For someone who’s blind, Jake Olson sure has great vision.
Last May, Olson envisioned himself as the long snapper for his Orange Lutheran High School football team.
“I just started thinking of a position that I could play, and I kind of had a knack for snapping, so why not long snapper?” Jake told Rahshaun Haylock of Fox Sports West.
That’s Jake Olson in a nutshell. “Why not?” are the two most vital words in his vocabulary.
Jake was born with a rare eye cancer called retinoblastoma. His left eye was removed when he was a baby.
For twelve years, he battled the cancer to save his right eye. Eight times chemotherapy and radiation proved successful. But in October, 2009, doctors told Jake that the cancer was back. His right eye would need to be removed.
What did Jake most want to see during his final month with sight? His beloved USC Trojans play in the Los Angeles Coliseum one more time.
When then-coach Pete Carroll heard of Jake’s wish, he went all-out. He invited Jake and his dad, Brian, to practice. Jake got to meet the team, visit the locker room, and sit next to Carroll on the team bus.
Pending operation or not, Jake was in heaven. “It was awesome!” he told Kathryn Hawkins of Gimundo.com.
And Jake made an impression on the Trojans as well. Center Kris O’Dowd snuck into the hospital before Jake’s operation, posing as Jake’s uncle. When the nurse inserted the IV needle, Jake began to cry. O’Dowd was right there.
“I went up and gave him a kiss on the head and just told him, ‘You are the strongest kid I’ve ever known. Keep being who you are, and everything will work out,’” O’Dowd told Hawkins.
Jake never wallowed in self-pity after the operation. He no longer had to worry about if, or when, he might lose his eyesight. Now he could simply move on to the next phase of his life.
“He made that transition so much easier for us,” his mom, Cindy, told Shelley Smith of ESPN.com. “If he was angry or bitter or depressed, like a lot of things that they told us might occur, obviously it would be a lot harder. But instead, he’s embracing life.”
“If I was sitting around moping, I’d be wasting my time,” Jake told David Whiting of the Orange County Register. “I want to be recognized after I leave this earth as Jake Olson, a man who defined his circumstances, instead of letting his circumstances define him.”
In the four years since he lost his sight, Jake has done anything but sit around. He skis, surfs, plays guitar and has been featured several times on television, including twice on ESPN’s College Football GameDay. He also plays on Orange Lutheran’s varsity golf team.
He often practices with his dad, Brian, as his caddy. Brian carries his bag, places his ball, aligns his club head and locates his shots. Which is no small feat. Brian often plays at night.
“I can tell by the way it sounds and feels when it’s a good shot,” Jake told Smith. “Playing at night is no different for me. But you would never have thought you would be playing in the dark.”
Besides writing a book, Jake is in demand as a motivational speaker. He has delivered the keynote address for Dick Vitale’s Jimmy V fund raiser, and in September he addressed the Governor’s Conference in Tennessee.
He’s also established the Out of Sight Faith foundation, which has raised over $100,000 to fund cancer research and make new technology available to improve educational opportunities for other blind kids.
He’s also made an impact on those around him. “He’s made me personally evaluate my own stand in life, and where am I willing to push through,” Brian told Haylock.
“Having Jake come into my life, really finding myself as a person and as a man, and him finding himself as a man...I’ve learned a lot of life lessons from him,” O’Dowd told Smith.
And that long snapping gig? It took a while, and special one-on-one coaching from Orange Lutheran assistant coach Dean Vieselmeyer, but when the season began, Jake had earned the job as Orange Lutheran’s long snapper on extra points.
He jogs onto the field with his hand on a teammate’s shoulder pads. Teammates align his feet, and the holder signals his location. When everyone is set, a teammate taps Jake on the leg to let him know when to snap the ball.
Which he does so well that Jake now entertains thoughts of walking on at USC as a snapper.
“Blind people can do anything a sighted person can. It may take a different method and it may be harder, but it can be done,” Jake told Whiting. “Brokenness is not in the body. Brokenness exists in the mind, heart or spirit. My mind, heart, and spirit remain whole. I thank God for that everyday.”
Denton Ashway is a contributing columnist for The Times. His column appear Wednesdays.