the spotlight.

What is the toughest team you’ve faced or regularly play, and what makes them so difficult?

HODGE: Toughest team we have faced is probably Villanova. They have a great program. In our most recent series we are both undefeated at home.

What is your chosen major, and what if anything have you used from that major as a contribution to your Uplifting Athletes Chapter?

HODGE: My major is finance and I would like to think all those public speaking classes helped out in addressing my team. Probably not, though.

Besides one of your teammates, name a college football player you enjoy watching?

HODGE: I don’t really have one. It was Luke Kuechly at Boston College. He’s a real hustle player and I respect that.

Who is your favorite NFL player and why?

HODGE: Well I already said Kuechly before I have to go with Jon Dorenbos. The magic man. Best long snapper in history.

What is your favorite road stadium to play in and why?

HODGE: Army’s Michie Stadium. The place is awesome. Although, the last experience I had there wasn’t too great.

In your words, what are some of the things you are looking for in life after football?

HODGE: Not feeling like I got ran over by a truck every Sunday after Saturday’s game.


Blindsided by SCAD: Spontaneous Coronary Artery Dissection

SCAD Board Alliance Chairperson Katherine Leon meets the players from the Maryland Chapter at NIH as part of National Rare Disease Day.

SCAD Alliance Board Chairperson Katherine Leon meets the players from the Maryland Chapter at NIH as part of National Rare Disease Day.

Uplifting Athletes supports the larger rare disease community in addition to the rare diseases our 25 student-athletes led chapters champion. We welcome any rare disease organization to share their story with our audience. Spontaneous Coronary Artery Dissection (SCAD) is a rare, sometimes fatal traumatic condition that is similar to a heart attack. The coronary artery develops a tear causing blood to flow between the layers, which forces them apart. Nearly 80 percent of SCAD cases affect women. The SCAD Alliance raises awareness and focuses on collaboration in the quest to empower survivors and health partners in the fight against this rare disease.

By Katherine Leon

It’s rare. You either die, need a heart transplant or get lucky … like you.

These words, spoken by my well-meaning cardiologist, still ring in my ears 11 years later. I say well-meaning because his intent was a bit of tough love to jolt me back to the business of caring for my newborn and 20-month-old sons.

But he wasn’t the one who’d had what is referred to as a “widow maker heart attack” out of the blue caused by a torn artery.

He wasn’t the one who was 38, never smoked, had pristine arteries, and lifelong blood pressure of 94 over 60.

He wasn’t the one who was struggling to recover from emergency double bypass surgery and a detached rib – collateral damage of the surgery.

And he didn’t have to worry if his kids would someday have a heart attack from a rare event that is now called spontaneous coronary artery dissection (SCAD).

My doctor had no pamphlet for me because he said the cause of my heart attack had never been researched. It was too rare to research.

In fact, he said I’d never meet another person who’d had SCAD.

It was really hard to understand that in 2003, a heart attack killing someone at such a young age had never been researched.

That day I made up my mind. Before I checked out of this world, I would get research started and make sure that anyone else diagnosed with SCAD would know exactly what happened, why, what to do about it, and – hopefully – how to prevent it from happening at all.

I would find the patients and bring them to the researchers. It seemed logical. If the reason SCAD hadn’t been researched before was access to survivors, how could researchers say no if the patients came to them?

My good fortune was to be alive in the age of the internet and searching online became my obsession.

When the boys were asleep at night, I would search for any and all terms related to heart attack, torn artery, dissection … whatever I could think of to find fellow SCAD survivors.

It took several years to find the first few people, but once our conversations became searchable in Google, the numbers began to grow. By 2009, I had a document that summarized the experience of more than 70 SCAD survivors worldwide and several family members of those who had died.

With data and a research agenda, I pursued an opportunity to meet a researcher.

While attending a heart disease symposium at Mayo Clinic, I got up my nerve to ask a cardiologist to be the first to research SCAD. From her background and role at Mayo, she seemed like the one person in the world who might just hear me out. And she did. It didn’t bother her that my fellow patients were people I’d never met in person.

She threw herself into the task of researching SCAD using participants I’d recruited on social media. After an intensive Institutional Review Board process, Mayo approved first a pilot study. And in September of 2011, a global registry of SCAD patients and a DNA biobank was launched.

The registry has grown to include nearly 400 participants. The DNA biobank holds several hundred samples.

Other institutions worldwide, including the University of British Columbia, University of Leicester in the United Kingdom, and Massachusetts General in Boston, have now launched clinical studies of SCAD as well. But there is a problem.

As encouraging as this progress sounds, every day patients go undiagnosed as we wait for the research to find answers. It is still common for patients to be told the heart isn’t the problem.

We’re young. We’re athletes. We don’t have traditional risk factors for heart disease. Doctors and emergency departments must be on the watch for SCAD.

Our average is 42 but we know men and women as young as 20 who are struggling with the aftermath of SCAD, which includes everything from depression to even heart transplant in some cases.

We must educate doctors while the science develops. The more we educate the more lives we save by preventing heart attack and sudden cardiac arrest from SCAD. That’s the mission of SCAD Alliance. Help us stop the blindside.

Notre Dame Chapter President Joe Schmidt is living his dream

Joe Schmidt is the current President of the Uplifting Athletes Notre Dame Chapter. This story written by Notre Dame and ACC Reporter Matt Fortuna originally appeared on

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Joe Schmidt’s right-hand-man says the defense wouldn’t be the same without him. His father says he wouldn’t put a price on his son’s dream. His coach invoked the name of the NFL’s top defensive player when discussing him — at least in each’s recruitment.

“There’s a handful of those guys every year: When I recruited J.J. Watt at Central Michigan, why didn’t he have more offers?” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said. “So everywhere that I’ve been, I’ve recruited somebody along the way that has turned out to be a great player and he didn’t have a lot of offers.”

Hyperbole aside, Schmidt’s path from preferred walk-on to starting middle linebacker has been one of the more remarkable stories this season for No. 9 Notre Dame, which puts its 4-0 mark to the test Saturday against No. 14 Stanford. The California kid is one off the team lead in tackles (30) and has been instrumental in the development of the nation’s No. 4 scoring defense, a unit that replaced seven starters from 2013 while adjusting to new coordinator Brian VanGorder and his aggressive attack.

VanGorder deemed the redshirt junior before the season as “unusual” in his ability to communicate as the quarterback of a new defense. So far that has bared true, with Schmidt tracing the knowledge-base back to an adolescent career that saw him play everywhere from the trenches to under center to the secondary.

Schmidt’s father, also Joe, saw those instincts take over when his son was called up to the varsity as a sophomore at powerhouse Mater Dei in Santa Ana, which at the time featured future pros Matt Barkley and Khaled Holmes.

The insecurity of being the new guy begat extended time in the film room, the elder Schmidt said, the same way the insecurity of entering Notre Dame as a walk-on begat over-preparation. Mater Dei coaches at times had to re-enforce to Schmidt that his talent belonged among the big boys he was playing with, for fear of him becoming too cerebral and not trusting his instincts.

When Schmidt’s parents take him to dinner after games now, they hardly recognize the disciplined eater, who had regularly downed burgers, fries and soda as a teenager. When in the stands, Schmidt’s father at times cannot help but grow uneasy watching his son running around barking orders like a drill sergeant before each play.

” ‘Joe, worry about what you’re going to be doing. Make sure you’re ready when the ball’s snapped,’ ” the elder Schmidt joked. “But he seems to figure out a way to read the defense, make the calls and be ready.”

Despite a 98-tackle senior year that ended in the state semifinals, the now-235-pound Schmidt failed to draw heavy interest from college suitors. The Schmidts takes some responsibility for that, given Joe’s narrow-minded approach to his recruitment. The oldest of his three sisters, 31-year-old Catherine, had run track at Notre Dame, and the family would visit during football weekends. Schmidt, roughly 10 at the time, immediately fell in love with the place and never wavered. Backyard football consisted of him pretending he was playing for Notre Dame, often scoring game-winning touchdowns against home-state rival USC.

Under-sized and without much pro-activeness toward the small pool of interested recruiters, Schmidt found his offers limited to Ivy League schools, Cincinnati, Air Force and few others. There remained Notre Dame — which offered him a preferred walk-on spot — and its roughly $50,000-a-year pricetag, making for lengthy conversations between son and parents.

“We had a wall covered in posterboard weighing them all,” Schmidt said of the options.

The Ivy alternatives didn’t look so bad to his parents. (Joe is an investor at a private-equity firm. His wife, Debra, is a pro soccer coach.) Schmidt made it clear that he would accommodate their needs, but he also laid out the dream in front of him.

” ‘My dream is to play at Notre Dame,’ ” the elder Schmidt recalled his son saying. ” ‘Even if I have success at another school, I don’t want to think, ‘Could I have done it at Notre Dame?’ If I go there and it doesn’t work out, at least I gave it my all.’

“My wife and I were in tears. How do you say no to that? You both want what your kids really aspire to achieve, and we knew if he was that hungry he was going to work his tail off.”

Special teams contributions gave way to a scholarship in June 2013. Schmidt informed his parents of the news with a 5:30 a.m. PT wake-up call telling them they had just saved $100,000. A midseason injury to Jarrett Grace last year paved the way for more defensive snaps, with Schmidt living out his dream in his first extended action by making a game-saving hit on USC’s final drive to help clinch the win.

His father joked that he might have needed to give his son eternal psychological counseling had that game ended differently, but Schmidt’s been the one leaving his mark on others. He helped establish Notre Dame’s chapter of Uplifting Athletes, a non-profit that aligns college football teams with rare diseases. When his uncle, Gary, died from lung cancer two years ago at the age of 61, he and his family launched the Schmidt Legacy Foundation, which raises money for medical research, specifically lung cancer and dementia. Schmidt was Notre Dame’s nominee for the AFCA Good Works Team, as its most charitable player.

Schmidt’s unusual skills have carried him through an unusual route, accelerating the growth of a defense down four contributors amid the school’s internal academic probe. He’s been indispensable through the first-third of the season, an unlikely cog behind an Irish team whose playoff résumé will swell if it beats the Cardinal on Saturday.

“That’s my brother, I love him,” said linebacker Jaylon Smith, the Irish’s leading tackler (31). “Both of us in the middle, it’s just all about family and making sure we’re on the same page. … The communication level, the focal point, it wouldn’t be there without him.”