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June 4, 2013

His brother's keeper

Nic Weishar knew what to do the night after his darkest hour.

Almost three years before that Friday last October Nic's older brother, Andrew, was diagnosed with colorectal cancer. He fought the disease with an unfailingly positive attitude before succumbing in the wee hours of Oct. 12.

Rather than miss the game to mourn in private, Nic honored Andrew's memory by playing. By that time Nic had already grown into a local star and national tight end recruit for Marist High School on the South Side of Chicago.

He made 13 catches for 128 yards in a loss to Benet Academy. Not once has Nic questioned the choice he made to play.

"I didn't really sleep that whole day," Nic said. "I just kinda said to myself that if Andrew was still here and knew I was missing a game he'd be pretty upset. That was my mindset. I knew I needed to do it for my family, especially to get out of the house a little bit and to be able to see me play."

Since then Nic and his family have set out to remember Andrew, who was 21 years old at the time if his death, in a much bigger way.

Beginning the battle

In many ways, Andrew Weishar forged the path that 17-year old Nic would follow into high school football stardom.

Andrew played three sports at Brother Rice High School, a Catholic college prep located at the corner of Pulaski and 99th in Chicago. He excelled at football, basketball and baseball before heading to Illinois Wesleyan for college.

During the spring of his freshman year at Wesleyan, after playing on the football team that fall, Andrew received the diagnosis that would eventually cut his life short.

Still, Andrew remained upbeat even as the battle against cancer became more and more difficult.

"Andrew asked very little of our family even with the agony that he went through," said 19-year old brother Danny Weishar. "But the one thing that he did ask of us was to pay forward all the kindness that he received throughout his two-year battle. We wanted to find a way to do just that."

Paying it forward

Danny, who attends the University of Illinois, couldn't help but notice how word spread about Andrew's story, especially in the final weeks of his life.

Two days before Andrew passed away one of his friends started using the hashtag #Weish4ever on Twitter to help spread support. Danny logged on late one night and was overwhelmed with how the hashtag caught on among family, friends and the South Side community.

"You can't really describe how much it helps," Danny said. "The impact of thousands of people telling you that they're thinking about you, thousands of people telling you that they're praying for you. I don't know how much it helped Andrew. I know it did but you can't even describe the feeling it is to see that much support, to feel that much support through hundreds of thousands of people."

Born from that social media movement came an idea. Danny set out to start a non-profit organization to "pay forward" the kindness Andrew received throughout his battle with cancer, just as he requested late in life.

That was the humble beginnings of the Andrew Weishar Foundation.

Danny is in the process of gaining non-profit status for the foundation and has it set up online at http://www.weish4ever.org. It will benefit the Cancer for College Foundation, the Brother Rice Andrew Weishar Foundation, the St. Damian Educate a Child Fund and the Illinois Wesleyan University Student Activity Fund, among others.

Danny has already heard stories of people asking about Andrew in Pennsylvania and Arizona.

"Our goal is not just to settle for the community," Danny said. "We want more people to be involved. We want way more people to hear his story. Our goal is to make this a national foundation, make this thing huge. Andrew affected the lives of thousands, so let's let this foundation carry on his legacy and affect the lives of even more."

Getting the word out

Last fall Nic needed to be more than a supportive younger brother, even if that could feel like a fulltime job.

His coaches worked with teachers to lighten the academic workload when it became too much. Recruiting became more and more hectic with college coaches from across the country chasing the 6-foot-5, 235-pound prospect.

Come spring Nic was considering scholarship offers from Arkansas, Iowa, Maryland, Michigan, Ole Miss, Missouri, N.C. State, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Purdue, Tennessee, Vanderbilt, Virginia Tech, West Virginia and Wisconsin, among others.

Duriing the process Nic would take visits with Andrew, specifically to Notre Dame. When Nic committed to the Irish in April, he couldn't help but feel Andrew played a part.

"Throughout the whole process I was kinda praying to him and asking for his guidance a little bit," Nic said. "I know Michigan was big on my list too and I think Ian (Bunting) committing to Michigan was maybe a little sign too. From there I just prayed on it some more and I knew Notre Dame was the right choice."

Being committed to a high profile football program comes with its benefits, specifically a spotlight that can be put to good use when trying to spread information about the foundation.

While Danny handles the day-to-day operations, Nic serves as a sort of publicist. He'll take to Twitter with links and use the #Weish4ever hashtag.

Lately Nic has been reminding people about the inaugural WeishFest (pronounced wish-fest), a musical festival set to take place Sept. 1 at Standard Bank Stadium in Crestwood, Ill. Three local bands are scheduled to participate.

All proceeds will benefit the foundation.

"I think my big involvement is just trying to get the word out there about the foundation and the event," Nic said. "Obviously, through this recruiting process I got a lot of Twitter followers and Facebook friends and things like that. I'm kind of handling that end and just trying to get everybody to know about it."

Continuing the legacy

Early returns on the potential for the foundation and WeishFest have been positive, particularly given the tightknit nature of the South Side community.

Nic and Danny take solace in knowing they are doing right by their brother, no matter how much money is raised. Something positive has sprung out of the tragedy, exactly what Andrew wanted.

"It's good to see some good come out of something obviously pretty terrible," Nic said. "I think that's what makes my family pretty special. We're always able to look at the bright side of things, and to be able to remember Andrew in this way is pretty remarkable. It's something that we'll be able to continue throughout my lifetime.

"Me and my brother made sure we're going to honor Andrew's legacy."


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