Each of the finalists for the 2018 Uplifting Athletes Rare Disease Champion Award will be featured here. In order to cast your online vote to help determine the 2018 Rare Disease Champion, you can visit our voting page. The winner will be announced Tuesday, January 9th.
University: Syracuse University
Vitals: 6-2, 215-pound senior quarterback
Quick Hits: A former walk-on who played a year of junior college football before enrolling at Syracuse in January 2016. Earned a full scholarship prior to the 2016 season and has been a solid back-up for three seasons. … Appeared in 25 games over three seasons with 10 starts. Threw for nearly 2,000 yards and 18 touchdowns. … President of the Syracuse Chapter of Uplifting Athletes and a member of the Syracuse Student-Athlete Advisory Council (SAAC). … In 2016, broke Jim Brown’s school record for touchdown responsibility with seven TDs at Pittsburgh, including tying Ryan Nassib’s school single-game record with five touchdown passes. … Earned his bachelor’s degree in communications and rhetorical studies and is pursuing a graduate degree in public relations.
INSIDE THE STORY
For nearly all of his life Mahoney has made serving others in the rare disease community a part of his DNA. A journey of selfless service and friendship that started in elementary school continues to be a high priority for Mahoney.
Rare disease patient Blake Donegan and the former Syracuse quarterback became friends in the second grade and enjoyed a normal school-age friendship over the next half-dozen years.
But, Mahoney had not seen Donegan during the summer before their freshman year of high school, and when he did Donegan was in a wheelchair.
The secret of Donegan’s diagnosis with the rare disease Niemann-Pick disease, Type C, a lipid storage affliction that can lead to respiratory failure and liver damage and has no known cure, was out.
Donegan suffers seizures on a daily basis, struggles to speak, eat or stand on his own. But he’s a fighter with an infectious never-give-up attitude that served as a great inspiration for Mahoney.
THE RARE JOURNEY
Shortly after Mahoney arrived on campus as a walk-on, he learned about the Syracuse Chapter of Uplifting Athletes. Because of his relationship with Donegan back home, he immediately knew this was another avenue to shine a spotlight on the rare disease community.
Mahoney quickly assumed a leadership role for the Syracuse Chapter in 2016 and in 2017 became the President and was responsible for organizing all the awareness and fundraising events for the chapter. But, of course, Mahoney went above and beyond and established another deeply personal connection.
He formed a bond with Lillian Belfield and her family. The Belfield family is from nearby Mexico, NY and in 2015 Lillian was diagnosed with Anaplastic astroblastoma, a rare form of brain cancer, as a 7-year-old.
Mahoney and his teammates have become part of “Lilly’s Army” and have made this relationship between the Belfield family and the Syracuse football program personal.
They’ve attended soccer games, birthday parties, invited them to Syracuse Chapter events, visited Lillian in the hospital, sent notes and cards with uplifting messages. Some of the players even shaved their heads in support of Syracuse’s St. Baldrick’s Foundation fundraising event.
As a leader of the Syracuse Chapter of Uplifting Athletes, Mahoney has helped raise more than $30,000. He keeps the rest of his teammates engaged and active in support of their mission and provides a strong advocacy voice for the rare disease community.
WHAT THEY SAID
“When we’re having a bad day it’s nothing compared to what some people have had to go through on a daily basis. Seeing that really puts things in perspective for me. Really, they are the ones that are inspiring me.” – Zack Mahoney
“What has completely struck me is how incredibly genuine is their feelings for Lillian and their concern for Lillian. That’s not something I expected.” – Laura Belfield
“For them to take time out of their busy schedules to get up early on a Saturday morning to come cheer on Lillian at a soccer game, or to come visit her in the hospital it’s really meant the world to our family. For a moment I put myself in their shoes when I was in college, I was more concerned about my social life than kids in the hospital. It’s impressive.” – Jeremy Belfield