Charlie Shuman is a 6-foot-8 offensive tackle for the Penn State Nittany Lions. It’s pretty easy to spot him in a crowd — he’s the tallest player on the team. Though he might stand tall in stature, his physical characteristics pale in comparison to the size of his heart. All his life, Charlie’s put others before himself; some take years to discover their purpose in life, but this Nittany Lion discovered it pretty quickly — to give back.
Born in Rochester, New York, Charlie found his athletic calling playing football for his hometown Pittsford Panthers. The three-time letterman blossomed along the offensive line to become a team captain and earn first-team All-State honors as a senior. His body of work on the field helped him garner plenty of attention from Division I programs across the country. The next chapter of his life could’ve taken a much different path had he accepted the scholarship presented by Old Dominion University his senior season — until the Nittany Lions expressed interest in the big offensive tackle. For Charlie, playing football donning the black shoes and basic blues had been a lifelong dream, and although Penn State wasn’t able to offer him a scholarship — he earned a preferred walk-on spot — he jumped at the opportunity and altered course. He wanted to spend his college career in Happy Valley.
For Charlie, his Penn State experience wouldn’t just be about football — it’d be much bigger than that. Always being a giver, Charlie saw the perfect opportunity to take his project Big Helping Little and further it using his platform as a football player. The project took off, but another connection from back home prompted him to use his platform in a different way to continue giving back.
Craig Winter, a young boy from his hometown of Pittsford, had his own battle with pediatric cancer. His Panthers team — led by head coach Keith Molinich — made the Winter family part of their family. Just like the players, Craig got his very own jersey. He participated in team functions, and became a very important member of Pittsford’s squad.
As a member of the Nittany Lions, Charlie wanted to take Craig’s story to the big stage. Dancing in THON provided Charlie the perfect opportunity to do just that — that’s what brought Charlie to the floor of the Bryce Jordan Center for a weekend consisting of a form of leadership in its purest form. “Something my high school football coach always preached was servant leadership,” Charlie said. “I took that to heart when we had a chance to fundraise for Craig and his family. Now just being able to do this and dance for him and all the other people that I know who’ve been affected. It’s really special.”
Craig’s been on Charlie’s mind all weekend, and even though he couldn’t be in the Bryce Jordan Center this weekend, Charlie’s been sending his entire family photos and videos of the entire THON experience — making Craig feel like he’s right there alongside him. Craig’s fight continues even today, although he’s in a much more stable condition — that’s what’s pushing Charlie through the weekend. “It’s great to be able to represent them when they don’t have the easiest battles to pick every day,” Charlie said.
It’s an honor to be among the 703 dancers embodying servant leadership in their own respective forms, but to join the elite class of past football letterman who’ve represented the Nittany Lions at THON is a distinguished privilege all its own. For Charlie, just being able to represent his university in this way means more than any individual honor ever could. “It means a lot. All the participating athletes are great representatives to take on for SAAB and this whole athletic department,” Charlie said. “The support all our teams have given us means everything and to have our teammates behind us — it’s really pushed us through the weekend and all the tough times that we’re gonna face.”
Athlete or not, this weekend is a life-changing experience Charlie won’t soon forget. For an offensive tackle with a heart of gold, it’s moments like this that let Charlie know he’s making a difference in someone’s life. “Even if I wasn’t part of football, I’d feel so honored to dance for whatever organization,” Charlie said. “It’s such a great event that we put on every year, and all the people who come together to make it what it is — it’s really special and I’m glad to be part of it. It’s such a great honor to use the platform that we have to inspire greater missions.”
In terms of the actual process of getting from point A to point B, Charlie utilized a number of donation boxes back in Rochester along with donations from family members to help grant him the opportunity to dance in THON. While his purpose is to dance for the Winter family and share his story, Charlie’s optimistic he’s left a mark on his fellow Nittany Lion brothers. “I hope so,” Charlie said. “I know athlete hour and the pep rally are something that football’s really big into. But, as much as I can spread the whole THON experience through the football team, it’s great. All of athletics should get to experience what’s going on in here.”
Everybody has their purpose, and Charlie’s fortunate enough to have found his. Considering the lineage of Penn State football lettermen that preceded him, there’s not a better representative imaginable for such a noble cause than Charlie himself. He knows Craig still faces an uphill battle, but that’s why he’s here this weekend. Scores of fellow students now know the fight being fought by the entire Winter family each and every day — that’s what THON is really about. It’s an experience Charlie won’t soon forget — and so far it ranks atop his list of life experiences.
Consider what this Nittany Lion’s experienced over the past three months — which is why Charlie says THON created a three-way tie in his mind.
“It’s all surreal, man,” Charlie said. “This whole past season — with the Big Ten Championship and the Rose Bowl — it’s all been surreal. Dancing has been so surreal. I still have to tell myself that I’m actually dancing in THON.”
Charlie says he didn’t exactly envision the next few years playing out like they have in retrospect — but he had high hopes for what the future might hold for him.
“It’s been a dream come true for me.”