As number 61 Jake Olsen took to the field in his debut college football game, fans roared their approval in the packed stadium, and then held their collective breath. With a hand on the shoulder of a fellow teammate, he jogged to his position as long snapper for an extra point attempt. A pivotal moment for any collegiate athlete, but for Olsen, an epic achievement as a blind man.
Can you imagine where such an opportunity exists? A small institution, perhaps, with a less than competitive sports program? Nope. This play unfolded live on televised coverage of the University of Southern California (USC) Trojans versus Western Michigan Broncos.
Jake lost his left eye at 10 months due to retinal cancer. When the cancer returned in 2009, the only way to keep it from spreading was to take his right. When the coach of the Trojans at the time, Pete Carroll, heard 12-year-old Jake’s story from a colleague, he reached out to the boy’s parents and arranged for the young fan to meet the team and even to hold the band leader’s sword and lead the band after a game. Young Jake frequented several practices and games, both before and after his surgery. Carroll later moved to Seattle to coach the Seahawks, but he kept in touch with Olsen. It was the Seahawk’s long snapper, Clint Gresham, who taught Jake to snap.
The Trojans are ranked fourth nationally, but the Broncos are a spunky underdog and tensions were high on both sides leading up to the match. But Trojan’s coach Clay Helton felt that Olsen had honed his skills and was ready to hit the grid. It was time to test the mettle of the walk-on snapper:
Helton saw how hard Olson worked, knew how much he was loved, and figured he deserved a chance. He thought perhaps the final moments against a big underdog like Western Michigan in the first game of the season would afford him that chance.
The Art of The Deal
Once Helton decided to play Olsen, a quick phone call to Broncos head coach Tim Lester ensued and the two struck a deal; the Trojans would not rush the first Broncos’ extra point attempt if the same were accorded to a Trojan play involving Olsen. It was now Lester’s responsibility to sell that idea to his plucky, intensely spirited, team:
“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,’” Lester recalled. “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.’”
And what did they say?
“They said, ‘Yes sir.’”
The snap was perfect; a laser line to the placeholder who steadied the ball, and the pigskin sailed through the uprights. In mere seconds, the event of a short lifetime went down as a success in the annals of history. It was a tale of two coaches imparting the wisdom of kindness to their charges; young men who responded without question and completed the task, with pride. It was a story of perseverance in the face of what could have been debilitating circumstances, but instead, an athlete with an unstoppable game emerged. The Trojans won the scoreboard that day, but both teams went home victorious in ways that cannot be counted by points scored. And Olsen, well he had this to say:
“There’s a beauty in it. If you can’t see how God works things out, then I think you’re the blind one.”
Hey USC, retire the number 61 jersey.