Senior running back Jordan Culbreath spent the fall inspiring his teammates and fans of both the Tiger football team and the rest of the Ivy League. Clearly, though, his story of perseverance reached far beyond the Ancient Eight.
Culbreath, a two-time All-Ivy League honoree, has been named the 2011 Uplifting Athletes Rare Disease Champion following his inspirational battle with a rare disease and his triumphant return to the field. The announcement was made Feb. 28 during a special event held in Bethesda, Md., at the National Institute of Health’s annual Rare Disease Day.
Culbreath, a survivor of aplastic anemia – a rare disease in which the body's bone marrow fails to make enough new blood cells – was nominated for the award by his teammates. Culbreath learned of his illness following a sprained ankle suffered during the second game of the 2009 season. After several months of treatment, Culbreath returned to the team during his senior year.
His courage and determination inspired his teammates, and the 2008 first-team All-Ivy selection was named the team’s co-captain during his final year with the Tigers. Culbreath was also an inspiration to the rare disease community, reaching out to other players, families and complete strangers who were touched by his story.
“I’m very lucky," Culbreath has said of his struggle with aplastic anemia. “I know that. I don’t take anything for granted.”
"He's one of the great teammates and leaders I've ever been around," said head coach Bob Surace. "You could see how much his presence in the locker room meant to his teammates. His determination and positivity helped him through this traumatic time, and it will make him an even better person when he leaves Princeton."
Uplifting Athletes is a nonprofit organization uniting college football teams under the common goal of raising awareness and funds in the fight against rare diseases. A rare disease is defined as one that affects fewer than 200,000 people. Because of their rare designation, these diseases often receive little or no funding to support awareness and research to treat or cure illnesses. With more than 7,000 rare diseases in existence, the organization impacts more than 30,000,000 Americans.
“Not all of our Rare Disease Champion finalists are themselves rare disease survivors, which is what makes Jordan’s story so compelling,” said Uplifting Athletes founder and Executive Director, Scott Shirley. “He embodies everything Uplifting Athletes stands for. He’s a gifted athlete who channeled his strength and determination to overcome a personal obstacle, but he also inspired countless people along the way.”
The Rare Disease Champion award, determined by an online vote among five finalists nominated by their schools or organizations, is presented annually to recognize a leader in the world of college football who has made a positive and lasting impact on the rare disease community. Previous Rare Disease Champions include 2010 winner Ian Mitchell of Dickinson College and 2009 winner Grant Taeff of the American Football Coaches Association (AFCA).
Current Uplifting Athletes chapters include Boston College, Colgate University, Kent State University, University of Maryland, North Carolina State University, Northwestern University, Ohio State University, Penn State University and, most recently, Princeton. The Tigers held their first fundraiser at Saturday's men's basketball victory over Columbia.
Other finalists for the 2011 Rare Disease Champion Award included North Carolina State offensive coordinator Dana Bible, UCLA running back Derrick Coleman, Minnesota head coach Jerry Kill, and Wisconsin quarterback Scott Tolzien.