Uplifting Athletes event raises awareness

The stands in Memorial Stadium were scarcely populated besides a few fans and high school recruits arriving with their families, most of whom were confused about what was going on.

It was early Saturday morning, and the RSO Uplifting Athletes and the Illini football team put on their first ever Lift for Life under the sweltering heat. The entire roster split into eight teams to compete in an eight-event strongman-like competition.

Champaign-Urbana area resident Rita Maupin sat in the stands, watching as her eyes filled with a cross between tears and amazement. The event was to raise money and, perhaps more importantly, awareness for acoustic neuroma. A week ago, Maupin had never heard of this rare disease, but she had to make herself somewhat of an expert on it very quickly.

Last Monday, her son Ben Crane, a U.S. Army captain and University grad, was diagnosed with the acoustic neuroma after he started having some hearing loss. Maupin quickly turned to the Internet, searching for any information she could find on the disease.

Acoustic neuroma is a rare, slow-growing tumor of the nerve that connects the ear to the brain and can damage several important nerves as it grows. During her research, Maupin was pleased to come across this event being held in her hometown.

“It makes me love these guys out here who are practicing and at the same time, raising money for this, something that is on my heart right now,” Maupin said.

“I said, ‘I’m going to get information and learn all that I can about this rare disease.’”

Anyone interested can still donate online, and the event has raised nearly $3,000 so far. But no matter the monetary donations, Obi Egekeze, graduate student and treasurer for Uplifting Athletes, already feels complete with what he and the group wanted to accomplish.

“This is what it’s all about,” Egekeze said. “This event is a success because of her … because we were able to reach one person.” Maupin not only had the chance to learn from the booklets being handed out on Saturday, but she was able to hear from someone who has the same disease: former Illini offensive lineman and now senior Andrew Carter.

Acoustic neuroma ended Carter’s football career.

When Carter was 19 years old, his hearing started going in and out after Illinois played in the 2010 Texas Bowl.

“It sounded like the adults on Charlie Brown, and it was really affecting my football,” Carter said.

He went to get it checked out by doctors, who discovered the tumor most patients don’t develop until they are into their 50s. Carter said his tumor grew faster than expected, and within six months, he became completely deaf in his right ear.,

Carter still believed he could play football, so he trained, and after spring break in 2011, tried to play on the team.

Then he got hit.

That was the last time Carter put on football pads.

He had surgery on May 16, 2011, to remove the tumor. After his procedure, Carter thought he’d be able to make another comeback, but his doctors advised him against the risk of taking another hit to do further damage.

“It took a long conversation with my parents after that, and I decided to just take my medicine and continue school,” Carter said. “The head injuries were way too bad, and I was unfunctional for the rest of the day. It was quite difficult since I played (football) since I was 7 years old; I was ready to get my college career going, and when I had my surgery, I thought I’d come back and play, and then I can’t.”

Carter has medication now, which he takes every morning when he wakes up to prevent day-long headaches and after he eats dinner at night.

He’s still a part of the Illini football family, attending team workouts and learning the new playbook although he is limited physically.

Defensive coordinator Luke Butkus brought Carter in almost immediately after he was hired and made it clear that he had a place as a part of this team, almost like a graduate assistant role for the senior. Carter gained a tremendous amount of respect for him because of it and holds the gesture dearly.

His teammate and one of his best friends, Zak Peterson, and Egekeze started Uplifting Athletes at the University with Carter in mind.

“I knew we had a really good cause here with Andrew,” Peterson said. “It was one of those things where not a lot of people really knew exactly what was going on.

“So this was a good opportunity to not only help Andrew out, but give him the satisfaction of helping other people like him.”

Just like Rita Maupin.