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Scott Shirley: Harnessing the Power of Sports for a Greater Good

Scott Shirley distinctly remembers the phone call that changed his life in 2002. Then a wide receiver at Penn State, Shirley was informed by his mother that his father’s cancer had returned. He had beaten the disease once about a decade earlier, but this time doctors gave him six months to live.

The Shirleys refused to give up and visited some of the top doctors in the country, yet they received the same disappointing outlook every time. After one such visit, Shirley returned to his apartment and voiced his frustration to teammate Damone Jones. He didn’t feel enough research was being done to help his father and others with this rare form of cancer.

That conversation spawned an idea.

“Why don’t we do something?” Jones said. “We’re Penn State football players. Let’s take the spotlight we have to shine on people that need a voice."

In July 2003, the Penn State weight room hosted the first Lift for Life event, a weightlifting showcase that raised over $13,000. The event expanded in 2004, raising more than $38,000 for the Kidney Cancer Association.

Such was the birth of Uplifting Athletes, a nonprofit organization that uses sports as a vessel to raise money for rare diseases. But another phone call in 2014 made Shirley realize there were more opportunities out there.

This time the caller was Devon Still, then a defensive tackle for the Cincinnati Bengals, calling about his four-year old daughter Leah, who had been diagnosed with cancer. Still wanted a way to raise money for children’s hospitals and fight back. Still’s Sack Cancer campaign asked Cincinnati fans to donate for each sack the Bengals recorded in the 2014 season.

Devon Still launched the Sack Cancer campaign to help children like his daughter Leah.

“That was a life-changing conversation for me,” Shirley said. “I knew that there was so much more that we could do. It just needed to be open. We could create a company, what is now Pledge It, that could be used by any athlete at any level to raise money for any cause."

The next day, San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers contacted Shirley about raising money for the Ronald McDonald House. A few days later, Kansas City Royals outfielder Alex Gordon called, wanting to combat pediatric brain cancer.

In 2015, Shirley created Pledge It, a build-it-yourself platform to raise money through sports. Anyone can start a project through Pledge It, and Shirley has seen a number of inspiring stories over the past year.

Most recently, Pledge It teamed up with MaxPreps to take fundraising to the next level by starting the Touchdowns Against Cancer campaign. Any high school (excluding New York, Wisconsin, Indiana and Missouri) that signs up asks fans to pledge an amount for every touchdown their team scores between Sept. 15 and Oct. 1, with proceeds going to fight childhood cancer through the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.

“The returns so far have been nothing short of inspirational,” Shirley said. “We’ve had over 500 teams sign up. We’ve seen coaches shave their heads. We’ve seen cheerleaders and booster clubs and soccer teams and volleyball teams all raising money through the football team for every touchdown they score."

Shirley turned the devastation from that 2002 phone call into a passion for fundraising that has raised more than $400 million since that first weightlifting competition back at Penn State. And he’s not stopping anytime soon: Touchdowns Against Cancer has the potential to be one of his most impactful campaigns to date, and Shirley can’t wait to see what comes of it.

“Pledge It is hands down the easiest way to raise money while focusing on what you as a coach do best, and that’s performing on the field,” Shirley said. “It takes minutes to sign up. The players are actively engaged in the process. Everyone wins."

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Published on September 14, 2016

by JohnPaul Bennett

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