A Blind Football Player Joins His Trojan Heroes On The Field

Oct 14, 2015
Originally published on October 14, 2015 8:45 am

Like most freshmen at the University of Southern California, 18-year-old Jake Olson is learning to navigate the large campus.

So is his guide dog, Quebec, a smiling golden Lab.

"We're a team," Olson says. "We get from point A to point B. He makes sure I go to class."

To class — and to football practice.

As a young and dedicated fan of the USC football team, Olson dreamed that one day he would wear the Trojan jersey. But Olson's journey would be different from the journeys of most young boys who have shared those hopes: He lost his eyesight at age 12.

Now, at 6-foot-4, he's a walk-on long snapper for the Trojans. That's the player who delivers the perfect spiral that's converted to a punt or field goal.

He says it's "a position where no one notices you until you mess up."

Guards and tackles protect him, and for now, Olson wears a yellow no-contact jersey.

One Wish: To Watch USC Football

He's come a long way since his childhood in Huntington Beach, Calif., where Olson remembers growing up "watching USC dominate."

"Those players were my heroes, and they were really people I looked up to and admired, and strived to be," he says.

Olson was born with retinoblastoma, a cancer of the retina. He lost his left eye when he was 10 months old. And when he was 12, his family learned he would need another surgery to remove his right eye.

"Just the fear of knowing you have 80 more years ahead of you without sight ... that was scary to me," he says.

Before losing his sight, Olson had one wish: to watch as much USC football as possible. Pete Carroll, the Trojans coach at the time, heard about the young fan and invited him to attend practice.

"Little did I know that he intended to bring me into pre-practice meetings and have me meet the team and eat dinner with the team and come to multiple practices and travel with the team," Olson recalls.

It was that experience, he says, that inspired him to try out for his high school football team. He eventually earned a starting position as a long snapper.

Reid Budrovich, a backup punter for USC, played against Olson in high school. Budrovich says he never knew his opponent couldn't see; all he remembered was that the tall snapper had a perfect aim.

"It's almost humbling just thinking about how much he's gone through to get where he is today," Budrovich says.

'Take Hits And Get Back Up'

Before each play, a teammate leads Olson to the field. On a recent day, it's Conner Sullivan's turn to take Olson by the shoulders, walk him out to the line of scrimmage, and make sure his shoulders and feet are lined up properly.

Sullivan, who is a holder on placekicks, then steps back seven yards, gets into position and yells to Olson that he's ready.

That's when Olson, who's a reserve player, snaps the ball.

"I just want to compete out there and play to my abilities," he says. "If one day that's good enough to start, so be it."

And if he does deliver a game-day snap?

"That's going to be an incredible moment for me, for Jake, for everyone," says Emma Olson, Jake's twin sister, who also attends USC.

"I go to all the games, I've been to every single game," Emma Olson says. "I've just never seen him more joyful. It was amazing to see that smile on his face."

Olson says he has thought about whether he would be on the field today without the encouragement he received. He does know it's his turn to inspire others who have gone through adversity — especially kids.

"That just because something happens, it doesn't mean it should stop you," Olson says. "It's important to keep fighting and just take hits and get back up."

Just before he lost his sight, a 12-year-old Jake Olson stood on these sidelines. Now, he takes his place on the field.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

As a young football fan, Jake Olson dreamed that, one day, he would take the field for the team he loves, the University of Southern California Trojans. But after he lost his eyesight to cancer at the age of 12, that dream seemed impossible. Today, Olson is a first-year student at USC, and Gloria Hillard has his story.

GLORIA HILLARD, BYLINE: Like most freshmen here, 18-year-old Jake Olson is learning to navigate his way around the large campus.

JAKE OLSON: There you go. Good boy.

HILLARD: So is his guide dog, Quebec, a smiling golden lab.

J. OLSON: He's awesome, you know? We're a team. And we get to point A, point B, and he makes sure I go to class (laughter).

HILLARD: To class and football practice. On the field - a crunch of helmets and a flash of cardinal and gold jerseys. At 6-foot-4, Olson's position is long snapper, the player who delivers the perfect spiral that is converted to a punt or field-goal. Guards and tackles protect him. For now, he wears a yellow no-contact jersey.

J. OLSON: It's, like, a position where no one notices you until you mess up. Growing up as a kid, watching USC dominate, those players were my heroes. And they were really people I looked up to and admired and strived to be.

HILLARD: But Olson's journey would be different than most young boys who have shared that dream. He lost his left eye to cancer when he was 10 months old. And then, at the age of 12, his family learned he would need another surgery to remove his right eye.

J. OLSON: Just the fear of knowing you have 80 more years ahead of you without sight - that was scary to me.

HILLARD: Before losing his sight, Olson had one wish - to watch as much USC football as possible. Pete Carroll, then-coach of the Trojans, heard about the young fan and invited him to attend practice.

J. OLSON: Little did I know that he intended to bring me into pre-practice meetings and have me meet the team and eat dinner with the team and come to multiple practices and travel with the team.

HILLARD: It was that experience, he says, that inspired him to try out for his high school football team. He eventually earned a starting position as long snapper.

REID BUDROVICH: I played against him in high school.

HILLARD: Reid Budrovich, a backup punter for USC, says he never knew Jake couldn't see. He just remembered the tall snapper had a perfect aim.

BUDROVICH: It's almost humbling just thinking about how much he's gone through to get where he is today.

HILLARD: Before each play, a teammate leads Olson to the field. Today, Conner Sullivan takes him by the shoulders.

CONNER SULLIVAN: I'd walk him out to the line of scrimmage and make sure that his shoulders are lined up.

J. OLSON: And he will just make sure that my feet are aligned straightly.

SULLIVAN: I'll get back into stance seven yards back. I'll say, I'm ready.

J. OLSON: And that's when I'll go grab the ball. And then, it's just a simple set, and, you know, I snap the ball.

(SOUNDBITE OF WHISTLE)

J. OLSON: I just want to compete out there and play to my abilities. And if one day that's good enough to start, then so be it.

HILLARD: When he can deliver a game-day snap...

EMMA OLSON: ...That's going to be an incredible moment for me, for Jake, for everyone.

HILLARD: That's Olson's twin sister, Emma, who also attends USC.

E. OLSON: I go to all the games. I've been to every single game, and I've just never seen him more joyful. It was amazing to see that smile on his face.

HILLARD: Olson says he's thought about whether he would be here today without the encouragement he received. He does know, now, it's his turn to inspire others who have gone through adversity, especially kids.

J. OLSON: Just because something happens to you, it doesn't mean it should stop you. You know, it's important to keep fighting and just take hits and get back up.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTBALL PRACTICE)

HILLARD: Just before he lost his sight, a 12-year-old Jake Olson stood on these sidelines. Today, he takes his place on the field. For NPR News, I'm Gloria Hillard. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.