UNIVERSITY PARK — Muscles bulged, faces turned bright red and veins popped as Penn State players pushed weighted sleds and turned 150-pound kegs and 100-pound sandbags and a giant rope into weapons in the fight against kidney cancer.
In the end, Penn State football players helped raise nearly $117,000 as of Friday afternoon for the Kidney Cancer Association at the 11th annual Lift for Life event, surpassing last year’s total of $110,374 in front of fans at the Penn State Lacrosse Field on Friday.
“It went great. It’s a great cause,” Penn State strength and conditioning coach Craig Fitzgerald said. “It’s been awesome. All week long our guys have been excited about it. We’ve been telling them it’s like a game atmosphere out here.”
And while the Lacrosse Facility, located just southwest of Beaver Stadium, doesn’t compare to the size and scope of the Nittany Lions’ usual domain, fans packed the bleachers and stood two people deep along the fence that bordered the field.
“It’s important to us to see things like this grow every year. It’s a big thing for the fans,” senior tackle Adam Gress said. “It’s good to see that they are experiencing it more and getting to know it more, but what’s important is that with each year, as it grows, we get more money, more people know about the rare diseases and it really just helps the cause.”
Meanwhile, Penn State players got a chance to further their own personal football causes while promoting an afternoon of fierce afternoon competition.
It was the second season that featured an offense vs. defense format with different position groups squaring off to level playing fields. Fitzgerald, along with his strength and conditioning staff, tweaked the event slightly after last season.
Fitzgerald decided to whittle the event down to five events and streamline the workouts. Instead of having different groups tackle different routines simultaneously, Penn State players all did the same exercise together. It made it easier for fans to watch every player compete in the same discipline and therefore not miss a certain player doing a certain routine, Fitzgerald said.
Players started with an obstacle course, a routine focusing on agility tests. They moved on to weighted sled pulls — where the trick seemed to be transitioning from pulling the sled to pushing it and not losing traction in the process. A few players slid while others were met with adversity when the sled dug into the ground and tipped over mid-push.
After the first two events, the defense led 111-69. But the offense closed the gap and pulled within 39 points with a promising perfomance in the Sandbag Stack. Players were tasked with carrying a 100-pound bag of sand 10 yards, circling a cone without knocking it down and speeding back across the starting line.
But the defense all but put the event away with a strong showing in the Keg Carry, an event Fitzgerald joked about with the audience beforehand, describing it as an activity “many of you are probably familiar with.”
It was one of a handful of times Fitzgerald addressed the crowd. In addition to introducing key members of his staff and Penn State’s support staff, Fitzgerald also outlined a typical summer workout week for Penn State players and took the opportunity to rib the true freshmen, a group that surprised him, Fitzgerald said.
“The young guys have only been here a couple of weeks now,” Fitzgerald said. “So we’ve had 70 guys here for a while. We had 30 guys join us so we have a little bit over a hundred. They really did an awesome job. It was all new for them.”
Overall, Fitzgerald acknowledged this year’s team is ahead of schedule in terms of strength and conditioning than where last year’s team was. Then, players had only a few months in Fitzgerald’s system that focuses on the use of free weights more than what they were used to.
Returning starting running back Zack Zwinak was an example, Fitzgerald said. Although he’s recovering from surgery to repair an injured wrist, Zwinak told the strength coach he wasn’t going to miss Lift for Life. He excelled in the Keg Carry, where the 6-foot-1, 240-pound running back pumped the 15-pound, sand-filled keg over his head and trotted with it over his shoulder with ease.
“Zwinak is a warrior,” Fitzgerald said. “All the time he’s in there working his hand and wrist, so it’s no surprise he’s ahead of schedule.”
Some of the team’s biggest players found the Keg Carry to be quite challenging, being that they have longer arms and legs and have to lift farther and stride longer.
“Those kegs are filled with a lot of sand and we’re carrying them all over the place. It’s really hard to balance yourself,” said Gress, who stands 6-foot-6 and weighs in at 317 pounds.
Zwinak’s best efforts couldn’t keep the defense from winning the event and taking a 160-122 lead into the final stage.
The offense, led by Zwinak again as it’s anchor in the tug of war, won the first pull but the next two groups gave way to their defensive counterparts. Led by linebackers Mike Hull, who took up the nearest inside spot on the defense’s side of the rope, and Glenn Carson, who was the anchor, the defense put the finishing touches on a 220-152 win.
A component eliminated from last year’s itinerary — the dreaded van push — was scrapped due to the difficulty of setting it up and running it quickly and coherently to fit in with the other full-team exercises.
Fitzgerald joked that to do it how they wanted to this year, Penn State players and strength coaches would have had to acquire 12 vans to keep up the pace of the day. They used two last year.
“It wasn’t quite as easy of an event for us to work,” Gress said. “The toughness of it was good but the setting up of it and how it went during the process was a little more complicated than it should have been so that’s why it got cut.”
“A guy like Zerbe has a nice balance between strength and speed so it’s definitely helping him out.”