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Cast Your Vote for Uplifting Athletes Rare Disease Champion Award

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College Football's Most Inspirational Players Contend for This Year's Uplifting Athletes Award

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Image courtesy of UpliftingAthletes.org

College football has its share of ne’er-do-wells and delinquents, but aside from the one or two shining examples the media gloms onto each season, the good guys don’t get as much airtime.

The Uplifting Athletes organization is a nonprofit that’s seeking to raise the profile of both standout athletes and rare diseases (those that affect fewer than 200,000 Americans).

The organization’s chapters – at Penn State, Ohio State, Maryland, Boston College, Colgate, NC State, Northwestern, Kent State and Princeton – are entirely run by student-athletes to raise awareness and funds for these rare diseases.

For the past four years, Uplifting Athletes has recognized a Rare Disease Champion – someone associated with a college football program who is either surviving a rare disease or raising money and awareness to help others battle one.

Past winners include Nebraska’s Rex Burkhead (2012), Princeton’s Jordan Culbreath (2011), Dickinson College’s Ian Mitchell (2010), and Grant Teaff, a member of the American Football Coaches Assocation (2008).

This year’s nominees include seven student-athletes, some who are active in their school’s Uplifting Athletes chapter, and others who have persevered through their own health challenges.

Their causes vary – from Hodgkin’s lymphoma to arteriovenuous malfunction to Guillian-Barre Syndrome – but they all share a determination to fight the disease, either because their lives depend on it, or because they know others’ do.

They might not be the fastest or the strongest players on their teams. They might not end up in the NFL. But they’ve already overcome considerable odds and helped make it easier for others to fight for health and for life.

Voting is open on the Uplifting Athletes website through this Thursday, Jan. 31. The 2013 Rare Disease Champion Award winner will be announced this Friday, Feb. 1.

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Eric Shrive, Penn State

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Rob Christy - USA TODAY Sports

In the last three years, Shrive has raised more money for Lift for Life than anyone else at Penn State. The offensive lineman and vice-president of Penn State's Uplifting Athletes chapter, Shrive has raised $70,000 for the Kidney Cancer Association - and he still has one more year of eligibility. Since the PSU chapter was founded in 2003, the group has raised close to $700,000 for the Kidney Cancer Association - which means Shrive has been personally responsible for about 10% of that total, including raising $25,000 just last year.

His goal for his final season is to take over as president of the university chapter and hit the $100,000 mark.

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Austin Woods, Oklahoma

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Nelson Chenault - USA TODAY Sports

Last year during spring workouts, Austin Woods was nagged by a sore throat, which turned into swollen glands, which turned out to be something much scarier: Hodgkin's lymphoma. Woods, whose mother is a breast cancer survivor, buckled down to beat the blood cancer without sacrificing his football career.

Determined not to use a redshirt season, Woods played through months of chemotherapy treatments, never missing a game and only missing practices that fell on treatment days. The lineman and long snapper didn't lose his hair and even gained weight during chemo, and in October 2011, was able to announce he was in remission.

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Neiron Ball, Florida

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Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

One day early in his sophomore season, Ball began to feel a dull neck pain during practice. The neck ache turned into sharp pain in his head, so severe the player thought he might be having an aneurysm. At the hospital, doctors found bleeding on Ball's brain, which they later diagnosed as arteriovenous malfunction (AVM).

AVM is a rare congenital condition caused when blood vessels in the brain get tangled and rupture. Ball had to have brain surgery, and he wasn't sure he'd survive, let alone return to the football field. Finally, in June 2012, a little more than a year after Ball first felt neck pain in practice, he was cleared to play again. He played in ten games last season and started two, recording 10 tackles, one tackle-for-loss, an interception, a pass breakup and two fumble recoveries.

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Frankie Telfort, USC

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Photo courtesy of @FTelfort Twitter page

Telfort never got a chance to play football for the USC Trojans. During a routine physical when he arrived on campus, tests revealed a heart murmur, which turned out to be hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. The permanent condition can cause an enlarged heart and makes exertion, like the kind that occurs from playing football, potentially fatal.

Discouraged that his dreams of playing football were over, Telfort didn't return to his hometown of Florida. Instead, he chose to stay at USC, where spent the last four seasons as a student-coach. He also took a trip to Japan to teach children affected by the tsunami how to play football. Because of his experiences with his heart condition, Telfort is now considering coaching or a career as a physician's assistant.

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Dillon Reagan, Humboldt State

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Photo courtesy of GNACsports.com

Reagan was a promising freshman lineman at the College of the Redwoods, earning Offensive Lineman of the Year and First-Team All-Conference honors, but as his sophomore season got underway, he started to become slower, and weaker. Reagan didn't know what was wrong with him, but his coach was convinced he was using drugs and removed him as team captain.

Reagan left school but became more and more sluggish. He started to exhibit symptoms of bipolar disorder, his weight shot up, and he developed diabetes. Medications intended to address his problems only made him depressed. Finally, doctors discovered that Reagan was suffering from Cushing's disease. The lineman had a softball-sized tumor wrapped around his heart and his left lung.

Surgery was risky because of the tumor's size and location. The tumor was removed, but Reagan's left lung was useless. He had to relearn how to walk and had trouble with blurry vision, but he finally made it back onto the football field. In 2012, he started all 11 games for Humboldt State and even with one lung, he was right back in form, earning All-Great Northwestern Athletic Conference honors.

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Chris Ferguson, United States Naval Academy

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Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

When Chris Ferguson was a child, it seemed unlikely that he'd be able to be in the Navy, particularly not as a football player. From second to fifth grade, Ferguson suffered from Guillian-Barre Syndrome, which caused him to lose his ability to walk and affected his memory.

There is no cure for the disease, which is caused when the immune system affects the nervous system and affects just one or two people out of every 100,000. To treat it, doctors had to separate Ferguson's blood cells from his blood plasma and return both to his body. Before the blood plasma exchange, doctors didn't think Ferguson would survive, and he relied on a walker or a wheelchair for two years.

Ferguson recovered so well that his Navy coaches and teammates didn't even know he'd almost lost his life to the condition until he eventually shared his story. He played safety for Navy in all 11 games this season, starting the final seven, and recording 43 tackles and two forced fumbles.

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Andrew Milmore, Fordham

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Photo courtesy of UpliftingAthletes.org

When Milmore and his teammates, Daniel and James Avedesian, decided to start an Uplifting Athletes chapter at Fordham, they chose to raise money and awareness for extra renal rhaboid tumors, a cancer that affects the kidneys, central nervous system, liver, heart, and lungs. The Fordham Rams had "adopted" a young boy, Ty Marshall, who suffered from the condition in 2011. Milmore helped organize fundraisers to collect money at football games, and he said their efforts became even more meaningful when "Super Ty" passed away from the disease partway through this football season.