With exhaustion setting in after dancing for nearly 46 hours, Charlie Shuman leaned on his friends to stay on his feet.
They supported him from collapsing until the Bryce Jordan Center counted down the final seconds at Penn State’s IFC/Panhellenic Dance Marathon. He then laid on the floor until the arena started to clear out after officials announced the total of $10,045,478.44 raised for the battle against childhood cancer.
Shuman, a 6-foot-8 offensive lineman, sang some songs and bobbed his head to others during Thon. He stretched often throughout the final hours Sunday, crouching down to stay loose. He focused ahead during the moving stories that left many in tears during family hour.
Shuman was inspired to dance for the families and represented the Student Athlete Advisory Board along with women’s soccer forward Megan Schafer, women’s fencer Jessica O’Neill-Lyublinsky and field hockey midfielder Carly Celkos.
Shuman got involved with Thon as a freshman before serving as the fundraising chair for SAAB as a sophomore and again this year.
But he’s been part of fundraising efforts going back to his senior year at Pittsford Sutherland (N.Y.) High School, starting with a young boy named Craig Winter who has a rare form of cancer and was part of Shuman’s inspiration to go through the grueling challenge at Thon.
“I sent him a picture the night I was selected to dance and I was like, ‘I’m always thinking about you guys,’” Shuman said. “I’m doing this for you.”
After spearheading the fundraiser for Craig as a high school senior, Shuman finally met the Winter family the night of a game.
The team wanted Craig to participate in the coin toss, but the nervous 3-year-old clung to his parents. Shuman then made an instant connection on the field as the big lineman crouched on Craig’s level, telling him that they could do it together, that it would be fun.
“Charlie was just so warm and inviting to Craig in an environment that was so scary,” said Kim Winter, Craig’s mother, “because it was just so unusual for a 3-year-old to be in the middle of a huge football field that night with all these lights shining down.”
Shuman’s fundraiser for Craig all started when Shuman learned about Craig.
One year earlier, Kim Winter said her son was diagnosed with a rare form of brain and spinal cord cancer — a disseminated neural glioma tumor — in October 2012. Craig had been suffering from painful headaches and was originally diagnosed with hydrocephalus before an MRI revealed the tumors.
“When we first saw the scans in 2012, they had never seen anything like that at our hospital,” Kim said. “We didn’t think he would live to go to kindergarten.”
When Shuman found out what the young boy was going through, he immediately asked his high school coach, Keith Molinich, what the team was going to do to help. They planned a fundraiser for one of the team’s biggest games of the season against powerhouse Aquinas. They made T-shirts and arranged for ticket sales to go toward the fundraiser.
Molinich said Shuman played “all of the role” in making it happen in about 10 days. The coach still marvels at how Shuman spent the night before the game.
“He’s making cookies with his mom and his sister to sell at the game at 10:30,” Molinich said.
Shuman met the Winter family on the field, and he started building a relationship with Craig during the game. Kim remembers him high-fiving her son on the sideline.
When Thon started Friday night, Shuman and his fellow student-athletes could feel the energy as the crowd bounced and the sound system shook with speakers and dancers.
“Electric, electric,” Shuman said. “That’s a good word.”
The group of athletes stuck together, with Shuman serving as a “landmark,” towering above the rest of the dancers at 6-foot-8. They started to grow tired Saturday morning, but Shuman wasn’t about to quit with Craig on his mind.
He received a boost when they received mail.
“I kind of knew I had a package coming from my mom, but she went over the top,” Shuman said. “She had a whole notebook of pictures; it all had like different things I’ve done and different people that are cheering me on and the reasons why I am dancing so it was a good pick-me-up.”
Shuman was often there to pick Craig up.
Whenever Shuman spent time with Craig, just like he did on that football field, he always got down on his young friend’s level.
“Charlie is just like one big, approachable teddy bear,” Kim said. “From the moment he met our son, they just had this bond.”
After graduation, Shuman strengthened Craig’s bond with the high school football team. He emailed Kim about the Friends of Jaclyn Foundation, which pairs children battling pediatric brain tumors with high school and college teams. Through the foundation, Craig has been an honorary captain the last two seasons.
The fall season is always tough for the Winter family — that’s when Craig was diagnosed — but football has given them something to look forward to. During a playoff game this past season, when Craig couldn’t be there because he was having a rough week, Kim sent texts of her son cheering and watching on TV. Craig sent a video message that Molinich played during halftime, and the players took 30 seconds to tell Craig they loved him on their own video message.
“It demonstrates that you can go play high-level football, you can do all the right things but you can take two seconds to remember why we do this thing,” Molinich said. “Charlie was always like that.”
Shuman has continued to carve out time for Craig, who is 6 years old, in first grade now and still undergoing treatments.
The Penn State football player went to one of his friend’s T-ball games last summer and he’s participated on the “Craig’s Cookie Monsters” team — Craig is a chocolate chip cookie fan — for 5K and walk fundraiser. He texts Kim to see if he can stop over during trips home, and he’ll end up on the floor eating tortilla chips or playing with Craig during the visits that last one or two hours.
He takes the time to make Craig feel special.
“It’s really fun,” Craig said.
When Shuman sent Craig the picture to tell him he’d be dancing in Thon, Kim asked him to send pictures from the event.
This weekend, he sent some pictures of him wearing his “Craig’s Cookie Monsters” shirt. The Winter family gave him another reminder of his friend, printing out a picture of Craig wearing a Penn State hat with Charlie and writing him a letter to be delivered during Thon.
He knew he wanted to dance at some point during his college career for the families at Thon.
“They’re the reason we do this,” Shuman said.
And for the young girl that he supported through Big Helping Little, which he started in the second half of his senior year of high school to help raise money for families affected by rare diseases.
And for Craig.
“I think the fundraiser with Craig was really the starting point to kind of show me how passionate I am about it, how amazing it is to be able to help and how much power one person has to be able to help another family that’s going through something you couldn’t even imagine,” Shuman said.