STATE COLLEGE — Obafemi Awodesu was playing hacky sack on the floor with some friends just before 6 p.m. Friday. He wasn’t sure what to expect in the hours ahead, but the student soccer player from Philadelphia believed his athletic training likely would help carry him through.

Olivia Eagan sat in a circle with more than a dozen others, holding hands, appreciating they were together and preparing mentally for the next two days.

And Megan O’Neill, donning a new pair of sneakers and having given up caffeine, was stretching and hydrating.

» READ MORE: Penn State’s dance marathon, THON, raises more than $10 million, despite virtual delivery amid a global pandemic

They were among more than 600 student dancers who took the floor Friday night at Pennsylvania State University’s Bryce Jordan Center to dance for 46 hours straight to raise money for pediatric cancer research and family support. Thousands filled the stands to cheer them on in a scene reminiscent of pre-pandemic times.

“Feel good, feel energized,” Awodesu, a sophomore, said minutes after dancers rose and THON began. “It’s pretty cool being here with this many people.”

He’s not worried about COVID-19: “I’m not anticipating anything bad happening.”

The occasion is momentous: It’s the 50th anniversary of THON, billed as the largest student-run philanthropy in the world, having raised more than $190 million through its history. The money goes to the Four Diamonds charity, which supports research for a cure and families whose children get treatment at Penn State Health Children’s Hospital.

It’s the first time since the arrival of the coronavirus that the event is being held in person. Last year, it was virtual, with dancers largely doing their thing at home.

And, the event may get more national exposure than it ever has. 6ABC in Philadelphia aired a half-hour special Saturday night that was to be picked up by major affiliates, including New York, Pittsburgh, Harrisburg, and Scranton, reaching about 11% of American homes, WPVI said. Jay Paterno, a Penn State trustee, said the audience potential was about 34.6 million.

» READ MORE: An Inquirer blog on THON from 2020

“We’re very excited for everything the weekend has in store,” said senior Kate Colgan, 23, executive director of THON, which is powered by more than 16,000 student volunteers.

The pandemic that has gripped the world for nearly two years almost seemed in the rear-view mirror at the Bryce Jordan Center, except that everyone wore masks — one of several safety protocols put in place this year by THON leaders. Those entering, including dancers, staff, and spectators, also were required to show proof of vaccination or a recent negative COVID-19 test. Dancers and student event workers, who will be on the floor the longest and closest to families of children with cancer, also had to show a negative test, in addition to vaccination.

“We’re doing our part in keeping everybody safe,” said Eagan, 22, of Pottsville.

The event also will be different in that fewer families whose children have been affected by cancer will attend. This year, about 130 are expected, compared with 300 in a typical year, said Suzanne Graney, Four Diamonds’ executive director. For safety reasons, THON decided only families whose children were not currently in treatment could attend in person.

“It was a very painful decision for all of us,” Graney said. “But it’s about ... doing what’s right for children and their families.”

THON is being live-streamed at thon.org/livestream, with special events planned for families who can’t come, Graney said. Donations can be made at donate.thon.org.

» READ MORE: Penn State’s THON brings in nearly $11.7 million to fight pediatric cancer

THON is not the first major in-person event on campus since COVID. There have been basketball games and other sporting events and a Billie Eilish concert at the BJC on Feb. 10. But it will be of the longest duration and draw one of the largest indoor crowds. The BJC holds about 15,000.

Penn State and THON leaders said they carefully weighed the decision, meeting weekly and consulting with university medical specialists and those overseeing COVID operations at Penn State. The school is one of few local universities that does not require students to be vaccinated to be on campus, but nearly 92% are.

“They and we were very circumspect about whether we could pull this off,” said Damon Sims, vice president for student affairs. “We are confident we can, only because we have paid so much attention collectively to making sure we are doing all we can to make it as safe as it can be for everybody participating.”

While omicron-fueled case counts surged on the University Park campus in mid-January, with more than 600 new infections reported in one week, they have dropped since then. There were 70 last week on the campus of 47,000 students, according to the university’s coronavirus dashboard. The number of COVID patients at the local hospital also had fallen to 22 this week, Sims said.

Even some leaders who have had concerns about Penn State’s response to the pandemic were not too concerned about THON.

“If they mask up and follow protocols, I really can’t tell them they shouldn’t hold it at this point,” said Jesse Barlow, State College Borough Council president and a Penn State computer science and engineering professor.

» READ MORE: ‘Dancing for my dad’: Penn State’s THON unites generations in the fight against cancer

Tom Fountaine, State College borough manager, was there Friday night with his wife, Tamra. Their oldest son, Tommy, is a cancer survivor, and a group of students were dancing on behalf of FOTO, an organization founded on his behalf by the Fountaines’ younger son Adam in 2009 when he attended Penn State.

“Penn State has really done a good job of requiring safety protocols,” Fountaine said. “It’s good to see the kids back here in person.”

Wearing a mask for 46 consecutive hours could be challenging, but THON leaders said dancers will get two 30-minute breaks outside during the weekend.

“I don’t care if I have to wear a mask, as long as we’re back together,” said O’Neill, a senior accounting major from Langhorne.

The first THON, though it wasn’t called that initially, was held in 1973, with just 78 dancers. It raised a little over $2,000. By 1977, the Four Diamonds charity, based at Penn State Health Children’s Hospital in Hershey, became THON’s sole beneficiary.

It passed the $1 million mark in 1992 and has continued to grow. Even with the event being held virtually last year, $10.6 million was raised, only about a million less than in 2020.

Awodesu said he’s never even stayed up 24 hours. But he expects his rigorous soccer training, including weight lifting and running, has helped prepare him for THON.

“I think my mind will be able to persevere,” he said. “But it’s not like a game where I’ve been there before. I don’t know what to expect. I’m just going to show up and do my best.”