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Northwestern players unite to raise money to fight rare diseases. And you can watch and help!

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Come on over to Ryan Field Thursday night

NCAA Football: Penn State at Northwestern Caylor Arnold-USA TODAY Sports

UPDATE: A previous edition of this story said Lift for Life will take place at 5:30 p.m. Due to heat concerns, the event has been moved to Thursday mid-morning.

The offseason is long. For fans, most of it is pretty boring and spent counting down the days until kickoff. You don’t get to see what the players are up to except for little bits of video and pictures posted on social media.

On Thursday, that changes. And it’s for a good cause.

Northwestern’s chapter of the nationwide non-profit Uplifting Athletes is hosting an event entitled Lift for Life Thursday morning on the practice field on the northeast end of Ryan Field.

“We just invite friends, family, fans, community members to watch one of our offseason workouts, and they get to see the preparation that goes into a Big Ten season,” chapter president Tommy Doles, a redshirt sophomore offensive lineman, said. “Typically they just see us out on the field, but this is where all the work gets done, this is where we get ready for that.”

Uplifting Athletes was started in 2003 by former Penn State football players Scott Shirley and Damon Jones to raise awareness for rare diseases. A rare disease is “one that affects fewer than 200,000 Americans and typically lacks financial incentive to make and market new treatments,” per the Uplifting Athletes website.

The organization has spread to 24 chapters now, all of which are run by student-athlete football players. Northwestern’s chapter started in 2011 under then-offensive lineman Al Netter and then-running back Jacob Schmidt, who now works as Northwestern’s director of player development. At that time, the chapter focused on Niemann-Pick Disease Type C in honor of former Northwestern head coach Ara Parseghian, who lost three grandchildren to the disease. The Ara Parseghian Research Foundation describes it as “a genetic, neurodegenerative disorder which causes progressive deterioration of the nervous system. It usually affects children by interfering with their ability to metabolize cholesterol.”

Doles and fellow offensive lineman Ben Oxley, the chapter’s vice president for development, joined the Northwestern chapter as true freshmen after being recruited by then-senior and former president Paul Jorgensen.

“I thought it was a really cool opportunity for us as a class to make an impact right away,” Oxley said. “It’s been a really fun experience. I wanted to get involved with something when I got here, and it just presented itself as the most ideal opportunity.”

Upon Doles taking charge of the chapter, his first task was to find a disease “that we could relate to, something that meant something to us.”

The group ultimately settled on amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, “a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord” per the ALS Association website. It’s a cruel disease in which the body betrays the mind, which remains intact, and it has impacted Doles personally.

“My grandpa actually passed away a little over a year ago after a four-year battle with ALS, so I was able to see what that disease does to people, but also what it means to have people standing up behind you and how much that support really means.”

Northwestern’s Lift for Life, in its fifth year overall but first year as a public event, aims to help raise money for ALS research while also providing fans with an inside look into what the offseason is like for players. The players were “drafted” into veteran players’ teams, which compete against each other every week hoping to put up more weight than its opponent.

Only now the competition extends to who raises the most money. Team (Eric) Olson, which Doles is a part of and Team (Tyler) Lancaster, which Oxley is a part of, are two of several teams you can support, with all proceeds going to ALS research. Connor Mahoney, C.J. Robbins, Jaylen Prater, Matt Harris, Justin Jackson, Clayton Thorson, Anthony Walker, Andrew Scanlan and Godwin Igwebuike are also individual team leaders.

“Fridays when we do competition stations, we’re competing against another team; we’re matched up all week,” Doles said. “So we figured why not use that competition for good. It’s a little fundraising competition right now.”

Event Details

Who: Northwestern football team

What: Open-to-the-public weight-lifting to raise money for ALS research

When: Thursday, July 21, mid-morning

Where: Northwestern football practice field, adjacent to Ryan Field and Welsh-Ryan Arena (northeast side)

Why: Raising money for ALS research, which you can help with!

To donate, click here, and to find out more about Northwestern’s Uplifting Athletes chapter, click here.