I practiced all summer long. I earned a spot on the varsity team my junior and senior year —Jake Olson
Jake Olson may not be able to see their faces, but he can feel their emotions, and he understands that has become the hero he once saw in other USC football players.
“It’s an honor and it’s something very special,” said USC’s blind long snapper, who moved millions with his performance in the Trojan’s 49-31 win over Western Michigan Saturday. “It really touches me that I’m now seen as that football player, that hero that those kids now look up to. The same emotions I felt, I can feel in them.”
A lifelong USC fan, Olson visited the Trojans practice in 2009 when Pete Carroll was coaching the team. Carroll told him that if he made it to USC, he’d have a spot on the team.
That, as it tuned out, would be the seed for Saturday’s beautiful display of resilience. Olson’s dream has survived three coaches, as he lost both eyes to retinoblastoma, a rare form of cancer, as a teen.
He said that once he realized his high school team didn’t have a veteran returning at long snapper heading into his junior season, he began learning the position.
“I practiced all summer long,” he said in the Pac-12 conference call Tuesday, where he was informed that the media had voted him the conference’s Special Teams Player of the Week honor. “I earned a spot on the varsity team my junior and senior year.”
He’d visit USC, and former athletic director Pat Haden reiterated the promise that “Once you get in, we’d love to have you on the team.”
That drove him, he said, in the classroom and on the football field. Once he arrived at USC, his goal was to continue to perfect his skills and have his teammates and opponents treat him like any other player, just as they had in high school.
On Friday, USC coach Clay Helton told him he’d be snapping for the Trojans on a PAT in Saturday’s game. Medical staff required him to get an assurance from Western Michigan coach Tim Lester that his team wouldn’t rush on the play.
“Coach Helton understands I’m a football player,” he said of the arrangement. “It doesn’t matter that I can’t see. I’m protected by the rules of football, so I think it was more some of the medical staff that was pushing that. I do want to be out there, with the live rush, and you can see I’m not made of glass. I can take contact, and just get up like a normal player would.”
Olson said he could barely sleep the night before the game, but not because he was nervous about his abilities.
“I trusted in myself,” he said. “I trusted in my techniques. At first, it was this sense, ‘I can’t believe this is actually happening.’ Honestly, it’s bigger than sports. I knew this was a moment that could inspire thousands and millions of people. That made me a little uneasy. I knew it was just going to be a huge, huge moment.”
He wanted to perform well, help his team and show the world one thing.
“What I’m all about it,” he said. “What it takes to go out there and overcome adversity.”
Other issues the coaches discussed were the efforts by the Pac-12 to make games a bit shorter. While Oregon State head coach Gary Andersen favored the move, saying he'd like to see them end up being about three hours, Washington State coach Mike Leach was more ambivalent.
"If it was up to me, I'd leave the games alone and not mess with them," he said. "But they're trying to put them in TV slots. If they weren't screwing around with game lengths, they were screwing around with something."
Stanford head coach David Shaw said that he sees the women hired by the NFL as coaches to work various camps and with position groups as just the beginning of big changes.
"I do believe it's not too far away," he said of more women on NFL coaching staffs. "I'd love to get to the point where it's not a novelty. The fact that the door has been opened, and it's not like front page news has helped."
In fact, he wonders if his sister might have take up coaching had it been an option.
"My daughter loves it," he said. "It's her favorite sport. I don't think it's abnormal; I think it's great. I think there will be opportunities continually from here on out."