Five college football programs with an Uplifting Athletes Chapter close out the season with a bowl victory

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Seven college football programs with an Uplifting Athletes Chapter were involved in one of the 41 bowl games to end the 2017 season.

Five of the seven, Florida State, NC State, Northwestern, Notre Dame and Penn State, came out with victories in their final game of the year.

NC State set a Sun Bowl record with six rushing touchdowns on in a three-touchdown victory over Arizona State. The Wolfpack offense piled up nearly 500 yards while the defense forced ASU into four turnovers. NC State finished 9-4 overall and should finish inside the Top 20.

Penn State wrapped up its second 11-win season in a row behind 342 yards passing from Fiesta Bowl MVP Trace McSorley to nudge past Washington. The Nittany Lions, who converted on 13 of 17 third-down opportunities, jumped out to a 28-7 lead before the Huskies made a late charge. PSU finished as a Top 10 team for the second year in a row.

Northwestern’s defense knocked down a 2-point conversion by Kentucky in the dying seconds to give the Wildcats a one-point victory in the Music City Bowl. The win was Northwestern’s eighth in a row and gave a Wildcats squad that was 2-3 at one point a 10-win season. RB Justin Jackson was a workhorse, carrying 32 times for 157 yards and a pair of touchdowns.

Notre Dame WR Miles Boykin made a dramatic one-handed catch and then raced 55 yards for the score with less than 90 seconds remaining to propel the Fighting Irish past LSU in the Citrus Bowl. The win gave ND a 10-win season, ended a nine-game losing streak in January postseason games and was the Fighting Irish’s first New Year’s Day win since the 1994 Cotton Bowl.

Florida State closed out a difficult 2017 that included major injuries to key players and the departure of long-time head coach Jimbo Fisher with four consecutive victories to avoid its first losing season since 1976. The Seminoles ran away from South Mississippi behind an Independence Bowl record four touchdown passes from freshman quarterback James Blackman.

Defending National Champion Clemson played Alabama in its final game of the season for the third consecutive year. And for the first time since 2015, the College Football Playoff Championship Game did not include the Tigers after they fell to the Crimson Tide in the Sugar Bowl.

With five programs with an Uplifting Athletes Chapter finishing with at least 10 wins, Clemson, Northwestern, Notre Dame, Penn State and Washington, and NC State finishing with nine victories, there could be six chapter schools ranked inside the final Top 20 rankings.


2018 Rare Disease Champion Finalist: Zack Mahoney, Syracuse

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.

Syracuse University VS LSU


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.


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.


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.


“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



2018 Rare Disease Champion Finalist: Casey O’Brien, Minnesota

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: University of Minnesota

Vitals: 6-1, 180-pound freshman holder

Quick Hits: Was a standout quarterback as a freshman in high school before being diagnosed with the rare disease osteosarcoma. Also played hockey. Could not play football as a quarterback because of his rare disease, but found his way back to the field his junior as a holder and played his final two seasons. … Took up golf after his diagnosis and was named all conference his senior year (2017) with a scoring average of 79. … Managed his high school hockey team for three years since he couldn’t play. … Won the Minnesota Football Honors Courage Award in 2016. … Walked on the Minnesota Gophers football team as a freshman and earned a spot on the 2017 roster.


When you spend 165 nights in the hospital over the course of 17 months you learn something about yourself.

Sports was all O’Brien knew. He played football, lacrosse, hockey and track heading into his freshman year of high school. But it was his abilities as a quarterback that made him a potential elite athlete. And he loved football more than any other sport.

His diagnosis of osteosarcoma after his freshman season led to a full knee replacement that appeared to put playing football out of the equation.

All those days and nights in the hospital to think, and a drive and passion to keep sports and football a part of his life going forward, served O’Brien well in the long run.

“My dad and I were sitting in the hospital room one night and we were talking about what positions I could play where I couldn’t get hit,” O’Brien said. “Punter, kicker or holder is what we came up with. I can’t kick very well, so it had to be holder.”

Despite a double bout with his rare disease – it spread to his lungs after his initial treatment protocol to his knee – O’Brien was committed to returning to the field as a holder.

While enduring ongoing chemotherapy treatment, O’Brien played for Cretin-Derham Hall High School as a holder despite being only 115 pounds and bald. His playing schedule was two weeks on and week off to mirror his treatment schedule.

A late-night plan hatched in a hospital bed played out for two seasons at Cretin-Derham Hall High School and has led to the University of Minnesota for a second run.


There was a nagging soreness in his left knee that O’Brien figured he could play through and address after the season. He was the quarterback, and he wasn’t hurt. So he played.

But the pain would not go away and his father, Dan, was concerned. A series of x-rays and tests didn’t reveal anything, so O’Brien charged forward and went into high school hockey tryouts. Only problem was he could no longer skate well because of the lingering pain in his knee.

Another round of tests, including an MRI, revealed the deeper problem. O’Brien, who remembers that Friday vividly, had the rare disease osteosarcoma. By Monday he had the first of what would be become 10 surgeries.

More than five months worth of nights in the hospital over an 18-month period, all those surgeries (including a full knee replacement), chemotherapy, radiation, setbacks, one step forward followed by two steps back.

For nearly two years O’Brien rode the rollercoaster of being diagnosed with a rare disease.

“The worst of it all, after the knee replacement surgery, I only really had a month to recover before I started chemo treatments again,” O’Brien said “I had full knee replacement and they had to break other bones to make it work and then going back through chemo again right after that … yeah that was really tough physically.”

O’Brien called it “the grind” for his life.


“I remember sitting in my parents bedroom one night a week after I found out. We were told I would be lucky to walk without a limp the rest of my life and I would never be able to play sports again. That was pretty hard to take as a 13-year-old. Sports never left my mind, though. Because it was all I knew, and I knew I wanted to get back into it somehow.” – Casey O’Brien

“I don’t do anything different than anybody else on the team. Every workout that is scheduled is the same. Because, if you ask me, I am just the same as the next guy. My legs and lungs might not be the same, but when you put the pads on you are all the same.” – Casey O’Brien




2018 Rare Disease Champion Finalist: Shaquem Griffin, University of Central Florida (UCF)

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: University of Central Florida

Vitals: 6-2, 230-pound senior linebacker

Quick Hits: Born with the rare disorder amniotic band syndrome of his left hand, Griffin endured the pain for four years before his hand was surgically removed in 1999. … Has an identical twin brother Shaquill who is a rookie for the Seattle Seahawks after being drafted in the third round. … Chose UCF because the school was committed to giving both Griffins the opportunity to play. … Moved from safety to linebacker in 2016 and in his first year as a starter won the American Athletic Conference (AAC) Defensive Player of the Year award. … Finished 2017 regular season third on the Knights in tackles with 62, had 10 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks to earn First Team All-Conference. … Aspires to follow his twin brother to the NFL. … Was nominated for AFCA Good Works Team in 2017 for outstanding community service.


The Griffin brothers made it perfectly clear they were a package deal coming out of high school. Shaquill was the more highly recruited and sought after prospect, but neither saw the other as better.

University of South Florida initially offered only Shaquill, who is older than Shaquem by 60 seconds, a scholarship then later offered one to his twin brother. That wasn’t good enough.

Only UCF promised equal opportunity to both Griffins to play college football. After three seasons (including a redshirt), Shaquem struggled to ascend up the depth chart beyond the scout team and special teams. Meanwhile his brother flourished as a corner for the Knights and was getting serious NFL attention.

After being told “you can’t” most of your life, Shaquem Griffin was ready when opportunity knocked in early 2016. UCF went through a coaching change and new skipper Scott Frost’s staff saw Griffin as an outside linebacker instead of a safety in the 3-4 defense they were employing.

The combination of speed, power and athleticism completely overshadowed the absence of a left hand. In his first season as a full-time starter Griffin soared well beyond expectations and became an impact player.

“I wasn’t ready. It was God’s plan and purpose for me. I had to gain weight to play in college so I did that. Then I had to really learn my craft,” Griffin said. “I was always faster than offensive lineman so I could run past them. I couldn’t do that anymore. So I learned from not only my position coach, but the D-line coach and the O-line coach to understand what it took. Not having a left hand made me become better, but I had to learn it.”


When identical twins Shaquem and Shaquill Griffin were in their mother Tangie’s womb, a fibrous tissue wrapped around Shaquem’s left wrist and prevented his hand from developing. When he was born, his fingers were only small nubs.

His underdeveloped left hand was extremely painful and sensitive. This rare disease became so painful that one night when Shaquem was four years old his mother found him with a knife in the kitchen wanting to cut his fingers off to end the pain.

That’s when Tangie knew her youngest son needed surgery right away to end his suffering. It was clear no left hand was better than enduring the pain of having a left hand was causing.


“I never went into a practice or a game thinking about me having one hand. I never thought about how hard it must be to play that way. I just see the ball and go after it and make plays like anybody else. Yes I might look a little different, but I’ve played a game with a broken right hand and made 14 tackles so I can play with no hands if I have to. My big thing is to prove somebody wrong when they say I can’t do something because I only have one hand. I use it as motivation, go out and play as hard as I can to show others you can do anything you want.” – Shaquem Griffin

“I’m sure he’s had plenty of people in his life tell him football is not the right avenue to pursue. But if you want it bad enough, you can make it happen. And Shaquem’s done that. He doesn’t want to be seen as someone who has a disability. He just wants to go out and play football like everyone else.” – Former UCF head coach Scott Frost




2018 Rare Disease Champion Finalist: Jaqwis Dancy, Louisiana Tech

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.

Miss. State @ LATech FB  9Sept2017


University: Louisiana Tech University

Vitals: 5-11, 195-pound redshirt sophomore running back

Quick Hits: In 2015 as a true freshman, saw action in all 13 games, returning 17 kickoffs for nearly 300 yards. He also had five tackles on special teams that year. … Redshirted his sophomore year after being diagnosed with the rare disease Stage 3 Hodgkin’s lymphoma in October of 2016. … Returned for spring practice in April 2017, and scored his first collegiate touchdown in the season opener six months after receiving his initial clean scan. … A three-sport athlete at Junction City HS in Junction City, Arkansas, Dancy was a three-star recruit coming out of college. He played football, basketball and track in high school and was a three-time state championship game MVP and rushed for more than 5,300 yards with 60 touchdowns. … This season he rushed for 262 yards and averaged a team-high 6.7 yards per carry with a pair of touchdowns.


From the moment he was diagnosed with Stage 3 Hodgkin’s lymphoma in October 2016, all Dancy could think about was football. The shock of such a startling diagnosis at age of 19 old made the Arkansas native realize he was taking the blessing of being a college football student-athlete for granted. His diagnosis wasn’t dire, but it shook him enough to realize he really had no idea the commitment it would take to have an opportunity to play football again.

With the help of his coaches, Dancy was connected with former University of Pittsburgh and current Pittsburgh Steelers running back James Conner (2017 Rare Disease Champion finalist). And that one-time connection blossomed into a friendship and mentorship that served Dancy well during his treatments. Conner never stopped training during his chemotherapy sessions and he challenged Dancy to do the same. And during those rough stretches, Conner made sure he was available to lend an ear (or text message exchange) with Dancy as he had walked down the same road two years earlier.

“When I felt like I was down more than the day before or needed some advice, James was there,” Dancy said. “We had some long talks and he just continued to encourage and push me to keep at it.”


 Following a stellar high school career, Dancy made serious progress transitioning to the next level. As a freshman where he saw action as a kick returner and on the punt team. The next step was to start getting time in the rotation at running back.

But, in early October of his sophomore season he went from thinking about getting regular repetitions to wondering if he would ever play football again.

His rare disease diagnosis was a shock to the system, but he met the challenge head on and committed to working out during his chemotherapy treatment at St. Jude in Memphis.

He lost more than 20 pounds, but he was a regular in the weight room. How he felt after the treatments didn’t matter. If, not when, he cleared the hurdle of his diagnosis of Stage 3 Hodgkin’s lymphoma, he was committed to playing college football again.

That work ethic paid huge dividends when after a treatment in early February this year he was asked to wait in the post treatment room by the nurses. He had no idea why and Dancy admits his mind was spinning. Excitedly the nurses opened the doors with balloons, candy and confetti to celebrate his clean diagnosis.


“I missed so much about football, not just the game but everything. This has definitely given me a different outlook on everything for sure. I know now that every practice or game could be my last one. Learning to be patient and have patience was very valuable to me. I continued to work hard and fight this with everything I had, but it was a process. All I could do was keep a positive mind-set. In the end, something like this reveals character.” – Jaqwis Dancy

“With a 19-year old young man that is fighting, your attitude is critically important. I think one of the keys to fighting cancer is a positive outlook and a positive frame of mind. We put a sticker on our helmet that had the number 20 and said the word ‘compete.’ That is what Jaqwis did. I am really proud of the positive attitude he took.” – Louisiana Tech head coach Skip Holtz

Bulldog Football vs Northwestern State


Former Penn State Chapter leader and offensive lineman Adam Gress passes away

ADAM GRESSFormer Penn State offensive lineman Adam Gress passed away Thursday.

The details surrounding his death are still emerging, but according to several reports Gress never recovered from a fall.

In addition to being a favorite among his teammates, Gress also served in a leadership role for the Penn State Chapter of Uplifting Athletes for his final two seasons.

“Adam will be missed but his legacy will live strong through the lives he impacted,” said Uplifting Athletes Chapter Manager Brett Brackett, who knew Gress as a teammate and friend.

“He never had bad intentions towards anyone or anything. Adam was a good-hearted guy that loved to make people laugh, worked hard and earned the respect of his teammates. I was the chapter president when Adam first became involved with Uplifting Athletes. He inspired all of us through his enthusiasm and willingness to give his time to benefit others.”

Gress, who was 26, graduated from Penn State with a degree in telecommunications and journalism before giving the NFL a shot in 2014 with the New York Giants.

A native of Pittsburgh, Gress was scheduled to marry his longtime girlfriend Angela Torchia this summer. He was working as a construction site manager in the Pittsburgh area at the time of his death.

Our thoughts and prayers go out to the entire Gress family.





Anaplastic Astrocytoma diagnosis provided motivation for Syracuse football program to tackle rare diseases

RARE DISEASE SPOTLIGHT GRAPHICThere are more than 7,000 different rare diseases but we are one rare disease community. Regularly, Uplifting Athletes will put one rare disease center stage to give that disease and its community a chance to shine.

Rare Disease: Anaplastic Astrocytoma

Brief Description: Anaplastic astrocytoma is a rare malignant brain tumor. Astrocytomas are tumors that develop from certain star-shaped brain cells called astrocytes. Astrocytes and similar cells form tissue that surrounds and protects other nerve cells found within the brain and spinal cord. Astrocytomas are classified according to a grading system developed by the World Health Organization (WHO). Astrocytomas come in four grades based upon how fast the cells are reproducing and that likelihood that they will spread. The exact cause is unknown, and it tends to affect adults more than children and males over females.

Rare Connection: Former Syracuse punter Rob Long was diagnosed with Grade III Anaplastic Astrocytoma 5 after days the final game of his senior season. Bound for the NFL as one of the best punters in the college football, Long was suddenly in a fight for his life. The standard prognosis for a Grade III diagnosis like Rob’s is an expected life span of 3-5 years. The harrowing news did not deter Rob. It motivated him to literally fight for his life. That fight served as an inspiration to many in Rob’s circle of life – including his teammates at Syracuse. Using Rob as an inspiration, several members of the Orange football team, led by Sam Rodgers, put in the hard work and time to form an Uplifting Athletes Chapter on campus to inspire their teammate with hope and let him know they were doing everything they could to support him.  Although, the long and winding battle to become cancer free cost Rob his NFL career opportunity, it opened another door that allows him to fulfill his passion – helping and serving others in the rare disease community. Rob is a former rare disease patient, a rare disease survivor and works daily to help strengthen the bond between college football and the rare disease community as the Director of Strategic Development for Uplifting Athletes.

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Patient Groups: American Brain Tumor Association, National Brain Tumor Society, American Cancer Society, Brain Tumor Foundation For Children.

Getting Social: Twitter: @theABTA, @NBTStweets, @AmericanCancer, Facebook: ABTA, braintumorfoundation, AmericanCancerSociety, BTFC.

Learn More: There is currently one FDA approved treatment for Anaplastic Astrocytoma. However, there currently is no cure. For more information, go here. Some of the most well respected resources inside the rare disease community include National Institute of Health (NIH) and National Organization for Rare Diseases (NORD). A strong patient community to help makes a difference exists through Global Genes.