Lions Show the Best of Penn State

As controversy continues to swirl, PSU football players keep on raising money and awareness for a great cause.

The juxtaposition was inescapable.

On Thursday, everyone saw the worst of Penn State.

On Friday, everyone saw the best.

The football team convened on the new lacrosse field for the 10th annual Lift for Life, the proceeds of which benefit kidney cancer research. The workout itself was different than in years past -- there were a bunch of events usually done by guys named Magnus at 3 a.m. on ESPN2 -- and the atmosphere was even more so, after Louis Freeh's devastating report one day earlier.

“Today was going to happen regardless of November, regardless of Thursday,” said Scott Shirley, the former Nittany Lion walk-on receiver and co-founder of Uplifting Athletes. “If anything, I'm proud that that hasn't changed anything. But I don't think today is intended to prove a point. I think today is being done for selfless reasons, and hopefully nothing ever changes that.”

Shirley co-founded UA with some Penn State teammates in 2003, after his father, Don, was diagnosed with kidney cancer. The younger Shirley found that because it was such a rare disease -- afflicting roughly 200,000 -- there was little money devoted to research. He and teammates Damone Jones and Dave Costlow, realizing the type of platform PSU football players enjoy, set out to raise money through an annual weightlifting competition.

Uplifting Athletes, formed later that year, has spawned chapters at a dozen other universities, each of which raises money for a rare disease. PSU raised over $600,000 in the first nine years of Lift for Life, with the hope of another six-figure net this year. Those donations have helped in the discovery of six new treatments for kidney cancer; there was only one such treatment in 2005, when the disease took Don Shirley's life.

So that was what everybody was thinking about Friday, or at least trying to. As before, there were reminders that the troubles of the last eight months were not incurred by the current players -- that they are trying to stay the course and pursue their own hopes and dreams.

“We've been here, we've been working had, we've been moving forward,” fullback Michael Zordich said. “We've been staying positive as a team for the students, fans and university. Things have been happening around us, and we just do everything we can to stay focused on the season.”

As tailback Silas Redd said, “We have to handle what we can handle, and that's all we can handle. … Everyone here loves football and is passionate about football, and that's all we want to do -- get back to practice and get back to preparing for Sept. 1 (when the Lions open their season at home, against Ohio).”

In fact, Redd said, the team is “trying to come out with a new purpose and a new way of doing things,” while at the same time realizing the discussions of the Jerry Sandusky child sexual-abuse scandal and its aftermath will percolate for a while.

“They're going to write about what's hot,” Redd said of reporters, “and I guess that's a little more important than what we're doing right now, which is a little unfortunate.”

None of the players admitted to watching much coverage of Thursday's events, which included revelations on the part of Freeh and his cohorts that Joe Paterno, the late coach, was among those who covered up Sandusky's actions. And all the players, it seemed, said their opinion of Paterno had not changed.

There was true in the case of quarterback Matt McGloin, who said Paterno gave him a chance where no other college coach would. It was true in the case of Redd, who said Paterno did “more good for the program than bad.”

And, Redd added, “The two years I played under him, he didn't do anything to me personally.”

Defensive tackle Jordan Hill, meanwhile, said he remained “a big supporter of Coach Paterno.”

“Nobody's perfect,” Hill said. “That's basically all you can say: No man is perfect at all.”

There has been talk about the death penalty. There has been talk about Paterno's statue being dismantled.

On the first topic, Hill said, “When that time comes, if it comes, then we'll worry about it.”

On the second, he said it's not his decision to make. But, he added, “I definitely want to take a picture with it when I graduate.”

Moments later, Hill and his teammates began stretching for the workout, but not before Zordich wandered over to one of the white vans that was parked in a corner of the field.

“You ready to push this van around?” someone asked him.

“You got the keys?” he said with a laugh.

Besides van-pushing, there was also weight-carrying, sandbag-lifting, truck tire-flipping and the tossing of 20-pound balls over goalposts. And the offense was pitted against the defense, as has been the case in workouts since the hiring in January of Paterno's successor, Bill O'Brien -- a man who is, in the estimation of Craig Fitzgerald, the new strength and conditioning coach, “the most competitive guy in the state.”

“These guys are competitors,” Fitzgerald said, “so any time you put points on the line … it just adds to it.”

“It makes it fun,” Zordich said. “You get a workout in without even knowing it, because you're having fun, because you're getting beaten up.”

Zordich added his own touch, at one point acting as if he was kicking over the stack of three 100-pound sandbags shuttled five yards by linebacker Gerald Hodges.

Moments earlier, offensive tackle Donovan Smith was edged out in the same event.

“Damn, you choked,” an assistant strength coach told him, “like John Starks in the playoffs.”

(FYI, for younger readers -- or, for that matter, a redshirt freshman like Donovan Smith: Starks was a Knicks guard who shot 2 for 18 in a loss to the Rockets in Game 7 of the 1994 NBA Finals. Carry on.)

The offense led the competition throughout, but the defense crept within 10 points before the final event, the tug-of-war.

Then the offensive skill guys beat their defensive counterparts -- the “Jets,” Fitzgerald calls them.

And in a battle of the “Bombers,” the fullbacks and tight ends beat the linebackers.

And finally, the offensive linemen beat the defensive linemen, in a matchup of “Tanks.”

Your final score: Offense 176, Defense 136.

It had been, Fitzgerald said, an “awesome” day.

“I would say they put more into this than any workout we've done all summer,” he said, “and that's saying a lot.”

So they move forward now. Which is probably easier for them than a great many others.

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