Rare Disease Champion Mitchell Meyers takes the stage at 2017 Maxwell Football Club Awards Gala


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Uplifting Athletes was proud to honor Iowa State defensive end Mitchell Meyers as its ninth winner of the Rare Disease Champion Award as part of the Maxwell Football Club Gala.

The Rare Disease Champion Award is presented annually to a leader in the world of college football who has realized his or her potential to make a positive and lasting impact on the rare disease community.

In between a previous commitment to a speaking engagement for the Iowa Chapter of the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society on Thursday night and being a groomsman in the wedding of his best friend in St. Louis Saturday afternoon, Meyers made it to the Tropicana Casino and Resort in Atlantic City for the gala.

“It was such an honor to be on the stage with so many big-name players at every level of football,” said Meyers, who will graduate in May and already has a job with an international supply-chain company lined up.

Meyers was part of the impressive Maxwell awards program that included: former Pittsburgh running back James Conner, Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley, Alabama coach Nick Saban, former Duke Florida and South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier, Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson, Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan and Dallas Cowboys legend and NFL Hall of Famer Roger Staubach.

During his acceptance speech, Meyers talked about how shortly after learning of his diagnosis with a rare disease he read former Boston College and current New York Giants linebacker Mark Herzlich’s book.

The trophy Meyers was presented is cast in the likeness of Herzlich.

“This was meant to be, I guess, with Mark Herzlich and the trophy. That’s so cool,” said Meyers, whose father, Scott, joined him for the awards gala. “His book served as a real inspiration to me.

“Thanks to everyone who voted for me … Iowa State fans are the best. This was a first-class experience for us. It’s my honor to be the Rare Disease Champion.”

Meyers endured a long and difficult 18-month journey with the rare disease Hodgkin’s lymphoma. An impact player in 2013 and 2014 for the Cyclones, Meyers lost his 2015 season when he was diagnosed in February of that year.

His roller coaster treatment for the rare disease included chemotherapy, radiation and a stem cell transplant. Meyers was in the 10 percent of those diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma who don’t respond to the first-line treatment.

It would have been easy to just return to school and finish off his degree without playing his final year of eligibility. But Meyers, who admits he had no idea how he would do, wanted to prove to himself he could do it.

With an almost completely new coaching staff in place, Meyers went out and earned a starting spot at defensive end. He played in every game, recorded 30 tackles, was an Academic All-Big 12 selection and was chosen as a team captain.

“This young man had this upbeat spirit about himself going through this, and it can put you in your place really fast,” Iowa State head coach Matt Campbell said. “One of the best stories in college football.”

Catching up with 2016 Rare Disease Champion, USC long snapper Jake Olson


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2016 Uplifting Athletes Rare Disease Champion Jake Olson is one of the 1 in 10 Americans affected by one of more than 7,000 rare diseases.

The native of southern California was born with retinoblastoma, a rare cancer of the eyes. He lost his left eye when he was 10 months old and despite numerous procedures on his right eye, he lost his sight completely to this rare disease in 2009 at the age of 12.

A huge USC Trojans fan all his life, Olson watched as much USC football as possible before losing his sight. When former Trojans coach Pete Carroll learned of Olson’s story he invited him to practices, Carroll then went a step further and made Olson an honorary member of the team.

The loss of his sight never slowed Olson down as he continued to flourish on so many levels. During his final two years of high school, Olson was the varsity long snapper for the football team at Orange Lutheran. And in 2015, as a true freshman, he earned a spot on the roster as an invited walk on for the team he grew up loving, the USC Trojans.

Olson just completed his second season with the Trojans and is busy navigating his sophomore year in college. We decided to catch up with the student, college football player, author and motivational speaker.

Uplifting Athletes: Let’s start with school and your studies in this your sophomore year. Tell us about exactly what you are studying and some of your thoughts in terms of a career?

Olson: I am studying Business Administration and plan to get an emphasis in finance. I hope to eventually become an investment banker while continuing to do motivational speaking. I also am thinking about getting into the broadcasting field. At the end of the day, my main goal is to do something where I can continue to make a positive impact on society.

Uplifting Athletes: This was your second season as part of the USC Trojans football team. How was the 2016 season different than year No. 1 as a member of the Trojans?

Olson: Although we did face adversity in the beginning of this season, we continued to grow as a team under the steady hand of Coach Helton. Personally, I gained a much better understanding of what it took to succeed on the USC football team both physically and mentally. This year I was able to accomplish much more in practice. Overall, there was more stability.

Uplifting Athletes: You saw some action in the spring game last year. What was that experience like?

Olson: It was a surreal experience to take the field as a member of the team I grew up idolizing. I never believed it would happen, and I am so thankful to all the people who helped me reach that point. The support of Trojan fans blew me away. It was also a sign to me that if I continue to work hard in practice and in the classroom, I could see game action for the Trojans.

Uplifting Athletes: We have to ask about the Rose Bowl game against Penn State. You’ve experienced plenty as a life-long Trojans fan. What was it like to be a part of a game that special and dramatic while wearing the cardinal and gold and being on the field?

Olson: It was the most memorable experience of my life for sure. I finally feel like the Trojans are back on top, and I feel blessed to be a part of it. More than anything, it got me really excited for the years to come. Being part of a game like that is something I will remember for the rest of my life and tell my kids and grandkids about.

Uplifting Athletes: It is an honor to have you listed as one of our Rare Disease Champions. Your story has touched so many, but what do you see as the next chapter of that story?

Olson: The next step for me would be snapping in a USC game. That is my end goal. After college, I hope to find a way to continue to inspire people and use the platform I have already developed to help spread my message.

Iowa State defensive end Mitchell Meyers wins 2017 Uplifting Athletes Rare Disease Champion award


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Iowa State University defensive end Mitchell Meyers is the ninth winner of the Uplifting Athletes Rare Disease Champion award.

Meyers earned more votes than the other three 2017 finalists in a public online vote that opened January 9 and closed at midnight on January 31.

The Cyclones’ defensive end outlasted a field of finalists that included: Pitt running back James Conner, Michigan fullback Michael Hirsch and Notre Dame running back Dexter Williams.

The Rare Disease Champion Award is presented annually by Uplifting Athletes to a leader in the world of college football who has realized his or her potential to make a positive and lasting impact on the rare disease community.

Meyers will be presented with the 2017 Rare Disease Champion trophy as part of the Maxwell Football Club Awards Gala on March 10th at The Tropicana Casino and Resort in Atlantic City.

Meyers endured a long and difficult 18-month journey with the rare disease Hodgkin’s lymphoma. An impact player in 2013 and 2014 for the Cyclones, Meyers lost his 2015 season when he was diagnosed in February of that year.

During his roller coaster 13-month chemotherapy and radiation treatments, getting back to school and playing football again were always in the back of Meyers’ mind. He made it back to the ISU camp in the spring and was cleared for full contact just prior to preseason camp for the 2016 season.

After 18 months away from the game, Meyers not only earned a starting spot but also became a big-time contributor up front defensively for the Cyclones this past season. He played all season, recorded 30 tackles and was named to the Academic All-Big 12 team.

Meyers was voted as a team captain for the 2016 season and wore the No. 58 for the Cyclones. Each year Iowa State hands the No. 58 jersey to a lineman who best embodies the spirit of a beloved former coach who died suddenly in 2014.

Previous winners of the Rare Disease Champion award include: American Football Coaches Association Executive Director Grant Teaff (2009); Dickinson College quarterback Ian Mitchell (2010); Princeton running back Jordan Culbreath (2011); Nebraska running back Rex Burkhead (2012); Penn State offensive lineman Eric Shrive (2013), Nebraska fullback C.J. Zimmerer (2014), Auburn wide receiver Sammie Coates (2015) and USC long snapper Jake Olson (2016).

Voting to determine 2017 Rare Disease Champion hits the stretch run


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Voting to determine the ninth winner of the Uplifting Athletes Rare Disease Champion award has reached the home stretch.

The 2017 winner is decided by a public online vote that runs until midnight on January 31st. You can vote once each day for your favorite finalist.

Each year since 2009, Uplifting Athletes has recognized a leader in college football that realized his or her potential to make a positive and lasting impact on the rare disease community as the Rare Disease Champion. USC long snapper Jake Olson was the 2016 winner.

This year the four finalists are: James Conner, Pitt; Michael Hirsch, Michigan; Mitchell Meyers, Iowa State and Dexter Williams, Notre Dame.

Voting to determine the 2017 Rare Disease Champion started on January 9th, and with less than a week remaining Iowa State defensive Meyers is leading the way.

The 2017 Rare Disease Champion will officially be announced on February 1st to kick off Rare Disease Month. And the winner will be formally honored as part of the annual Maxwell Football Club Awards Gala on March 10th at Tropicana Casino & Resort in Atlantic City.

Public online voting to determine 2017 Uplifting Athletes Rare Disease Champion opens up


2017-rcd-logoUplifting Athletes is pleased to announce the four finalists for the 2017 Rare Disease Champion Award.

The Uplifting Athletes Rare Disease Champion Award is given to a leader in college football who has realized his or her potential to make a positive and lasting impact on the rare disease community.

The four finalists chosen to determine the ninth winner of the award are: Pittsburgh running back James Conner, Michigan fullback Michael Hirsch, Iowa State defensive end Mitchell Meyers and Notre Dame running back Dexter Williams.

A public online vote will be live from January 9th until midnight on January 31st to determine the 2017 Rare Disease Champion. In order to cast your vote, visit the Uplifting Athletes Rare Disease Champion website. Fans can vote once per day for your favorite finalist the rest of the month.

The finalist with the most votes will be winner. The champion will be officially recognized on February 1st to kick off Rare Disease Month.

The 2017 Rare Disease Champion will be honored as part of the Maxwell Football Club Awards Gala on Friday, March 10th in Atlantic City at the Tropicana Casino & Resort.

USC Trojans long snapper Jake Olson was the 2016 Rare Disease Champion and became the fifth FBS player to capture the award.

Uplifting Athletes is a national nonprofit founded in 2007 that inspires the rare disease community with hope through the power of sport. With a network of university chapters run by current college football FBS and FCS student-athletes, Uplifting Athletes has had a more than $400 million economic impact on the rare disease community.

 

2017 Rare Disease Champion Finalist: James Conner, Pittsburgh


Each of the finalists for the 2017 Uplifting Athletes Rare Disease Champion Award will be featured here. In order to cast your online vote to help determine the 2017 Rare Disease Champion, you can visit our voting page.

conner-action-2JAMES CONNER

University: University of Pittsburgh

Vitals: 6-2, 235-pound running back

Quick Hits: A star on both sides of the ball as a running back and pass rusher coming out of high school in Erie, Pennsylvania, Conner was recognized as an All-State running back his senior year. … Rushed for nearly 800 yards and eight touchdowns as a redshirt freshman in 2013. … Became a big-time star for the Panthers in 2014 by rushing for nearly 1,800 yards with 26 touchdowns to earn ACC Player of the Year award and was on several All-America teams. … Suffered a season-ending knee injury in the first half of the 2015 opener. … Diagnosed with a rare disease less than three months after injuring his knee. … Returned for the 2015 season four months after his final chemotherapy treatment to rush for more than 1,000 yards and was a first-team All-ACC selection. … Selected a captain for the 2015 Panthers. … Awarded the inaugural James Conner Courage Award by Stanley M. Marks, MD, who was Conner’s oncologist and serves as the chairman of the UPMC CancerCenter. … Winner of the Disney Spirit Award. … An administration of justice major who recently declared for the NFL.

INSIDE THE STORY

Very few can understand the work ethic and grind it took for James Conner to play football for the Panthers in 2016.

And the long odds he overcame to rush for more than 1,000 yards as a team captain. His journey to step on the field this past September was inspirational and uplifting to others.

But what you almost forget is Conner was not only battling the rare disease Hodgkin’s lymphoma, he was also trying to recover from a major knee injury that cost him the 2015 season.

Yet through it all, Conner never stop thinking of others or looking for ways to help and inspire others. The fabric of James Conner the person was on display for all to see.

People from his hometown were sending him support letters, there was the hashtag #ConnerStrong on Twitter, other cancer patients were opening up and sharing their stories with Conner.

But it was still a struggle, as you would expect, during his 12-rounds of chemotherapy treatment. The star running back who felt invincible on the football field, in an flash realized he wasn’t.

His knee injury that started him down a path that would create a whole new prism of life was unexpected.  He didn’t feel like the injury was that bad. Conner, who admits he’s emotional and has no problem crying, was distraught and crushed.

Three months later a knee injury seemed like a scratch when doctors told him he had Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

Conner admits deep down he was nervous, worried and scared. But his teammates, friends and doctors gave him the confidence to believe in himself and remember he was the guy who became the ACC Player of the Year two years after only one Power-5 school, Pitt, offered him a scholarship.

THE RARE JOURNEY

After losing his 2015 season to a serious knee injury, Conner had his surgery behind him and was on the road to full recovery in preparation for the upcoming 2016 season.

For a couple months, though, Conner had been battling bloating and swelling in his head, fatigue and night sweats. Doctors thought it was the flu, strep throat or maybe even pneumonia. But becoming a “regular” at the pharmacy with no results, Conner had a chest X-ray.

The results indicated there was something in the chest area so he was immediately scheduled for a PET scan. And on Thanksgiving Day of 2015 the doctors called and said it might be lymphoma.

After an agonizing four-day wait, Conner had a biopsy and was told he did indeed have Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

Instead of training for the 2016 season, Conner was staring a dozen chemotherapy treatments in the face. Football wasn’t going to take a back seat, though.

Conner continued to train at the level his body would allow. He practiced during spring drills with a mask and was not permitted contact because his chemo port was still in his chest.

If he was given a cancer-free diagnosis, Conner wanted to be ready. His final chemotherapy treatment was in early May 2016, but he didn’t celebrate. He waited two full weeks until his PET scan before celebrating because he remembered his doctor telling him nothing was guaranteed.

Conner was thrilled when given a clean bill of health, but over time he realized, most importantly, that he was given the opportunity to repay the kindness people showed him for the rest of his life.

WHAT THEY SAID

 “There are people out there fighting and they don’t get to receive any awards if they win. Someday I look forward to starting my own cancer charity to help children fighting this disease. That may seem like something that’s easy to say, but I’m going to do it. You can count on that. It just wasn’t the famous people and athletes who reached out and showed me love. It was everyone. And I can’t wait to do that for people the rest of my life. Because even before I played football again this season my battle was already won. Beating cancer … everything else was a reward.” – Former Pitt running back James Conner

Duke v Pittsburgh 

 

2017 Rare Disease Champion Finalist: Dexter Williams, Notre Dame


Each of the finalists for the 2017 Uplifting Athletes Rare Disease Champion Award will be featured here. In order to cast your online vote to help determine the 2017 Rare Disease Champion, you can visit our voting page.

williams-action-2DEXTER WILLIAMS

University: University of Notre Dame

Vitals: 5-11, 210-pound running back

Quick Hits: The native of suburban Orlando, Florida came to Notre Dame as a Top 125 player overall in the 2015 recruiting class. … Because of injuries at the running back position, was forced into a full-time reserve role on the depth chart as a true freshman in 2015. … Scored his first college touchdown against UMass as a true freshman. … Averaged more than 7.1 yards per carry as a high school senior at West Orange HS with 10 touchdowns. … Saw action in all 12 Notre Dame games as a true sophomore in 2016 totaling 200 yards with three touchdowns and averaged a respectable 5.1 yards per carry. … Had a career best 80 yards on the ground October 1, 2016 in a victory over Syracuse.

INSIDE THE STORY

Normally, when any player receives an offer from Notre Dame and he wants to play for the Fighting Irish, the decision to head to South Bend, Indiana is pretty easy. That wasn’t the case for Dexter Williams.

In order to pursue his dream of obtaining a degree from Notre Dame and playing for the Fighting Irish, Williams had to leave the side of his mom Cheryl in Florida.

After battling this rare disease for nearly a decade, there is a level of familiarity for the Williams family. But for most of those years, Williams and his mom walked through it together. Now, Cheryl and her son are nearly 1,200 miles apart most of the year.

Like any mother would be, despite her personal struggles with a rare autoimmune disorder called myasthenia gravis, Cheryl was thrilled for Dexter’s opportunity at Notre Dame.

Inspiration comes in many shapes and forms. And in this case the extremely tight relationship between Williams and his mother serves mother and son well on so many fronts.

The two still talk almost every day and any chance Williams gets to play in front of his mom is special. Because of her struggles with her rare disease, she can’t travel much.  Even seeing him play  in high school was difficult.

But earlier this season, Cheryl was in good enough health to make a trip to Notre Dame stadium for its game against Duke. Williams not only played in the game, he scored the third touchdown of his young Notre Dame career on a 13-yard run with his mom in the stands.

And after he crossed the goal line, Williams pointed right at his mom who was crying in her seat. Those types of moments might appear fleeting to some, but for the Williams family they are the ties that bind.

THE RARE JOURNEY

Cheryl was diagnosed with myasthenia gravis following a series of strokes in 2006.  The Williams family has endured the fight with this rare disease for more than a decade.

This particular neuromuscular disease is long term and leads to varying degrees of disconnect between the nerves and voluntary muscles. It results in weakness of the legs, arms, causes double vision, drooping of the eyelids and makes it difficult to chew, speak, swallow and breathe.

Cheryl Williams undergoes regular chemotherapy and plasmapheresis treatments that require hospitalization every three or four months.

While some symptoms and complications from this rare disease are treatable, a myasthenia crisis is a life threatening condition that affects breathing.

That’s what happened to Cheryl Williams in 2010.

Williams came home from school and as he went down to give his mother a kiss, he found she was unconscious laying on the couch. Cheryl was rushed to the hospital and spent nearly three months on life support.

Less than 24 hours before the family was going to turn off the machines, Cheryl woke up. And right there by her side was Williams, tears streaming down his face telling his mother “not yet.”

The distance between Orlando and South Bend has been difficult for both mother and son equally. But through this decade-plus rare disease battle they each have provided the other with hope and determination to keep fighting the battle.

WHAT THEY SAID

“I watch every game, some during treatments with the doctors and nurses. They all know him. There is nothing greater than seeing him and the joy in his eyes when he’s given the chance to play. I literally cry like a baby when he’s playing, but simply out of joy and gratitude.” – Cheryl Williams

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