After years of cheering for his favourite college football team, University of Southern California student Jake Olson has achieved the impossible dream – despite being completely blind, he is now a part of the team, playing as long snapper for the USC Trojans, approaching the game based on feel rather than sight.
Born with retinoblastoma, a rare cancer of the retina, Jake lost his left eye when he was only eight months old.
“When the doctors found my cancer, it was completely taking over my left eye,” he said. “The greatest fear is the cancer spreading through the optic nerve to the brain.”
So the eye had to be removed entirely, followed by several rounds of chemotherapy and laser treatment to prevent the cancer from spreading to the right eye. Sadly, it kept coming back. At age 12, Jake received news that he would have to lose his right eye as well.
“Realizing what I was going to be confronting… a life without sight, it was difficult. I didn’t feel completely hopeless, but there was this sense of ‘I don’t know how I’m gonna do anything anymore.’”
Jake on the field
Being a lifelong Trojan fan, one of Jake’s last wishes before he lost his eye was to watch them play at Notre Dame and also to witness a practice session the night before the surgery.
“There were nights of crying and stressful times when I couldn’t get the thought of going blind out of my psyche,”he said, speaking to the LA Times. “But every time I was up at USC or talking to one of the players or just being around, it was just pure fun. And truthfully, peace.”
Jake’s passion for the sport did not go unnoticed – former USC coach Pete Carroll reached out to the boy, inviting him to personally meet the players and spend more time with them.
“Little did I know, he had all these plans,” Jake recalled. “Introducing me to the team, having me sit on meetings, going to practice and eating dinner afterwards. And then after that, it just escalated into being a part of the team [as an honorary member]. Everything about it was just amazing and something that I will always be grateful for.”
Inspired by his interactions with the Trojans, when Jake got to high school he started to think of ways he could be involved with his own school’s football team. At first he didn’t think he could be of any real use, but then he heard of long snapping and it all started to fit.
“It kind of clicked in my mind that it is a consistent position in that you’re snapping the same distance for every snap,” he explained. “You definitely have the mechanics of what you’re supposed to do, but a lot of it is just feel.”
So Jake approached coach Chuck Peterson towards the end of the 2012 season, asking to join the team. The coach asked him to come back at the start of the next season, and Jake spent the extra time practicing hard.
“They really did not take me too seriously, especially at first because I did not know how to long snap,” he said.“One coach, however, really did take me seriously, and he practiced with me every day that summer. When I came back in August and showed the team and coaches what I could do that’s when they realised, ‘OK, this kid is for real… this kid could actually be a valuable asset to us.’”
Eventually, he did become the starter on the team with his teammates guiding him on to the field and helping him line up the ball.
Having made his high school football team, it suddenly didn’t seem too impossible to do the same in college. And current USC coach Steve Sarkisian agreed, hinting to the LA Times in April 2015 that Jake indeed could make the cut. And in September, Jake finally tweeted that his lifelong dream was coming true.
“Tomorrow I walk out onto Howard Jones field not as a fanboy or a honorary member, but as a player for the USC Trojans!” he wrote.
“It’s a surreal feeling,” he added, speaking to the USC website. “I’m excited to help this team in any way I can and be a great teammate. I love this team and I always have, and now it feels great to be a part of it.”
“Jake is just a part of the team like other freshmen,” Sarkisian added. “He doesn’t really want to be treated any differently, and that’s what I appreciate about Jake. He comes to every meeting. He’s there. He’s attentive. He’s on time or early. He came out to practice. He had on the proper attire, and he practiced. Our guys have, I think, enjoyed having Jake around because I think it puts things into perspective for them.”
Jake is also a motivational speaker now
Carroll, naturally, was overjoyed at the news of Jake joining the team.
“Jake is a remarkable kid and for him to have a chance to play for USC someday, I can’t even tell you how cool that is,” he said. “When he was a little kid he came to us and he knew that he was losing his sight and he just wanted to be around the Trojans so that he could have the visual for the rest of his life. If you could imagine that, he had the kind of foresight all the way back when he was a little kid.”
Apart from football, Jake has also played varsity golf in high school and is a motivational speaker. He is the co-author of the book Open Your Eyes: 10 Uncommon Lessons to Discover a Happy Life.
“I went into football with the mentality that I had nothing to lose,” he said. “Either I’m gonna learn how to play this position and participate, or I’m not gonna learn how to play and be back at square one just watching. I really had no fear.”
“Going through adversity or challenges in life, it really does make you stronger,” he added. “Life’s unfair, football’s unfair, things are unfair. But at the same time, it’s up to you how far you want to take yourself… It’s taught me not to give up. It’s taught me to keep fighting.”