As far as the Penn State experience goes, it’s hard to top getting the opportunity to dance at Penn State THON for 46 hours.
Likewise, it doesn’t get much better than running through the stone-surrounded tunnel of Beaver Stadium and onto the field with 107,000 fans cheering you on.
Letterman Charlie Shuman ’18, ’19g is one of the few Penn Staters to have experienced both.
He played for coach James Franklin and the Nittany Lions from 2014-18. He danced in THON not once, but twice as a student in 2017 and 2018.
“They’re two different things, but at the same time they both bring these emotions out of you,” Shuman said.
It was always Shuman’s dream to play football at Penn State.
Originally committed to Old Dominion, the 6-foot-8 offensive lineman elected to instead join the Nittany Lions as a walk-on, becoming a part of James Franklin’s first recruiting class in 2014.
“Running out of the tunnel at Beaver Stadium on gameday for the first time, that was a dream come true for me,” Shuman said. “To put on the Penn State uniform, run through that tunnel to 107,000 screaming fans cheering for you, it’s special.”
Shuman’s other Penn State dream was to dance at THON, the world’s largest student-run philanthropy committed to enhancing the lives of children and families impacted by childhood cancer.
He first got involved with the organization his freshman year at University Park, joining the Penn State Student Athlete Advisory Board’s (SAAB) THON committee, later serving as the committee’s fundraising chair.
As his role grew with the THON committee, so too did that desire to become a dancer.
In 2017, he finally realized the dream, representing SAAB on the dance floor with fellow members Carly Celkos (field hockey), Jessica O’Neill-Lyublinsky (women’s fencing) and Megan Schafer (women’s soccer).
“Being down on the dance floor is just absolutely incredible. It’s indescribable to people that are outside of Penn State that don’t really know what THON is,” Shuman said. “You take away the memories you had with the other dancers that were down on the floor with you, spending 46 hours with. That group of people that were my dancing partners, it’s something that will carry with me for the rest of my life.”
Because the annual dance marathon takes place during winter workouts, Shuman had to coordinate his involvement as a dancer with his responsibilities as a football player.
Not that he needed permission from Franklin and the other coaches in order to dance, but Shuman wanted to make sure the Penn State staff were cool with his involvement with THON and the rearranged schedule that came with it.
There wasn’t any hesitation in Franklin’s support for Shuman.
“He was incredible with (his support),” Shuman said. “We’re going through the middle of winter workouts during THON, so some of our toughest offseason workouts. He was like ‘Absolutely. That’s an incredible opportunity. Take a day off or two here and there if you need to.’ And at the same time, he still wanted me to be around the (Lasch) Building when I could and still be a part of the workouts. He and the staff were just tremendous with their support.”
The entire week leading up to THON in 2017 and 2018, Shuman said Franklin, the staff and other players were constantly checking in on him to send messages of encouragement.
Ahead of THON 2018, team members also sent over words of encouragement to Nick Scott ’19, Shuman’s teammate who was preparing to dance at THON for the first time.
The dance floor experience was made that much better for Shuman, knowing a teammate would be right there beside him for the 46 hours.
“It was a blast. I love Nick. Still today, we talk about that experience of dancing together,” Shuman said. “Obviously, when we danced together I had gone through it once before. It was my second time and his first time. So, I’d joke with him a little bit and rip on him to see if he could do some things better than I did. We had a blast down there. It’s cool to have a teammate down there, a guy you spend so much time with.”
Before he graduated in December of 2018, Shuman helped make one more THON-related impact at Penn State.
Through an initiative taken with Shuman, Scott and quarterback Trace McSorley ’18, Penn State football decided to make a change to the players’ iconic uniforms with the addition of the THON logo on the team helmets for a game with the Wisconsin Badgers in November of that year.
The THON logo sticker was once again featured on the helmets during the 2019 season in a game against the Buffalo Bulls.
“We wrote a letter to (Penn State Vice President for Intercollegiate Athletics) Sandy Barbour and Coach Franklin. They were completely on board with it,” Shuman said. “You know, that’s a tough thing to navigate. Changing any part of the uniform can be difficult, especially at Penn State. They were completely on board with it, though, because it’s something Penn State students and student-athletes are passionate about.”
Ahead of the game against the Badgers in 2018, ESPN ran a segment on the decal and THON itself, something Shuman was particularly proud of because it spread the THON message to a larger audience.
“To put that out there on a national stage like that, it’s the attention that THON deserves, really,” Shuman said. “The 40-odd years it’s been around, it deserves something like that. And hopefully it can keep growing.”
With his athletic career — and THON dancing days over — Shuman has since returned home to New York where he’s working on his doctorate in physical therapy at Nazareth College.
He’s also helping coach varsity football at Pittsford Sutherland, his high school alma mater, keeping those football juices flowing as best he can now that he’s no longer suit up himself on Saturdays.
The student experience at Nazareth isn’t quite the experience he got at Penn State. Nor is the experience of coaching football the same as running out of that Beaver Stadium tunnel as a player.
“People outside of Penn State in general, I don’t think they realize how special it is,” Shuman said.
“They don’t understand that atmosphere at Beaver Stadium. They don’t realize all of the incredible things that we get to experience as students. THON Weekend, especially. It’s something that’s about so much bigger than Penn State and to try and share that with the rest of the country is so important.”
Shuman will be returning to Happy Valley for THON Weekend 2020, supporting a friend of his who will now be dancing in THON for a third time.
This past weekend, he also decided that he will shave his head and his beard if he can raise $1,000 dollars in THON donations by the time THON concludes on Sunday, Feb. 23, keeping that THON spirit alive even as an alumnus.
“I haven’t shaved my face since probably my junior year of college,” Shuman said laughing. “We’ll see if I get there.”