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Faith without sight

Olson directs the band after playing in his first NCAA football game. (Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire/AP)

Sports

Faith without sight

Blindness hasn’t stopped Jake Olson from achieving football dreams and inspiring others

Facing the loss of an eye to cancer for the second time—and mentally preparing to go through life blind—young Jake Olson turned to God in prayer. Olson, now 21, believes God responded by giving him a sense of strength and peace and encouragement to wait and see what He had in store for him.

“Obviously,” Olson says, “it’s been something pretty special.”

Olson is a long snapper for the University of Southern California football team. Long snapper is hardly a high-profile position: A long snapper only comes in for field-goal attempts, extra-point kicks after touchdowns, and punts (though not in Olson’s case), and he’s typically noticed only when one of the balls he fires backward through his legs goes haywire. Olson isn’t even atop USC’s depth chart at the position: As of Nov. 6, the junior had appeared in just three games over the past two seasons, all on extra-point attempts when victory was practically sealed. That includes the Trojans’ season-opening 43-21 victory over the University of Nevada-Las Vegas on Sept. 1.

Still, Olson’s few appearances have earned him a platform to talk about his faith as well as other topics. In the first, in USC’s 2017 season opener, he delivered a perfect snap on an extra-point kick as the Trojans defeated Western Michigan. Olson earned the Pac-12 Conference’s Special Teams Player of the Week honor for his performance. After that game, Olson told the Los Angeles Times, “If you can’t see how God works things out, then I think you’re the blind one.”

Olson wasn’t even a year old when he lost his left eye to retinal cancer. Still, both before and after cancer took his right eye, sports played an important role in his life, and he decided to try out for football before his junior year at Orange Lutheran High in Southern California. His early attempts at long snapping were disastrous: “He said, ‘Coach, I was just wondering how long it was going to be before I’m snapping on the varsity,’” said Dean Vieselmeyer, his position coach at Orange Lutheran. “The ball was flying every which direction. I told him it was going to be a long time.”

He responded by meeting Vieselmeyer for early-morning workouts at a nearby junior college—“The maintenance men got to know us real well,” Vieselmeyer said—and practicing for an additional 1½ to two hours after Vieselmeyer got off work during the summer. By the start of football season, Olson was the best long snapper Orange Lutheran had.

Mark J. Terrill/AP

Olson prepares for an extra-point attempt during an NCAA college football game against UNLV. (Mark J. Terrill/AP)

At USC, Olson made the team as a non-scholarship player in 2015. When he enters a game, teammates have to guide Olson—who is listed on USC's roster at 6-foot-3 and 225 pounds—onto the field and into position. They then have to position his body so he can snap the ball properly.

Each time that’s happened, though, Olson has fired a perfect spiral through his legs to his holder, allowing USC’s kicker to send the ball through the uprights—and the crowd at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum into a frenzy.

Olson relies a lot on muscle memory to snap the ball: “A lot of it is feel, being cognizant of body movements and replicating movements so I know I have a successful outcome.” He also relies on his hearing to know how far and where to snap the ball.

Eventually, Olson hopes to snap more regularly on field goals and extra points. Still, his blindness will keep him off USC’s punting unit: “There are major coverage responsibilities for a long snapper, and it would be difficult for me to get downfield,” he said.

That’s one of the few limitations Olson has had to accept. He plays golf and can shoot in the 70s over 18 holes, according to Yahoo Sports. He’s even driven a race car at Charlotte Motor Speedway: With former NASCAR driver Todd Bodine guiding him from the passenger seat, Olson drove as fast as 75 mph. “It was fun,” Olson said. “I felt a certain freedom, especially knowing I wasn’t going to crash into a barrier.”

He currently serves on the President’s Council on Sports, Fitness & Nutrition and even met President Trump during a field day on the White House lawn. He’s appeared in a video on conservative commentator Dennis Prager’s website PragerU.com, explaining why school choice would benefit special-needs students. He also travels around the country as a motivational speaker and has written two faith-based books about overcoming adversity.

Olson says he’s grateful to God for the strength He gave to a scared 12-year-old boy: “There were times when I asked, ‘What are You doing? I don’t understand where You’re going with this.’ Looking back, I get it now.”