A Blind Football Player Joins His USC Heroes on the Field
Jake Olson sits with his guide dog, Quebec. Inspired by his experiences with the USC Trojans as a 12-year-old, Olson tried out for his high school football team. (Gloria Hillard/NPR)
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, 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 place kicks, then steps back 7 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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