Meet 2020 Uplifting Athletes Young Investigator Draft presented by CSL Behring research grant recipient Dr. Abhishek Mangaokar


The Young Investigator Draft is the result of Uplifting Athletes’ ongoing commitment to cultivate resources that accelerate scientific advancements for rare disease treatments and potential cures while facilitating the next generation of rare disease researchers.

To learn more about the 2020 Young Investigator Draft presented by CSL Behring and to purchase tickets click here.

Researcher: Dr. Abhishek Mangaonkar


Young Investigator Institution: Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota

Education: Dr. Mangaonkar graduated from Grant Medical College in Mumbai, India with a Bachelor of Medicine and a Bachelor of Surgery; was a resident physician in internal medicine from 2013-2016 and since July of 2016, has worked as a Blood and Marrow Transplant Fellow (PGY-7) at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.

Research: Dr. Mangaonkar research interest is to study clinical and biologic aspects of inherited bone marrow failure syndromes, including telomere disorders, and mechanisms of clonal evolution/progression into myeloid neoplasms. Early in his fellowship, after encountering a challenging patient scenario, he developed an interest in studying clinical characteristics, natural history and the biology of myeloid neoplasms. This research led to several first-authored publications and a competitive external foundation (American Society of Clinical Oncology) Young Investigator Award and Grant. For the last two years, Dr. Mangaonkar has been involved with the bone marrow failure precision genomics clinic, which is a unique collaboration between clinicians, geneticists, molecular biologists and bioinformaticians.

In Their Words: “I was always interested in research from when I was in Medical School and also in my residency training when I first started working in the lab. That led me to see myself as a more hybrid physician-scientist. I knew it would be difficult, but I am on the path now and that’s what I’m actively working toward. As I finish up my clinical training, I plan to apply for a full research position. I want to obtain some mentor training for a few years and hopefully open my own lab in 3-4 years from now where I can focus on being a physician-scientist with a focus on rare blood disorders.”

A native of Mumbai (formerly Bombay), India, Dr. Mangaonkar spent the first six years of his medical training in his native country at Grant Medical College.

By the time he was done with his initial medical training, Dr. Mangaonkar knew what he wanted. And it was not going to be an easy path, either.

Dr. Mangaonkar wanted to be a physician-scientist. Growing up he always wanted to be a physician. That was the easy part. What he discovered during his initial medical schooling was the scientist side of the industry was very appealing.

And in order to get the best training and education available in the world, he knew staying in India was not the best option.

“There are two main reasons, but the most important was I wanted to train as a physician-scientist and the United States is the best place for that training,” said Dr. Mangaonkar, an only child who considers himself a big fan of cricket. “The training in hematology and oncology was not as developed as much in India back in 2013 when I finished school. That’s why I decided to come here. Those are the two main reasons. Most importantly, I wanted to be a physician-scientist.”

Already a hematologist-oncologist, Dr. Mangaonkar is now training to become a bone marrow transplant specialist as well.

Watch this engaging video and sample Dr. Mangaonkar’s passion for research and his drive to use science as part of the equation for the disease puzzles he’s working to solve.

Despite his intense fire and passion as a researcher, being a physician and helping patients – what drove him to choose his career path – still has the most impact.

“I deal with a lot of patients with rare cancers and rare diseases. These are life defining illnesses,” said Dr. Mangaonkar, who met his fiancé, Jennifer Pierce, in Minnesota and is getting married later this year. “We are not able to change all the outcomes with treatments and we know that. You build long lasting bonds with patients, though, and we are with them in their most difficult times.

“It is important to me that you learn from every patient. Through trying to help them and learning, that helps you in the lab on the research side. They feed into each other and that’s why being a physician-scientist, despite it becoming more difficult to complete the training today, is so important to me.”

Dr. Mangaonkar was nominated for a 2020 Uplifting Athletes’ Young Investigator Draft grant on behalf of Team Telomere. The mission of Team Telomere is to provide information and support services to families worldwide affected by Dyskeratosis Congenita and Telomere Biology Disorders, to encourage the medical community’s research in finding causes and effective treatments, and to facilitate improved diagnosis by educating medical providers.

Young Investigator Research Grant produces exciting and award winning results for rare disease patients


2018 Young Investigator Draft grant recipient Aimee Layton (left).

Two years ago, when Uplifting Athletes handed out rare disease research grants at its first Young Investigator Draft presented by CSL Behring, Dr. Aimee Layton from Columbia University was one of the recipients in the first draft class.

In the nearly 18 months since the execution of that rare disease research grant, Dr. Layton used a portion of this early stage research funding to institute a fresh approach to an already existing program for extremely sick patients battling Cystic Fibrosis (CF) – a rare genetic disorder that affects multiple organ systems.

Dr. Layton came up with an idea to use an app on your phone to encourage patients to participate in an eight week exercise program. The main focus was a new take on a pre-lung transplant pulmonary program that increased the patient’s chances of a stronger recovery following the transplant.

“Of the patients who completed the study, one told her transplant doctor that the work ‘changed my life.’ He hugged me when he told me this,” Dr. Layton said. “So thank you to Uplifting Athletes, because this couldn’t have been done without the Young Investigator Draft Grant.

“These patients are very sick so they can’t go to a gym like most people but they could use the app at home. What gave me the idea to use an app was patients don’t want to be treated like they are sick. They just want to be treated like everyone else. In the medical field we sometimes forget to not always focus on the disease, but instead focus on the people.”

Once patients started signing up for the new pulmonary program, something unusual started happening. Not only were most patients completing the eight-week exercise program, some were even signing up to pay for the app on their own so they could continue.

“It’s huge that they want to exercise and help themselves. It’s hard to convince them to do this because they are afraid to exercise,” Dr. Layton said. “The instructors on the app are very motivating and it motivates the patients. Exercise has to be fun because, by nature, it’s painful. And this made it entertaining for them.”

All the patients were not finished with the program, and a few were still in the pipeline to get started, but Dr. Layton and her team turned the scientific data gathered from the study over to Andrew Irwin, one of the medical students in the Columbia lab. He was the first author for the research side of this new approach to a program that already existed.

Irwin, a second-year medical student who studied kinesiology as an undergraduate, spent three years as a personal trainer and obtained a masters degree in Global Health, assembled all the scientific research at his disposal for a presentation at the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) regional chapter in New York as part of the research competition.

Andrew Irwin (left) and Dr. Aimee Layton at the American College of Sports Medicine (ASCM) regional chapter research competition.

The data used for the competition was still preliminary as the program is still not complete. So Dr. Layton made sure expectations were tempered for how the study would fair in a competitive research environment.

Irwin presented his study at the regional conference and the judges were impressed enough with preliminary data to award the Columbia University study first place.

“I didn’t have too high of hopes at the regional level because all the patients had not finished the new program, so our report was only based on only preliminary results,” Dr. Layton said. “The judges went crazy for it, though. So we have a few more patients we need to get through the program in the next two months and then we can complete this study and go from there. This is all very exciting for everyone involved.”

Irwin will gather all the remaining data possible to present a completed study at the ACSM’s National Conference President’s Cup research competition in May.

Helping rare disease patients with CF increase their chances of a recovery after their lung transplant is always the goal.  Finding a new approach to an already existing program that is motivating these patients to complete, and in some cases continue on their own, is pivotal. Plus winning a competition based on the initial scientific data from the program shows the potential of a research team with the funding to try something different. 

If you would like to meet the 2020 Young Investigator Draft Class, Uplifting Athletes will host its 3rd Annual Young Investigator Draft presented by CSL Behring on Saturday, March 7th at Lincoln Financial Field, home of the Philadelphia Eagles. To attend the 2020 Young Investigator Draft, purchase your tickets here.

21 NFL Prospects join 2020 Reps For Rare Diseases campaign during NFL Combine


For the sixth consecutive year, Uplifting Athletes is empowering NFL prospects with the opportunity to use the NFL Combine as a platform to give back by raising funds and awareness in support of the Rare Disease Community.

Reps For Rare Diseases has been used as a way for athletes to give back at a pivotal point in their quest to play at the highest level as they put their skills on display for NFL teams.

Since its inception in 2015, more than 100 players have participated in this campaign through either the NFL Combine or NFL Pro Day workouts.

This year Uplifting Athletes currently has 21 players who chose to participate in Reps For Rare Diseases 2020 at the NFL Combine including: Grayland Arnold, JaMycal Hasty, Denzel Mims, Clay Johnston, James Lynch and Chris Miller from Baylor, Davion Taylor from Colorado, Jalen Elliott, Alohi Gilman, Tony Jones Jr., Cole Kmet, Chris Finke and Julian Okwara from Notre Dame, Juwan Johnson from Oregon, Rob Windsor from Penn State, Kevin Davidson from Princeton, Sterling Hofrichter and Kendall Coleman from Syracuse, Reggie Robinson and Trevis Gipson from Tulsa and Shaun Bradley from Temple.

“During Combine and Pro Day training, so much time and energy is focused by these young men on achieving their dreams of playing in the NFL,” former NFL player and Uplifting Athletes’ Chapter Success Manager Levi Norwood said. “It is amazing to see so many NFL hopefuls realize, especially during this tiring and grueling process, how impactful their platform can be. We are honored they chose to stand alongside Uplifting Athletes and the Rare Disease Community.” 

Fans and supporters can pledge towards the performance of any one of our NFL Combine participants this year and help Uplifting Athletes tackle rare diseases.

Visit the Uplifting Athletes Reps For Rare Diseases 2020 team landing page, choose your favorite player and make your pledge today.

Horizon Therapeutics plc and Uplifting Athletes announced a new partnership for the 2020 Reps for Rare Diseases campaign. Horizon will match donations up to $35,000 through its #RAREis program, which is dedicated to providing individuals living with rare disease and families access to resources that connect, inform and educate as they navigate their daily lives.

“Thank you to all the athletes participating in Reps For Rare Diseases and good luck as you continue your football journey,” Uplifting Athletes Director of Sports Impact and NFL veteran Brett Brackett said. “This group of athletes displays the empathy and character that helps them stand out amongst their peers. Any NFL team would be lucky to have one of these men representing their organization.”

The proceeds from the 2020 Reps For Rare Diseases campaign support the mission of Uplifting Athletes and its charitable programs: Rare Disease Awareness, Rare Disease Research, Uplifting Experiences and Uplifting Leaders.

Meet Uplifting Athletes 2019 Rare Disease Champion Team member Antwan Dixon from Kent State University


Starting this season, the focus of the Rare Disease Champion Award shifted to a team concept in order to provide a platform to recognize all the qualified leaders that have made a significant and lasting impact on the Rare Disease Community. The Rare Disease Champion Team ensures all the inspiring rare disease stories of qualified leaders in college football are shared and celebrated. Uplifting Athletes will honor the 2019 Rare Disease Champion Team at the Maxwell Football Club Awards Gala in Atlantic City and at the Uplifting Athletes Young Investigator Draft in Philadelphia March 6 and 7, respectively.

Antwan Dixon

University: Kent State University

Vitals: 5-8, 180-pound, redshirt junior, wide receiver

Quick Hits: The native of Florida was diagnosed with the rare blood disorder aplastic anemia in high school, but continued to play football until 2016 when his rare diagnosis took a turn for the worse. He was forced to leave school, received a life-saving bone marrow transplant from his father and spent nearly 36 months away from the game before he was cleared to return in 2018. Antwan has appeared in every game the last two seasons for Kent State and was inspired to use his voice and platform to help others.  So, he took a leadership role and started the Kent State Chapter of Uplifting Athletes. During his comeback season in 2018, Antwan was recognized as a Mayo Clinic Comeback Player of the Year and the Columbus Touchdown Club Male Athlete of the Year.

INSIDE THE STORY

Antwan is adamant about how his battles with the rare blood disorder, aplastic anemia, turned his life upside down.

He was diagnosed with the rare disease in high school, but it wasn’t until after his freshman year in college that his health took a serious downward spiral and became critical and life threatening.

Antwan loved playing football and was motivated to be the very best at his craft. He remained a very committed and focused athlete who has NFL dreams and aspirations.

During his 30 months away from Kent State, while battling for his life, Antwan realized he was lost in his day-to-day world and blinded by his ambitions around football.   This is when he discovered a whole other person he had no idea existed.

His relationship with his father was always solid. And it became an even stronger bond when his father donated his bone marrow for the life-saving transplant Antwan needed. But during his lowest points physically, he discovered a new-found bond with his mom and brother that would never have developed had he not taken a sudden and drastic turn for the worse.

“Getting sick was such a blessing for me. I saw life from a different standpoint. I’ve made so many life memories since I got sick,” Antwan said. “I built a better relationship with my little brother. We were always good, but we were not tight until I got sick. He saw life differently … I saw life from a different standpoint. Same with my Mom. I was always tight with my Dad, but my Mom was a rock for me. Now we are super tight, too. Out of all the struggles I went through came a new life.”

And a new perspective for Antwan. During his two years away from Kent State and playing football, getting healthy and back on the field was a very powerful motivator. It was the fuel that drove him. At the same time, though, Antwan also discovered being a football player had consumed his identity.

He still has the dream to play in the NFL and is driven to take his very best shot. But that’s just one facet of Antwan the person.

Inspired by his high school guidance counselor, Antwan wants to mentor kids in the future. He enjoys serving and helping others by giving back. Not only is he involved with Uplifting Athletes, but he also visits an elementary school in town to spend time with the kids to serve as an example and mentor. He volunteers with Habitat For Humanity and tries to take advantage of every community service opportunity presented to the football team.

“Football is not my Plan A. I’ve always had a dream of playing in the NFL. I’m not giving up that dream. But there are a lot of things I want to do to help people in this world,” Antwan said. “I’m coming back to school to get my masters degree in counseling. I want to help other people. That motivates me. Whether its kids, people with blood disorders or cancer … whatever. I want to help people who are struggling.”

THE RARE JOURNEY

In 2013, after his sophomore year of high school, Antwan knew something wasn’t right. He struggled physically during track season and his originally diagnosed sinus infection was not going away.

Further tests revealed the three-sport athlete who was a star on the football field had aplastic anemia – a rare autoimmune disease in which the body fails to produce blood cells in sufficient numbers. Blood cells are produced in the bone marrow by stem cells that reside there. Aplastic anaemia causes a deficiency of all blood cell types: red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets.

His initial treatment protocol was working and despite missing his junior season of football, he returned to play basketball and run track. And Antwan played all three sports his senior year.

He received a scholarship offer to Kent State University and, once he arrived on campus in Ohio, was an impact player right away as a true freshman.

Following his first collegiate season in 2015, Antwan had a big-time setback and fell very ill again so he left Ohio and returned home to Florida. His doctors put him on the same treatment protocol that was successful the first time. Only this time it didn’t work.

Antwan needed a life-saving bone marrow transplant to survive. He lost nearly 50 pounds, spent almost all of 2017 in and out of hospitals before his father, Anthony, was matched and Antwan received his transplant.

After nearly 30 months away from Kent State, Antwan returned to school, but the scholarship offer that his head coach guaranteed would be waiting for him was off the table. The university had made a change and when Antwan returned to Ohio in early 2018, the entire coaching staff was new.

He would be given an opportunity to prove himself, but there were no guarantees of a scholarship. That’s all Antwan needed to hear. After being cleared by four doctors to make a return to the field, Antwan not only earned his scholarship back, he became a starting wide receiver right away.

In his first game back after missing the entire 2016 and 2017 seasons, Antwan caught a touchdown pass for the Golden Flashes. And he has played in every single game since and played a major role in Kent State winning its first bowl game in school history to close out a memorable 2019 season.

Right now Antwan is healthy and strong. But he knows his battle with aplastic anemia is not a done deal. The rare disease could return at any time.

WHAT THEY SAID“Being a survivor means beating the odds. There’s not a big chunk of people that survive this blood disorder. There’s not a lot of people who make it out of my hometown. Just to be able to survive the odds and be different. That’s what being a survivor means to me. My mom put a Superman “S” in front of it because she says I’m her Superhero. Being a survivor has a very special meaning to me for sure.” – Antwan Dixon

Meet Uplifting Athletes 2019 Rare Disease Champion Team member Sam Heckel from Syracuse University


Starting this season, the focus of the Rare Disease Champion Award shifted to a team concept in order to provide a platform to recognize all the qualified leaders that have made a significant and lasting impact on the Rare Disease Community. The Rare Disease Champion Team ensures all the inspiring rare disease stories of qualified leaders in college football are shared and celebrated. Uplifting Athletes will honor the 2019 Rare Disease Champion Team at the Maxwell Football Club Awards Gala in Atlantic City and at the Uplifting Athletes Young Investigator Draft in Philadelphia March 6 and 7, respectively.

Sam Heckel

University: Syracuse University

Vitals: 6-4, 280-pound, redshirt junior, offensive line

Quick Hits: A native of Wisconsin, Sam lives with congenital thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura (TTP), a rare blood disorder that does not allow for the production of the ADAMTS13 enzyme, which breaks down large proteins. In order to help his body manage this rare disease, he must undergo 14-20 hours of plasmatherapy every two weeks, including during the football season. When he arrived on campus, Sam learned about the strong tradition of leadership within the Syracuse Chapter of Uplifting Athletes and, being a rare disease patient himself, the cause had purpose and special meaning to him. He attended the Leadership Development Conference in 2018 and 2019 and has been the Syracuse Chapter President the past two years. A full-time starter in 2017 on the Orange offensive line, Sam rotated as the sixth man in 2018 and played in every game. This season he earned the job as the starting center before injuries forced him to the sideline early in the year.

INSIDE THE STORY

From the time he nearly died while in elementary school because doctors struggled to diagnose his rare disease, Sam has faced long odds as an athlete.

His TPP diagnosis would require monthly treatments for the rest of his life.  At one point he wasn’t sure doctors would even allow him to play contact sports and Sam was always balancing his medical condition with being an elite athlete.

His dream to be a Division 1 college football player drove Sam on the field, in the classroom and at the hospital. With the help of a strong support team, led by his family, a scholarship to Syracuse allowed him to realize his dream.

The demands of being a student-athlete kept Sam inside that bubble of structure and routines he already was familiar with. Practices, workouts, meetings, classes and studying – the routine of it all was very comfortable to Sam.

“It’s almost a miracle that I got to be a college football player and am living my dream,” Sam said. “All throughout my life I’ve had to rely on other people … my parents, doctors, trainers. Whenever I wanted to do something, I had to rely on other people so much.”

It took a strong and dedicated support team around Sam just to make it to Syracuse, and once that circle of trust expanded in college, it was easy for him to find success.

He was a starter sooner than later for the Orange along the offensive line. Sam filled in at a couple spots up front in 2018 and became an experienced veteran. Coming out of camp prior to the 2019 season he was named the starting center. Once again Sam overcame the odds and was poised to take that next step as a football player.

In the first game of the season, Sam suffered his third concussion in 13 months. And the odds were simply too stacked against him with three head injuries in such a short period of time.

He worked through the recovery protocol as instructed, continued to stay involved with the team and held out hope of once again stepping on the field inside the dome at Syracuse to play the game he dearly loves.

The biggest challenge in his life, overcoming his rare blood disorder to play football, didn’t keep him off the field. Three concussions did, though.

Sam was medically disqualified from ever playing football again following the 2019 season. It was a sudden end he admits, but also said it took him about a minute to accept the diagnosis.

“Being a collegiate athlete, everyone knows it’s going to come to an end. I just didn’t know it was last season. The suddenness of it, that was the harder part for me,” Sam said. “It was a difficult transition for sure, having that taken away from you. I wasn’t used to being a non-athlete.”

Sam is still adjusting to life as a student instead of a student-athlete. He plans to remain involved with the team, helping out the younger players and doing what he can to make a positive contribution to the football team. It’s what he worked so hard to do on the field. Now he’s re-directing that same passion and energy in another direction.

Despite being medically disqualified, Sam will remain on scholarship at Syracuse. He will receive his undergraduate degree in the spring, stay involved with the team in 2020 and begin work on his Master’s degree.

“I still feel like I’m still trying to grasp who I am outside of being a football player,” Sam said. “I’m figuring out it’s all about re-directing your energy as a person. Now I can re-direct my energy in different directions. I have time, and I get to choose a little more what I had to put my energy toward.

“I’m more independent and rely on myself more, and I’m enjoying it. Football and Syracuse gave me everything I ever needed and wanted. I’m so grateful for that. That’s why I feel I have to stay involved and give back.”

THE RARE JOURNEY

Sam was born with thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura (TTP), a rare blood disorder that does not allow for the production of the ADAMTS13 enzyme, which breaks down large proteins.

Early in his life, obtaining an accurate diagnosis was difficult and once doctors were able to pinpoint his rare disease, coming up with a functional treatment protocol proved tricky as well.

For most of his life, Sam received 14-20 hours of plasmatherapy every three weeks. It was a day-long process that also came with a couple days of recovery to feel normal. Despite nearly dying when he was in elementary school, Sam’s treatment allows him to live a normal life.

He was a star offensive lineman during his high school days at Waukesha West in Wisconsin and that landed him a scholarship offer from Syracuse.

Playing major college football was always the pie-in-the-sky dream for Sam and getting recruited to upstate New York allowed him to fulfill that life-long goal.

As a kid growing up, despite his rare blood disorder, Sam wanted to be on a level playing field with his peers. He didn’t want to be known as the football player who also had a rare disease. So he was extremely hesitant about sharing his journey.

That changed when he arrived at Syracuse.

Once on campus, Sam learned about the strong tradition of leadership within the Syracuse Chapter of Uplifting Athletes and, being a rare disease patient himself, the cause had purpose and special meaning to him.

Still reluctant to talk about his rare diagnosis because he preferred to let his play on the field speak for itself, Sam soon discovered he had a story to share that needed to be shared. Inspired by his work as a leader of the Syracuse Chapter, Sam learned his voice is strong and his platform as a college football athlete is significant.

WHAT THEY SAID

“I feel like with the position I was in with Uplifting Athletes, I realized there are some kids out there right now that are in the same shoes I was in growing up. And if what I went through can help them … give them some hope in any way and let them know they can still have hope no matter what they are going through, they need to know that. You can’t let a health issue determine what you are going to do with the rest of your life. I know the Rare Disease Community doesn’t have a lot of athletes out there, and I’m one of them. So I had to do what I could to help.” – Sam Heckel

Meet Uplifting Athletes 2019 Rare Disease Champion Team member Josh Paschal from University of Kentucky


Starting this season, the focus of the Rare Disease Champion Award shifted to a team concept in order to provide a platform to recognize all the qualified leaders that have made a significant and lasting impact on the Rare Disease Community. The Rare Disease Champion Team ensures all the inspiring rare disease stories of qualified leaders in college football are shared and celebrated. Uplifting Athletes will honor the 2019 Rare Disease Champion Team at the Maxwell Football Club Awards Gala in Atlantic City and at the Uplifting Athletes Young Investigator Draft in Philadelphia March 6 and 7, respectively.

Josh Paschal

University: University of Kentucky

Vitals: 6-3, 285-pound, redshirt junior, defensive end

Quick Hits: Diagnosed with a rare malignant melanoma on the bottom of his right foot in July of 2018, the Wildcats’ defensive standout faced a new battle. Josh endured four surgeries and a year-long treatment protocol of monthly immunotherapy treatments. He missed most of the 2018 season, but he found the strength to return for the final three games. The guy teammates call the “heartbeat of the team” and who was elected team captain by his peers completed his treatments in August of 2019 and was a full-time starter last season.

INSIDE THE STORY

Before he knew anything about what was going on in his foot, before he learned of his diagnosis with a rare malignant melanoma, the University of Kentucky defensive standout was already exploring a new part of his life.

Josh was becoming fully in touch with his spiritual side absent of a life crisis. He found strength and purpose in being a believer.

Shortly before finding out the nagging stinging he noticed in his foot was a serious problem, Josh made a commitment to turn his life over to Christ.

Now on the other side of his diagnosis, back to playing the game he loves for the Kentucky Wildcats and chasing his NFL dream, Josh knows the timing of his faith commitment was no coincidence.

“It was only a couple months before my diagnosis that I made the decision to turn my life over to Christ,” Josh said. “I just remember hearing a testimony about how the hardest thing we can do as believers is giving up ourselves wholly to Christ. After that was the first time I put my full trust in him.

“Then I was told I had cancer. I believed I would get through it, though. I knew it was something that to give me an opportunity to share his Kingdom.”

Josh credits his faith with giving him the strength to keep everything that was going on with his diagnosis in perspective. He battled through several surgeries and setbacks trusting the plan was not his own, but rather God’s plan for him.

And it changed him on several fronts. He became keenly aware of how much emphasis he was putting on being a football player. His perspective on the game and how he saw life altered.

Fortunately when he returned to the field, he was the same player as before his diagnosis. He just saw and approached almost everything he did with a slightly different lens.

“Before all this, I wasn’t the type of guy to share much. Once I had football taken away from me, my love for the game changed. I almost had it taken away from me, and that’s something I never experienced,” Josh said. “When it came back it was the same in many ways, but also very different. I appreciate getting up early to work out, doing extra drills and sprints. I look at film and realize how far I’ve come along on the journey. We look at big picture a lot as players, but I now enjoy the journey of each day.”

THE RARE JOURNEY

Late in 2017 and into the early part of 2018, Josh noticed a small spot on the bottom of his foot. He told the University of Kentucky trainers about it and they told Josh they would keep an eye on it over the next couple of months.

The pain wasn’t obvious. Occasionally, when he would run and hit the right spot with his foot, he would notice a little sting. In the life of an elite football athlete, a small spot on the bottom of your foot is not real cause for concern.

During the summer of 2018 – prior to Josh’s redshirt sophomore season – he was sent to see a podiatrist about the spot on his foot that wasn’t going away. The podiatrist sent him to a dermatologist who removed the spot surgically and told Josh he would have it tested.

The only thought going through Josh’s mind at the time was how fast can he get out of the walking boot he was in and to return to summer workouts full-time.

When he returned to see the dermatologist for his follow-up and hopefully to remove the walking boot, the news was not good.

He was diagnosed with a malignant melanoma in his foot and it was deep enough that the doctors were concerned about it traveling to other parts of his body.

“When I first found out I was shocked,” Josh said. “I was all excited for the follow-up appointment to get out of my walking boot and go back to work.”

Football was immediately put on hold that August day. He quickly met his oncologist and started monthly immunotherapy treatments that would take a full year to complete.

And he had follow-up surgeries in order to make sure the melanoma had not spread. Josh had procedures on his groin, shin and another one on his foot to be safe.

“The most consistent thought (in my head) I had was not to trust my plan and trust God’s plan,” Josh said. My family, parents, sister and brother, they all rallied around me and kept me strong. What went through my head the most was not to be so worried about my plan but to follow God’s plan.”

As a testament to his determination, Josh made a comeback before the end of the 2018 season – only three months after his diagnosis. He played in Kentucky’s final three games and was named Southeastern Conference (SEC) Co-Defensive Player of the Week following the game against Middle Tennessee.

He continued his monthly treatments throughout the offseason and just prior to the 2019 season he completed his treatment protocol.

Josh started 13 games for the Wildcats this past season, notching 34 tackles, 9.5 tackles for a loss, 8.5 sacks, 3 pass break-ups and forced four fumbles.

“Coming back (in 2019) and going through the season, I noticed there was a time before this where I would say I was grateful for everything. But now I know what that really means,” Josh said. “I was so humbled by the small things. I believe going through this is a big part of my journey. It’s helping me connect with other people I never would have talked to. I get to speak at different events and share my testimony. We are here to serve others and I believe that’s what I’m doing when I step on the field.”

WHAT THEY SAID

“When you go through something like that, there are a lot of thoughts racing through your head. You don’t think about who is going to be there for you. But you learn all those thoughts in your head and who’s going to be there for you go hand in hand. It surprised me, but at the same time it didn’t. Because when I look back at it, I see a lot of family. I never felt alone.” – Josh Paschal

Meet Uplifting Athletes 2019 Rare Disease Champion Team member George Hatalowich from Davidson College


Starting this season, the focus of the Rare Disease Champion Award shifted to a team concept in order to provide a platform to recognize all the qualified leaders that have made a significant and lasting impact on the Rare Disease Community. The Rare Disease Champion Team ensures all the inspiring rare disease stories of qualified leaders in college football are shared and celebrated. Uplifting Athletes will honor the 2019 Rare Disease Champion Team at the Maxwell Football Club Awards Gala in Atlantic City and at the Uplifting Athletes Young Investigator Draft in Philadelphia March 6 and 7, respectively.

George Hatalowich

University: Davidson College

Vitals: 5-11, 201-pound, senior, linebacker

Quick Hits: George’s passion for and commitment to the rare disease cause led him to start an Uplifting Athletes Chapter at Davidson College as a junior in 2018. He worked tirelessly to get the chapter started and engage his teammates in supporting the cause. Under George’s leadership, the Davidson Chapter held Lift For Life events and participated in Touchdown Pledge Drive in 2018 and 2019 and hosted the first Uplifting Experience at Davidson. These efforts led to the fourth highest fundraising total for a new chapter in Uplifting Athletes history and provided immeasurable inspiration for the Rare Disease Community.

INSIDE THE STORY

Personal relationships are a source of strength and have always inspired George.

George is one of those people with a personality whose passion and energy can light up a room. And nothing moves the native of Pennsylvania more than serving and helping others.

The credit for his commitment to others goes to his parents according to George. Even the best teachers know, though, having a prize pupil makes it a lot easier.

From as long back as he can remember, being a part of something bigger than yourself and making a commitment to help others was a cornerstone of growing up in the Hatalowich household.

His first taste of service in high school – the Special Olympics Buddy Program – was an eye opening experience for George. Naturally, he was pumped to have the opportunity to mentor and help somebody else. What he soon discovered, though, was that the relationship he struck up with his buddy was just as meaningful to him.

“It was something, looking back now, I never really expected. I had fully embraced the idea of service and being a part of something bigger and more important than myself,” George said. “What I discovered was the person or organization I was supposed to be serving ended up serving me. It was a two-way street and those relationships had a profound impact on me.”

As opportunities presented themselves during his high school years, George couldn’t help himself. He had the service to others bug and became a mentor, tutor and counselor for a variety of organizations.

The opportunity to play football in college was instrumental in shaping George’s decision where he would continue his career as a student-athlete. He saw opportunity seven hours from home in North Carolina.

“It was scary going away from home seven hours, not even having any mutual connections of any kind,” George said. “When I got there I wanted to stay true to who I was and what was important to me in high school. I wanted to keep the values I learned in high school.”

College campuses offer a wealth of opportunities to help and serve others. But George was looking to leave his own mark at Davidson.

Already armed with the knowledge of how a rare disease can impact a family through his good friendship with a high school teammate whose uncle battled ALS and whose father also was his high school head coach, George saw an opportunity through the Davidson football program and Uplifting Athletes.

After his sophomore season, George and Wildcats teammate Kevin Stipe joined forces to launch an Uplifting Athletes Chapter at Davidson College.

The rare disease cause is extremely important to George and seeing the opportunity to include the entire team in supporting their cause drove the duo to leave no stone unturned when it came to making this happen.

“The impact rare diseases have on families was something I experienced first-hand. It impacted me. I understood the work and attention this underserved community needs,” George said. “Not just the patient is impacted. The whole family is impacted and that stuck with me and gave me the motivation to get Davidson on board as a chapter.”

THE RARE JOURNEY

A close relationship with the Klock family growing up gave George unique insight into what a rare disease, in this case ALS, can do to a family.

He took that experience with him to college and in late 2017 after his sophomore season the linebacker saw an opportunity to have an impact on the entire Rare Disease Community through starting an Uplifting Athletes Chapter.

Starting anything from the ground up always has its challenges, but George and his Davidson Chapter co-founder Kevin Stipe believed the Wildcats’ program was more than ready to make an impact.

So in 2018, after attending their first Uplifting Athletes Leadership Development Conference in January of that year, Kevin and George set off on their adventure and launched the Davidson Chapter.

“Don’t get me wrong, it was work, but we had so much support and help. Trey Klock was a mentor to me growing up and I saw what his family went through with ALS and how it impacted them. And I knew he was working with Uplifting Athletes at Georgia Tech and then Northwestern. So he was an outstanding resource,” George said. “I have come to know the staff at Uplifting Athletes and their passion. The relationships I’ve built with them are long-term relationships and I’m grateful for that. I’m the one who is blessed to have had this opportunity.”

Thanks to the leadership of George and Kevin, the Davidson Chapter held Lift For Life events and participated in Touchdown Pledge Drive each of the last two years and hosted the first Uplifting Experience at Davidson. These efforts led to the fourth highest fundraising total for a new chapter in Uplifting Athletes history.

A leader for the Wildcats both on and off the field, George received one of the highest honors in college football for work off the field late in his senior season.  Chosen from a nomination pool that exceeded more than 135 players, George was one of 22 individuals honored as part of the 2019 Allstate AFCA Good Works Team.

The Allstate AFCA Good Works Team was established in 1991 to recognize a select group of college football players who have made a commitment to service and enriching the lives of others. 

“Being chosen for that meant a lot. At the same time it represented a lot more than me. It represented my teammates, coaches and family,” George said. “To make real change in anything you do, you also need a strong team around you. Kevin and I have been talking about and working on getting this chapter started for three years. I could not have done it without him. Being chosen represented a lot more than just me.”

WHAT THEY SAID

“The biggest thing about Davidson College and Davidson football it attracts a certain type of person. A lot of them are passionate and are really determined individuals. When we started the chapter we were able to lay out why this was important and how we are going to do it. We told them we believe our team can make an impact. All we had to do was start a fire and the guys really lit it up.” – George Hatalowich