UNIVERSITY PARK — With nearly 30 of his teammates huddled around him, veins in Jesse James’ forehead bulged and his lips twisted into a snarl as he pushed 225 pounds of weight upward for his 27th repetition on the bench press.
The Penn State tight end racked the bar with help from his spotter, sat up on the bench and wiped sweat from his brow. Fans who packed the bleachers at the Penn State Lacrosse Field went wild. James’ teammates did to.
“That was incredible,” an incoming, wide-eyed true freshman said to another.
So has been the Penn State football team’s recent efforts to raise money for the Kidney Cancer Association, an effort that continued Saturday with the 12th annual Lift For Life.
Since its foundation in 2003, Penn State’s chapter of Uplifting Athletes has raised more than $830,000 to benefit kidney cancer research and awareness programs. That number rose on Saturday as the team auctioned off its jerseys worn in April’s Blue-White game and sold tickets to the event that pitted the offense against the defense in seven different strength and agility contests.
They collected $133,596 on Saturday — a record for the event — leaving them just short of their goal of $1 million raised since the event’s first installment. They hope to reach that mark by the start of the fall semester after other events are held.
Uplifting Athletes president Ben Kline, along with his fellow Uplifting Athletes officers, set the goal of $1 million earlier this year. While Kline couldn’t work out due to an Achilles tendon injury, he supervised and cheered on his teammates from a golf cart.
“It’s really exciting to see it all come together,” Kline said. “I know a lot of guys put a lot of hours into what we’re doing right now and it’s really cool to kind of see it work out in a way that is good and will be fun for the fans and the players.”
While Kline gave a few youngsters rides in his cart to the different workout stations, his teammates took turns maxing out in each discipline.
This year’s format was altered slightly from each of the previous years. New strength and conditioning coach Dwight Galt helped oversee the workouts along with his staff. But Galt said he didn’t have to do much planning or prepping for the event.
“It went awesome,” Galt said. “The thing that I really liked, the players organized, did all the work for this thing. We kind of came in and helped facilitate at the last minute, but I love the fact that they’re responsible, they’re mature, they believe in this cause enough to jump in and take their time to really organize it. They did a great job.
“It takes such a huge player initiative. Everybody stepped up. Nobody complained. Everybody had a good time. Everybody was willing to work. It’s all for a good cause and that’s really kind of neat to be a part of that.”
In previous years under former strength coaches John Thomas, and Craig Fitzgerald more recently, Penn State players took turns pushing vans and running relays with kegs and sandbags.
This year, the Nittany Lions utilized more traditional workouts, adding the bench press and deadlifts, while keeping the tractor tire flip and weighted sled pushes from last season. Like in all previous years, a team tug of war that pitted different position groups against one another served as the finale.
Shortly before Lift For Life started, players were speculating on how physically challenging the workout would be.
Senior linebacker Mike Hull said he expected the slate of events would take on the personality of Galt, who is older and more reserved than the ultra intense Fitzgerald. Meanwhile, each player only participated in two workouts for their team in addition to the tug of war.
Although each player’s workload wasn’t as big as in previous seasons, Hull was careful not to underestimate the competitiveness of his teammates.
“Whenever we’re out here we like to compete and do a good job for everyone who came out to support us,” Hull said.
Meanwhile, Galt called this group of players the “most athletic” he’s ever coached. They are currently in the middle of grueling summer workouts and Galt saw enough over the last few weeks to give his players most of last week off.
“It’s been a pretty good six months. Let’s put it that way,” Galt said. “Obviously, I inherited a pretty good product, which is a blessing. And we just try to add onto that. But we’ve got some excellent, excellent strength gains.”
Players weren’t about to take Saturday off, however.
“This is a tough workout,” wide receiver Geno Lewis said. “We come out here and do it for these kids because we realize how much of a struggle they go through so we want to come out here and struggle a little bit because we’ll never feel what these kids feel. We come out here and do it for them and we’re humbled.”
Follow Travis Johnson on Twitter @bytravisjohnson.