September 5, 2017
What if all you really knew was fighting a battle so many have lost, a daily grind of what’s next that overwhelms everything every day? What would life be?
Let me introduce you, everyone, to life.
Big, bold, beautiful life.
Jake Olson was born with a rare form of cancer of the retina, retinoblastoma, which destroys the ability to see. When he was 10 months old, it took the sight from his left eye. Then when he was 12 years old, he lost sight in his right eye.
But what happened along the road to blindness isn’t what you might expect. A strange realization came to Olson. There is vision in it, Olson will tell you. A clear, simple, honest vision.
“You have a choice with cancer,” Olson says. “You can let it change who you are, or you can go out and attack life.”
Long before he captured the world—yes, the world—this weekend on social media by becoming the sport’s first blind long snapper during USC’s victory over Western Michigan, and long before Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll called to congratulate him and sobbed on the phone, and long before a crush of media attention came to make him the feel-good story of 2017, Jake Olson was doing things that make snapping a football in a college seem, well, routine.
Like becoming a scratch golfer.
Like traveling the country as a motivational speaker, delivering his first speech when he was 12, mere months after losing his sight.
Like setting up a business with his college roommate, Daniel Hennes, that received special dispensation from the NCAA and allowed Olson to make money as a motivational speaker and play college football.
The NCAA calls it the Double Life clause: If you were famous before your life as an NCAA athlete—and that life is not connected to the sport in which you participate—you can make money doing it.
How fitting. The Double Life clause for the student, the football player—the survivor—who is crushing life. Double time.
“I learned at an early age how to confront adversity and fight,” Olson says. “There are a lot of people around me that love me, and I could tell they were hurt seeing their son, their brother, their friend, fighting cancer. It would make it so much worse for them if I were depressed and let cancer beat me. I wanted to prove to them, and everyone in the world, that cancer isn’t going to stop me.”
It didn’t stop him from accepting that first motivational speaking gig when he was 12, telling his story to employees at a Wells Fargo in Thousand Oaks, California. Hell yes, he was nervous—as he has been each of the more than 500 times since.
But when you’re telling your story—when you’re explaining life and how you’ve seized control of it and haven’t let it dictate terms to you—it eventually becomes second nature. And bonus: It’s just as therapeutic for Jake as it is for those listening.
The more he speaks, the more demand there is. He’s delivered his message in more than 20 states, to everyone from professional sports teams to mega-churches, from global companies to small businesses.
Everyone wants a piece of Jake Olson.
So you really think snapping a football—something he has done since he began long-snapping while playing high school football in L.A.’s famed Trinity League—is going to shake the senses?
“Nothing bothers him. Absolutely nothing,” Hennes says.
Hennes knew as much from the day he and Olson met.
When they arrived at USC, both were given background information about their dorm suitemates—information that each student fills out to explain themselves.
“I’m a huge sports fan—I follow sports religiously—but I never heard [Olson’s] story,” Hennes says. “I was reading through his profile, and I’m like, Cool, I’m rooming with a football player. Then it said, ‘I’m blind, and I have a guide dog named Quebec.’ So I’m thinking, This kid is sick—what a sense of humor.“
Soon after, Hennes received a call from another suitemate, who asked if Olson should have to pay for his share of a television in the room.
“I was like, ‘Why wouldn’t he?'” Hennes remembers. “And he said, ‘Have you seen his profile? He’s blind.’ I was floored. I showed his profile to my parents, and from that day, they completely forgot about me. It was all about Jake.”
It didn’t take long for Olson and Hennes to form a unique bond, and to begin to bust each other’s chops. Like the first time they played poker (with Braille cards), and Hennes was laying down ground rules to everyone at the table, and insisted on, “No blind bets.”
“I remember thinking, ‘You idiot. Did you really just say that?'” Hennes says. “Jake just played right off it, started giving it right back to me.
“It’s just who he is. He sees things differently than everyone else.”
Remember, there is vision in blindness. Clear, simple, honest vision.
That’s how you beat cancer eight times, from the moment they take your left eye before your first birthday, to all that toxic medicine flowing through your body and all those nights and months and years of uncertainty.
When cancer showed up for the ninth time, the doctors finally admitted to Olson the right eye had to go.
“After it happened, Jake’s parents were having a hard time with it,” says Brandon Towers, Jake’s friend since kindergarten. “It was amazing to see a 12-year-old kid with the strength to get his parents through it. Jake’s dad told me something I’ll never forget. He said, ‘If the Jake train is moving, you gotta get on.'”
Like the time two years ago Olson asked Hennes to be his business manager, and their first speaking engagement together was in San Diego. Allergan, one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies, asked Olson to come speak to 900 employees.
“Wasn’t a dry eye in the place,” Hennes says. “I was crying, too.”
Like the time last year Olson was in Tempe, Arizona, watching spring training games and his dad called and said the Angels wanted him to speak to the team. It had to be that day, and he had to get over to the stadium right now.
“Everyone in the room was blown away,” Hennes says. “You see professional baseball players—these guys you think are strong and powerful—and every one of them was in tears.”
Like the time last weekend when Olson stood on the ladder overlooking the USC band and directed “Fight On” after the Western Michigan win. That spot, high above all that is sports on the famed campus, has been reserved for royalty since Carroll arrived at USC in 2001.
Carson Palmer, Matt Leinart, Reggie Bush, Matt Barkley, Sam Darnold.
And now Jake Olson.
“I really hope it’s a light for people who are going through adversity,” Olson says. “People like to point fingers and say, ‘X, Y and Z is why I can’t do this.’ Whether it’s fair or not, maybe it should be, ‘Here’s why I can do this.'”
Last fall, in the middle of USC’s thrilling second half of the season that led to a Rose Bowl victory over Penn State, Hennes and Olson watched the Chicago Cubs’ postseason run together.
Hennes was born outside of Chicago, and his father and his father’s father are longtime, insufferable Cubs fans. When the unthinkable happened, when the Cubs won the World Series, there was no way it would be surpassed by anything ever again.
Until it was.
“After the [Western Michigan] game, I told Jake I thought the Cubs win would be the happiest moment in my life,” Hennes said. “Then he snapped that ball.”
Big, bold and beautiful.
That’s how you do life. No matter the obstacles.
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