By Austin Siegel

At most college football programs, spring workouts aren’t typically in the spotlight.

The focus in weight rooms across the country is on preparing for a season that’s months away, when the impact of those reps and PRs will be felt on the field. Not at Northwestern.

Inside the Walter Athletic Center last month, caution tape, a smoke machine, and the sound of cheering made the weight room feel like a game day as Northwestern Football hosted their annual Lift for Life competition to support the fight against rare diseases.

“It’s electric,” senior defensive lineman Najee Story said. “We’re competing but it’s not just for us. It’s also about supporting the families, the rare disease community and having a great time doing something for a great cause.”

Lift for Life is a 225-pound bench press repetition competition between players from the offense and defense on Northwestern Football. In the lead-up to the event, participating student-athletes ask friends, family and Northwestern fans to pledge a donation to the rare disease community matching the average number of bench press reps they put up.

It’s a cause that’s been part of Northwestern Football for more than a decade. And for the first time, NIL is helping the Wildcats support the fight against rare diseases.

In 2011, a group of Northwestern football players established the program’s chapter of Uplifting Athletes, a national organization supporting the rare disease community.

The organization was founded at Penn State by football player Scott Shirley, who lost his father to liver cancer – classified as a rare disease that impacts less than 200,000 Americans.

The idea was to create an organization where individuals so often in the spotlight – college football players – could use their popularity to support a rare disease community that’s often overlooked and underfunded.

“These Penn State football players reached out to us and said, ‘Look we’ve got this really cool idea.’ They wanted to elevate and bring awareness to the rare disease community,” Jacob Schmidt, TrueNU Executive Director and one of the founders of Northwestern’s Uplifting Athletes chapter, said. “It’s about leveraging the platform we all have as Big Ten football players.”



The cause was personal for many alumni and fans of Northwestern.

Former head football coach Ara Parseghian dedicated himself to raising awareness and support for the fight against rare diseases after three of Parseghian’s grandchildren lost their lives to Niemann-Pick Type C, a rare genetic disease.

Parseghian’s on-field legacy will always be leading the Wildcats to a number-one national ranking in 1962 before winning a pair of national championships at Notre Dame, but the work of the Ara Parseghian Medical Research Foundation has impacted thousands of lives off the field. Now, Northwestern is working to impact the same rare disease community.

TrueNU has made NIL an important component of events like Lift for Life, amplifying the program’s fundraising efforts as part of the collective’s focus on supporting non-profits.

“We’ve been able to broker an NIL deal between every Northwestern football player and Uplifting Athletes,” Schmidt said. “So now, the work that they have to perform to earn the compensation as part of that deal is aimed at amplifying, bringing more awareness and handling the details behind an event like Lift for Life.”

In 2023, the first year TrueNU was a part of Lift for Life, Northwestern shattered the program’s fundraising record with nearly $45,000 – one of the highest totals in the country.

“TrueNU has definitely been a big part of that growth,” senior defensive lineman Carmine Bastone said. “You can see it in the numbers from prior years to now. It’s skyrocketed.”

The impact of NIL doesn’t end there.

Senior defensive back Garner Wallace said he didn’t know much about the cause behind Lift for Life the first time he took part in the event as a freshman. But last year, as part of his NIL deal with Sour Punch candy, Wallace chose to support the rare disease community.

“I made some videos for them, but they also agreed to donate $5,000 to Uplifting Athletes,” Wallace said. “It was super sweet to be able to use NIL in that way and impact Lift for Lift.”

Uplifting Athletes and events like Lift for Life are a leadership opportunity for many Wildcats looking to make their mark in the program. The organization hosts national events each year for chapter leaders at different college football programs to gather, network and learn about leveraging their platform as student-athletes to make a difference.

Walk-ons have a played an important role in helping Uplifting Athletes grow at Northwestern, from Schmidt to last season’s chapter president, former defensive lineman P.J. Spencer, who walked on to Northwestern in 2019 before earning a scholarship.

“Our walk-on culture on the team is super tight,” Spencer said. “We all embody working hard and supporting each other. I think that camaraderie that comes with being a walk-on definitely translates to committing the time and hours to help with Uplifting Athletes.”

A consistent message from every Wildcat involved in Uplifting Athletes was that – when it comes to off-the-field opportunities like Lift for Life – there’s no hierarchy in the program. Student-athletes can get involved whether they’re captains or a freshman walk-on.

It’s one of the reasons Schmidt helped bring Uplifting Athletes to Northwestern and part of how he plans to keep growing NIL at Northwestern with TrueNU.

“It’s about creating a dynamic where it doesn’t matter if a scholarship guy or a walk-on wants to create a partnership with a non-profit like Uplifting Athletes,” Schmidt said. “We’re going to put the power of NIL behind this.”