As we move closer to the NFL Draft in late April, college football programs hold events known as Pro Day during which prospects work out for scouts on their campuses. It gives NFL coaches and general managers a chance to see and know potential picks in a more personal way than they do during the recently completed Combine in Indianapolis.
Some of these events draw national consideration, such as quarterback Kyler Murray’s workout at Oklahoma. Every pass the Heisman Trophy winner tossed was aired live on NFL Network as we wait to find out if he’ll be the top overall selection by the Arizona Cardinals.
However, there was one workout on the campus of another football powerhouse that received a different kind of attention because of the special character of the young man lifting the weights.
You may have heard of Jake Olson, a long-snapper at the University of Southern California. The young man has been blind since age 12 because of a rare cancer, retinoblastoma. Instead of giving up on his dream to play football, Olson learned how to long snap and earned his way onto the Trojans roster.
Since there no reason for him to work out the way his teammates were doing, Olson took another approach, lifting weights to raise money research and awareness of the disease which took so much from his life.
“I love lifting, I love just getting out there in the weight room,” Olson said. “It’s the best way, in my opinion, to fundraise. Life kind of presented its opportunity to fundraise for something.”
A strapping 6-foot-3, 225 pounds, Olson got down on the bench press and pumped out 17 reps at 225 pounds to the delight of his friends, teammates and coaches who were watching.
His goal was to lift 20 times, five times more than one of his teammates had done during the NFL Combine.
This was all part of Olson’s fundraising campaign – Jake Olson’s Reps for Retinoblastoma. Donors were encouraged to pledge every time he lifted the bar or just contribute in whatever way they could.
By the middle of the week, Olson had raised approximately $50,000 that will be donated to his charities, Out of Sight Faith and Uplifting Athletes Organization. The funds are to be used on a clinical trial targeting the fight against the disease.
What swept Olson into the public consciousness was that he chose to spend his last day with sight in 2009 – before his right eye was surgically removed – with the USC program and Pete Carroll, who was then the Trojans coach.”I live with the consequences of my disease every day,” said Olson, who was born with retinoblastoma and lost his left eye at 10 months. “To hear that there is a workable cure now that could prohibit any kid from ever losing their sight again to my cancer, it really impacts me.”
“The first thing was let’s make sure that he gets inside and gets to see everything that he wants to see,” Carroll said that day. “God bless him; he deserves every bit of it.”
His disability did not stop Olson from pursuing his dream of playing football. He long-snapped for his high school football team and then walked on at USC, after receiving a scholarship from a fund set up for physically challenged athletes.
Olson played in three games during his career, guided onto the field by teammates and set into position to snap. He appeared in the 2017 season opener against Western Michigan, snapping for the final point after touchdown. He also conducted the USC band after the game.
“I told them the entire situation and said, ‘You can’t touch him, you can’t yell at him, everybody get down so it looks like a football play but nobody move,’” Western Michigan coach Tim Lester said that day. “I told them, ‘What we’re about to do is bigger than the game. This is about what kind of people we want to be, what we represent; this is bigger than us.’”
Olson also appeared against Oregon State in 2017 and then in the 2018 opener against UNLV.
“Every time we went out there, it was kind of a little bit surreal,” Olson said. “It gets your heart pounding.”
“I didn’t want to make too much of a deal out of it. I just knew it was — here’s a chance to go out there and play on the Coliseum turf. Like, let’s just have freaking fun with it.”
As you can tell, Olson is an incredible person. He will graduate in May with a degree in business administration. But along with finding a job he has told friends he wants to play competitive golf, which he also did in high school.
“If I can make sure that no other kid has to be in my situation, I’ll go to the world’s end to make sure that’s a reality for them,” Olson said.
There is hope for a cure. For the last two decades, ophthalmologists, including Olson’s childhood doctor, have been working on something promising to cure the disease, even cases that are especially problematic.
Along with his degree, Olson has already co-authored a pair of books and begun to appear as a motivational speaker. He is loved on campus where he bops around with his guide dog, Quebec. There is talk of him playing in a few pro-am golf tournament and maybe even appearing on “Dancing With The Stars.
“No child should face the harsh reality of never seeing again,” said Olson. “Despite the accomplishments in my life and the valuable lessons I’ve learned, I still remember the pain, sorrow and agony that I endured as a child battling retinoblastoma. For this reason, I am determined to cure the disease that took my eyesight and I could not have chosen a more opportune time.”