Nittany Lions Pull Together in Charity Event

The Penn State football team's 11th annual Lift for Life Challenge raises more than $115,000 for the fight against kidney cancer.

The final event in Penn State's Lift for Life Friday was the tug of war, with the offensive and defensive linemen squaring off last.

“We should crush them,” guard Miles Dieffenbach told his offensive mates.

And that's how it started out. With veteran guard John Urschel anchoring, the O-line began carrying the day.

Things changed, if only because EVERY defensive player — linebackers, secondary guys, everybody — latched onto the rope before their offensive counterparts could respond in kind.

But by Aug. 31, everybody hopes to be pulling in the same direction.

The focus of this event, now in its 11th year, is the ongoing battle against kidney cancer, and to that end the team raised over $113,000 before the competition even began, with an eye on shattering the all-time record of $115,000 (a final figure will be announced Saturday). Tackle Eric Shrive raised over $42,000 by himself this year, and has eclipsed $112,000 in his five years on campus.

So that is the No. 1 thing to keep in mind about this event, always and forever. But coming in a not-too-distant second is this: How they lookin'?

As in this group of players. This remodeled team. That's something that is surely always lurking in the back of fans' minds, including those who showed up to watch Friday's proceedings (in which the defense beat the offense, 220-152).

With the opener against Syracuse looming some six weeks down the road, strength and conditioning coach Craig Fitzgerald declared that the new edition of the Nittany Lions is even more fit than he might have foreseen.

“They're ahead of schedule,” he said. “I've got to think of some more challenges for them, because they're actually doing a lot better than my plan was.”

In comparing their conditioning level to this time last year, he was careful to pay proper homage to the landmark 2012 club. “They put the flag in the ground,” he said.

At the same time, he believes progress has been made. “There's a lot more stronger kids on this year's team, which is kind of neat,” he said. “The whole level has been raised. … The team strength is a little bit better in Year Two of the program, and I'm excited about that.”

He was particularly encouraged by the participation of running back Zach Zwinak in the event. Zwinak, a 1,000-yard rusher in '12, suffered a significant injury to his left wrist during the Blue-White Game in April, but with the wrist heavily wrapped took part in every drill Friday.

It was Zwinak's idea, Fitzgerald said.

“If you asked me a month ago if he could do this, I'd say let's be cautious and not do it. He said, 'I'm doing it,' ” he said. “He was ready to go.”

Fitzgerald called Zwinak “a warrior” and like the team as a whole declared him “ahead of schedule.”

“Proud of him,” Fitzgerald said.

Fitzgerald's responses to questions about the absence of quarterback Tyler Ferguson were, by contrast, curious. Ferguson, a junior-college transfer who is expected to battle incoming freshman Christian Hackenberg for the starting job, returned recently to his native California to be with his ailing mother.

“Tyler Ferguson's at home, spending time with his family and good for him,” Fitzgerald said. “The guys that are here lifting, we're proud of them, too.”

Asked if he was confident Ferguson was doing the necessary conditioning work while he was away, Fitzgerald said, “I'm happy he's home with his family, spending time with them, and I'll be excited when he comes back.”

Fitzgerald estimated that “a little over 100” players took part in Lift for Life, and was particularly gratified at how quickly the squad's new additions took to the event's various disciplines. He also said LFL represented a welcome departure for the veterans.

“They've been working really, really hard,” he said, “and that gets to be a little bit of a grind, so something like Lift for Life is great for our guys. We get a chance to relax, go out, show what they can do.”

Shrive had already done that in another way. He said he once again canvassed friends and family members for donations, that his inspiration for doing so was an uncle, Marty King, who survived kidney cancer.

“I don't think anything's hard about (raising money),” Shrive said. “I just think the time with football and school and trying to find the balance between everything is tough, but I was able to do it and I'm glad I could do it.”

For the players, center Ty Howle said, “It's another workout. I wouldn't call it a light day. This is a normal day for us. We're lifting at 4 o'clock, we're coming back out, we're doing the obstacle courses and the events (Fitzgerald) has down there (at the lacrosse field). It's not a light day. It's fun. It's fun to go out there and support some people who are going through some pain and agony, doing our workouts.”

Asked what he enjoys in particular, Howle said, “This year the keg carry's fun. That's something that … you're laughing.”

And indeed a reporter couldn't suppress a chuckle. He also reminded Howle that keg-carrying can be a valuable skill for a college student -- at least one who is over 21, of course.

The kegs used in LFL weigh 150 pounds.

“And no,” Fitzgerald announced through a microphone to the crowd, “they're not filled with anything but sand.”

They lugged them. They carried 100-pound sandbags. They pushed weighted sleds. And they competed in the tug of war.

How they lookin'?

Generous, in one very important sense.

But in another, ready to get down to business.

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