By: Eric He
Nov. 25, 2015
I’ve been meaning to post this for a while, but I’m finally getting around to it with some freetime over Thanksgiving.
Last month, I conducted a lengthy interview with Jake Olson, a blind freshman at USC who made the football team a long-snapper. The story ran in the Daily Trojan on Oct. 8 and can be read here
Olson’s story is certainly an inspiration, and I hope the article provided that sense. There was, however, a lot of his quotes that were not included due to space.
Below is the transcription of the 20+ minute interview I did with Olson as we sat in the patio of Heritage Hall on the USC campus with his guide dog, Quebec, resting by his side.
Q: So I want to start off with your childhood and kind of go from there. Can you describe how you grew up? I know you lost your left eye to cancer when you were…
Olson: Yeah, so when I was eight months old, I was diagnosed with a rare form of eye cancer called retinoblastoma. And when the doctors found it, they found it late. Retinoblastoma is a tumor in the retina of the eye that’s a blastoma tumor, meaning that it’s very fast growing and it’s aggressive. And so the fear really starts in that it’s so fast growing that it’s already in the retina of the eye and can easily move to the optic nerve and to the brain and at that point, there’s nothing you can do.
And so, to an extent in my left eye, there was nothing they could do to the cancer that had already taken over my eye. And so they were only left with the option to enucleate it.
So they took my left eye, and they were able to save my right eye. And then from really that point on, they did 12 [surgeries]…you know it came back like eight times and you start to fight with chemotherapy, laser, radiation, chirotherapy, and all sorts of street medicine. Finally at the age of 12, the cancer came back too many times that the doctor said, “You know what, it’s really become immune to everything. You know, we’ve exhausted all our options.”
And again the fear is that it would move to the brain. And so without any real options to kill the cancer, they said that the best option is just to remove that eye as well.
Q: So how did that feel when…you obviously lived a large eleven to twelve years with eyesight…and you know, then suddenly it’s all gone?
Olson: And that was the thing. Being able to see for twelve years, which I’m grateful for…you know I’m always grateful that I was able to see God’s creation. But I didn’t realize how much as humans we use our eyes. You know it’s like you text with your eyes, you walk with your eyes, you do homework…whatever you do besides sleep, you do with your eyes.
And so I knew that. So to think of a life outside…to think, “Okay, I’m not gonna have my eyes to do these things,” you know it was scary and overwhelming because I was like, “Okay, how am I going to walk? How am I going to know where I’m going? How am I going to text? How am I going to eat? How am I going to do all these easy things?”
You really have to relearn how to do them. And so it was scary and overwhelming. And you had the anger that came with the reality of going blind, so it was a tough time. But you know, overall the thing was that I…you know for twelve years I was facing cancer, and there was a lot of disappointment in the return. And I virtually had to go through it with treatments and all that. So you know obviously going blind was my biggest adversity in my life, but the same principles that I had been applying to my life up till that point, I stuck with them. You just got to keep focus on the positives and you know have the mentality of not letting it stop you and look past it and everything around that.
Q: Right. So I know you fell in love with USC. When you had to do a second surgery to remove your eye, they called you and they had you come over for practice and games. How did that get set up? Did you get in touch with them somehow?
Olson: Yeah, so when we found out that I was about to lose my right eye, it was weird how my story came to Coach [Pete] Caroll. A lot of people we knew had connections to the team or people who work here, and somehow it reached Coach Caroll. And when he heard about it, he just invited me up.
For me it was just me thinking I was going to practice, which was awesome just as a 12-year-old. Little did I know he had me show up at pre-practice meetings and introduced me to the team and have me meet everyone and then go to practice and have dinner afterwards. And he’d been inviting me up, travelling with the team in the hotels, in the locker rooms, and buses…and it was just all of it together. And it really was something special. The grace he showed me I will always be in debt to him because of that.
It really made me part of the team, and I felt like how I feel now and just the camaraderie and the brotherhood and the support you get with being on the football team…that’s how I felt, and in that time of my life when I was going to confront going blind, it really meant a lot to have that love there.
Q: So you grew up in this area, so you became a USC fan then?
Olson: Yeah, so I lived in Huntington Beach. So with LA not having an NFL team and USC dominance in Caroll’s era, it was hard not to be a USC fan. It was hard not to look at them like they were the cat’s meow. I definitely grew up a huge USC fan.
Q: So talk a little bit about how you got involved with playing sports despite your disability. So you tried out for your high school football team as a long snapper. How did you come to that decision?
A: Well I played middle school flag football and even after I went blind in seventh grade, I continued to play flag football in my eighth grade. But again it was kind of eight-on-eight flag football. Nothing too physical or taxing or anything.
When I got into high school, I went to high school at Orange Lutheran, and so we face the toughest competition in the United States. And football became this very serious deal with big kids and was just something I felt was not safe and was really something that I could not contribute to the team in any way.
In my freshman-sophmore year, I didn’t play. Seeing the football team and how much fun they had made me really miss it, and I really wanted t get back on the field. And so I heard of the long snapping position, and I talked to the coach and he said, “Okay, just learn it.” And so I practiced all summer long.
And sure enough, three months of practicing every day…going onto my junior year, we all met in August and I was able to show my team I was the best long snapper. I got a spot on varsity in both my junior and senior years. It was cool to see the practice pay off, but it was also being on the field and knowing I was contributing.
Q: Did you struggle at first?
Olson: Yeah I did. When I first started [laughs] I couldn’t snap the ball. Yeah, I didn’t know what the heck I was doing. But you know, like I said, it took two or three months of really practicing hard to really kind of start seeing some progress. And by the time the season starts, you can always see I was pretty good. And as time goes on, you just practice more and more and more.
Q: So I want to get into golf. You also play golf, is that right?
Q: Your aspirations are to make it to the PGA tour. How did you get into golf?
A: Well I got into golf as a little kid. I always played with my dad. My dad is a really good golfer, and we would always go out there and play. And it was around the same time I was going blind that I really wanted to kind of make a profession out of golf.
So it was difficult when I went blind at first. It was really hard to be…I was actually a little kid who was actually decently playing golf and then I went to a kid couldn’t hit the ball anymore, you know. And so it took a lot of practice. A lot of practice. It was one of the more frustrating things to get my golfing down.
But you know what, it started coming back over the summer. In the last couple of years, I’ve been playing better golf than I could ever have imagined. It’s been really fun to see that grow, and unfortunately it’s a give and take. I’m up here practicing football right now, so I don’t have the same amount of time for golf. But for sure someday I’m going to keep up and practice hard. And after college I could put my mind back to it and see where I can get. But I know just from where I’ve been that it’s something that’s very possible. There’s no limitations of how far I can get my golf game as of not having sight.
Q: So being on the football team, it must be surreal for you.
Olson: Yeah, it’s a very fun thing. I’m on the team that I admired for so many years.
Q: And so when you made the team, I know there were some issues with the NCAA and scholarship. But when you made the team and you walked down to your first practice, how did you feel?
Olson: It felt great. I felt ready more than anything. I practiced hard to show the coach of the team what I could do. So when I had my opportunity to finally go out there and start practicing, I was ready. But at the same time it was so exhilarating. I was so excited. I couldn’t believe what I was wearing. It was just like the Cardinal Gold and the helmet on. So yeah, it was absolutely crazy, but it was a dream come true, and you never take for granted the reality of putting on the uniform and pads and walking out on the Howard-Jones Field. The first day and the last day, it’s going to be the same feeling of, “This is a blessing.”
Q: And I read about your first live snapping practice. Describe that.
Olson: Yeah, it was great. It was fun. The coach called me in. I felt ready. It was just something I did thousands of times. So it was not letting the situation get in your head…”Okay this is what you’ve done a ton of times. Just do the same thing you always do.”
Q: Did your teammates celebrate?
Olson: Yeah, we made the field goal and it was a cool moment for everyone out there. It was very cool and we had a lot more of those, so it was awesome.
Q: What’s the key to a good long snap?
Olson: The key to a good long snap…grip on the ball is key. You want to make sure your hands are where they need to be on the ball. And then really it take a lot to get it down. The key to a good long snap is the spiral. You want to, just like the quarterback throws a spiral to the receiver — the long snap is the same thing. The long snapper is wanting to have that spiral back to his punter through his holder. The spiral’s going back there. It’s quick and it’s efficient. And so that was the longest thing that took me — and any long snapper — is when they’re beginning to learn how a long snap is to gain that spiral.
And once the spiral comes, and then you’ve got distance control. And then you can start working on speed or whatever. But it’s the spiral that’s the best just because it’s feel and practice. There’s certain things you do that can create a spiral. You can take someone out there and show them all the correct things to do, but it’s just something that your body kind of unconsciously learns.
Q: So if you don’t mind, can you take me through a day in the life of Jake Olsen? What rityllenges do you face?
Olson: [laughs] Yeah. The challenges…I do have Quebec here, he’s my eye dog. Getting to class, you have to really focus on where you’re going. It’s not like a walk in the park where you look up and you can see where you are. You really got to keep focus on what direction you’re walking, your surroundings, your bearings…and you know that’s always difficult and sometimes you do get lost and you have to figure it out.
Q: Have you gotten lost?
Olson: Yeah, for sure! In that first week, man? This place is so big. I didn’t know where the hell I was going.
But you know what, when you do homework on the computer, sometimes there can be glitches if something is not accessible to voice activated systems, you ask for help and that gets kind of annoying.
So I don’t know. Being blind…the thing is, I’ll never say that you cannot do anything, but I will say that it does take an extra step of thinking and being creative in ways to find how to do it. It doesn’t mean you can’t do it. It’s just a little difficult to just do normal things like walk or do homework or figure out which toothpaste is on your toothbrush. Whatever it is, there’s things that, it’s like, “Is that okay? How do I figure out how to do this?” And once you do it, it’s just not as easy as seeing it.
Q: Are there positive things about being blind? Are you able to appreciate certain things more?
Olson: Yeah. I think a big positive thing is that sight can really deceive you at times. With people or food or whatever it is. Not being able to see…it’s really allowed me to see people for who they are. I really think that’s a cool thing. I’m never deceived by how people look. If you ask me, it really isn’t about how someone looks [laughs]. It’s really cool.
I don’t know if it’s necessarily being blind, but just the things you learn from adversity…just learning to push through things and not letting adversity stop you. That’s been a huge positive and you can transfer that into the other aspects of life.
Q: And you’ve done a lot of charity work, speaking engagements…you’ve written books, is that right? Can you talk about that a little bit?
Olson: Yeah, well for the speaking engagements, I love…it’s kind of weird actually. When the first story aired in 2009, I got a speaker request and they just kept coming and keep coming. It’s just something that’s built up, and I just love going out there and speaking with people, sharing my story and inspiring them.
My foundation Outside Faith. I created that because with technology and homework, that’s what’s really allowed me to succeed with school and to be in normal classrooms and just kind of do things like anyone else would. And I realized how important and essential that technology is.
So my foundation raises money to get other blind kids that technology as well. And then my books…I wrote a smaller book, I just chose a book when I was eight years old, that’s always kind of fun to go back and read. And that’s actually been distributed more than I thought it’d be.
But then my latest book that came out in 2014. I co-wrote it with Dr. McKay Christensen who’s a president of a company and a has a Ph.D. in psychology, and I spoke to his company and he contacted me wanting to write a book with me. We kind of collected our ideas of 10 reasons and ways on how to live your life.
And it’s cool because it’s formatted in a way that there’s just a bunch of principles in there that can apply to any circumstance. Just getting through adversity and how to live a happier life. It uses my story as a prime example and there are other examples in there. It’s a very inspiring book, and that’s what I’m about. Just helping people and inspiring them.
Q: So what advice would you give to other kids growing up blind? I know you’ve had a tremendous amount of success.
Olson: Growing up blind or going through any adversity, first you have to come to that realization that everyone does that life sucks. There are going to be things in life that just end up unfair and life is not forgiving. It’s going hit you. It’s going to hit you hard. But the thing is, you’ve got to know that. You’ve got to get the mindset that you’re not gonna let it stop you.
You’ve got to get the mindset that no matter what comes your way, that you have a potential, that you have hope, and it’s up to you to find that. The only thing that’s going to stop you from getting to your true potential is you. And so find a will. Find a way to get things done and get to where you want to be. And whatever obstacle that comes, just say, “Okay, that’s my obstacle, but I’m not gonna let it stop me.” Find a way. It’s a mindset. It’s something you’ve got to come up with.
And that’s my advice. Really believe in yourself. Believe in your potential. Don’t let things stop you. Find a way to get around it. To get through it. And trust me, when you do, it’s gonna be so satisfying.
Q: So what inspires you to keep going? What inspires you to get up in the morning?
Olson: My faith, number one. That really inspires me, knowing that God’s got a plan for my life and that He’s always got me. That helps me a lot and gives me the peace and hope I need. But also just a good support system with family and friends. Knowing I’m not alone and then just knowing that…it goes back and forth. I inspire people; people tell me how much I inspire them. But in turn that inspires me because I know that I’m making an impact. And so that’s what helps me keep going, just knowing that I’m making an impact in people’s lives and people draw inspiration from me.
Q: And who are your inspirations? Who do you credit for helping you?
Olson: Coach Caroll is a huge one. He would tell me to always compete. That’s a good question. I’d definitely say my parents. Coach Caroll, my parents…I don’t know, other inspirational stories. I always have a heart for people who are in the service. A lot of them have great inspiring stories, and they’ve come through a lot, so that always inspiring.
Q: Do you have any siblings?
Olson: I have a twin sister. She goes here actually.
Q: That’s very nice. Will you get a chance to get in a game this season?
Olson: I don’t know. I’m not worried about it at all. My job and my mindset right now is to go out there and get better every day. And prove to people that I can be that guy who can go out there in a game and snap. And whenever they feel that I’m ready, I trust that coach will put me in.
I’ve got four years here, so wherever it comes…if I get a few games, I’m just going to compete and practice. I don’t want any special treatment. I just want to be competing and climb up the ladder and see how far I can get.
Q: How are your teammates treating you, welcoming you?
Olson: Great. They treat me just like any guy, which I love. But at the same time, they are attentive to whatever needs I need in order to perform. So it’s been a great mix of them being there for me and treating me like a normal guy.
Q: How do you imagine the Coliseum is like when you’re a player?
Olson: Well the cool thing is that being down on the field before, I do have that vision. But I always picture myself as a kid up there looking down at the players in uniform and admiring them. And so when I’m in uniform down there, I can only imagine…I’m one of those guys now, which is a crazy thing to think about.
Q: Lastly, what’s next for you?
Olson: You know, I’m just working hard at everything I can. School, football, golf…whatever it is. It’s paid off. And God opens doors so I’m just letting Him take the lead. And right now it’s long-snapping and school.
Do I want to achieve things? Do I want to start? Yeah, but you know I’m just gonna try. As long as I give it my all, God will have my back and I’m not really too concerned by that.
Q: What are you majoring in?
Q: And that’s something you’d like to pursue after school?
Olson: Yeah for sure. I’d like that.
Q: Great. Anything else you want us to know?
Olson: Nope, just fight on.