Vital Signs Jake Olson USC football blind B_00050724.jpg
Leveling the playing field
08:08 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

Jake Olson was diagnosed with retinoblastoma, a rare cancer of the retina

He had both eyes removed by age 12

He went on to realize his dream of playing football for the USC Trojans

CNN  — 

At 12 years old, Jake Olson faced a choice many adults can’t even make: He could either sit around feeling sorry for himself, or he could pick up the pieces and take control of his life.

He chose the latter.

It still amazes his closest friends and family, including his mother, Cindy, but she was not surprised. Olson, now 21, had been inspiring people all his life.

When he was 8 months old, his parents noticed something strange with his left eye.

“When we [went] to the ophthalmologist, she drew two big circles,” Cindy Olson remembered. “She shaded one almost completely in. She shaded a partial of the other, and she said, ‘Your son has cancer in his eyes.’ “

What the doctor had shaded in, and what the family had seen in Olson’s eyes, were the tumors through his pupils. The tumor had completely taken over his left eye. Doctors diagnosed him with retinoblastoma, a rare cancer of the retina that mostly affects infants and young children.

Jake Olson had his left eye removed when he was 10 months old.

An estimated 200 to 300 children are diagnosed with retinoblastoma each year in the United States, according to the American Cancer Society. About one in four children with the condition have a tumor in only one eye, while about one in four have both eyes affected.

At 10 months old, Olson had surgery to remove his left eye, but would continue fighting cancer throughout his childhood in southern California. It was a constant presence in his life, along with one other thing: football, specifically the University of Southern California college team.

“I remember definitely going to USC games as a kid,” Olson said. “As a kid, [those] were the most special Saturdays ever.”

Without any vision in his left eye, Olson played football as a child, along with golf. But in 2009, when he was 12, the family received more devastating news. Olson’s other eye would also have to be removed.

Blindness didn't stop Jake from playing the game he loved.

’ I’m going to go blind’

“I found out I was going to go blind on October 1,” Olson said of those months in 2009. “November 12 was my surgery, so there’s a month and a half there of knowing I’m going to go blind. And that thought tormented me.”

Knowing he had only a month of vision left, there was one thing he wanted to watch as much as he could: the USC football team. Coach Pete Carroll embraced Olson as one of the guys; he attended a team meeting and stood on the sidelines at practices and games.

“That date I knew was coming, that I was going to lose my sight, was constantly on my mind - except when I was with USC and except when I was with the players and with Coach Carroll and on that field,” Olson said. “That’s something that I just couldn’t again get anywhere else. To have those thoughts alleviated from me when I’m on the field…It was liberating.”

Twelve-year old Jake Olson with then-USC football coach Pete Carroll.

Olson’s right eye was removed, leaving him blind at age 12. But it didn’t take long for him to get back to the only place he wanted to be.

“Once I went blind, it was almost this kind of realization of, ‘OK, I’m blind,’ ” Olson said. ” ‘There’s no way of reversing it. It is my life. I don’t have to worry about going blind anymore, because I am blind. Now let’s deal with it. Let’s focus on living my normal life.’ I was determined to not let it stop me.”

In his junior and senior years of high school, Olson earned a starting role on the varsity football team as the long snapper, responsible for snapping the ball to the holder for extra points and field goals. When it came time to attend college, there was only one choice. He enrolled at USC to study business, and one day, he received a phone call.

“I was at school already, and they called me in to the [football] team meeting,” Olson said. “They introduced me to the team. They said, ‘you’re going to be on the team.’ And then they took me down to the locker room and showed me my locker.”

It was a dream come true: Olson was a USC Trojan. But it wouldn’t end there; he didn’t want to just be on the team, he wanted to play. So he pushed himself even harder, lifting weights and attending practices and meetings just like everyone else. His coaches and teammates took notice.

“From the outside looking in, you’d think he’d be a little different, and I think before he came, we thought that as well,” teammate Wyatt Schmidt said. “But once he got here, just a day in, he’s a normal kid, does normal things. That’s what I think a lot of people don’t see, and that’s what we’ve had the pleasure to get to know Jake.”

On the field, Olson developed special communication with Schmidt, who would hold the ball in place after Olson snapped it. Engaging his other senses for things like the feel of the ball and the cadence of Schmidt’s voice, Olson was able to build muscle memory through repetition.

“There’s definitely frustrating times,” Olson admitted. “There are some drills that I could do by myself that I can’t do because I’m blind … times where - I love long snapping, but it would be cool to play middle linebacker or tight end or something. But at the end of the day, when you start looking at that perspective, it is easy to get frustrated … and that’s something obviously I don’t want.”

One of the lucky ones

Just like when he was 12, Olson made a choice. He knew how many people would do anything to be on the football team of their dreams. He realized that he was one of the lucky ones.

Instead of getting down on himself, he is grateful, humble and full of laughs.

“To be honest, I’ve really only seen him get down once or twice,” his roommate and manager Daniel Hennes said. “But he doesn’t spend any time thinking about what he doesn’t have. He thinks about what he should be thankful for and what he does have. And it’s impossible to live around that, and not become a more positive person as a result.”

Last fall, Olson finally had the chance to fulfill another dream. On September 2, against Western Michigan, he snapped the ball in a live game as a USC Trojan.

“Knowing I was running out there on the field with everyone cheering, it was awesome,” Olson said. “There was a sense of calm and peace knowing that it was just something I’ve done plenty of times before, and I know how to do and could do. But at the same time, I was nervous just understanding: Here’s my moment. I want to make sure I perform and execute.”

He did execute, and the snap, hold and kick were good. His teammates swarmed him on the field and on the sidelines. The crowd went nuts, and a star was born. Olson’s life, which was once classified as before blindness and after, was now more like before the snap and after.

His story inspired people, but it did not change who he was.

Jake Olson directs the band after playing in his first NCAA football game between the Western Michigan Broncos and the USC Trojans on September 2.

“I think the fact that his life is fundamentally different now than it was before that really went viral and became a story and I think struck a chord with a lot of people,” Hennes said. “There were a ton of things that were never on camera, like he’d call the family of a blind person who reached out to us or call a kid or record a video for someone battling cancer, and it was just the grace with which he handled everything and the fact that he didn’t let it change him, didn’t let any of that happen.”

Mom Cindy says, “I believe we haven’t seen the last of some of the stuff that he’s going to do. And who knows? I don’t know what he’s going to be able to do. He surprises me.”

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    For Olson, it is another chapter in an incredible story that began when he was a kid and continued with the choice to keep going, playing the sport he loves.

    “I think that sports have given me a platform … so I could prove myself to others,” he said.

    I can go out there and have a place where I can show others that yes, I’m blind, but that doesn’t mean I don’t belong out here or that doesn’t mean I can’t perform out here.”