Young fan inspires despite challenges
It has grown dark in Huntington Beach, Calif., but for 13-year-old Jake Olson and his father, Brian, it is the perfect time to hit the golf course. Brian is caddying; Jake's bag has USC Trojans club covers. On the course, Brian places the ball down and lines Jake's clubhead alongside it. Jake adjusts his stance and then takes a smooth swing, smacking the ball down the middle of the fairway.
He can tell it was good, even though he can't see it. Jake is blind.
"But I can tell the way it sounds and feels when it's a good shot," Jake would say later. And when his father finally locates the ball on their walk up the fairway, he confirms it. Then he lines up Jake's club again.
"Playing at night is really no different for me," Jake said with a grin. "But you never would have thought you would be playing in the dark."
Night golf has become a ritual in the Olson household since Jake became blind a year ago. Other things have changed as well.
"I grew six inches, and my voice deepened," he said with a laugh.
What has remained constant during the past year is Jake's sense of humor, his spirit and his love for the USC Trojans, who upon learning he wanted to spend his last month of sight watching them play, took him inside their world and have kept them there.
A little more than a year ago, Jake learned he would lose his remaining eye to cancer. His left eye was removed when he was a year old because of retinoblastoma. The cancer was in his right eye, too, but was treated with chemotherapy and radiation successfully eight times during the past 12 years. But then came another doctor's visit in fall 2009 and the news the cancer was back. This time, treatment didn't work. Jake learned in October he had about a month before his right eye would be removed.
He told his parents that what he wanted to see most one last time was another USC football game. His family goes to the same church as several of the Trojans players, and they told then-coach Pete Carroll about Jake. What happened next was something Jake, his family and the Trojans say they will never forget: The Trojans took him inside the locker room, in the huddle at practice, on the bus to the Coliseum. He spent the night before his surgery getting one last look at his new teammates, capturing images in his mind that would have to last a lifetime.
"When I talk to Kris I picture a woolly mammoth. I'm just kidding," Jake said of bearded center Kris O'Dowd and laughed. "I picture him as a big teddy bear, really. You know he's huge, but he's also really loving in his voice."
O'Dowd was with Jake at the hospital on the day of the surgery. He broke down crying, along with Jake and his family, when Jake was about to be wheeled into the operating room.
"That was probably the lowest of the lows " O'Dowd said. "It will never be like that again. He's progressed from the very worst to the very best, and I see things getting brighter and brighter in Jake's future."
From the moment he woke up from surgery, Jake has been looking forward.
"He was so prepared to take his life to the next level," Brian Olson said. "If not two or three levels. We didn't have time to sort of feel sorry for Jake, we didn't have time to feel sorry for ourselves. We had a little time to concern ourselves with the technology and Braille, but for the most part we had to keep pace with Jake."
He embraced learning Braille and getting around with his blind cane. He has been approved for a Seeing Eye dog and will spend time in the spring learning how to get around that way, too. He has been skiing, golfing -- even surfing when the family went to Hawaii in September for the USC-Hawaii game. While there, his family met professional surfer Ned Snow, who watched the ESPN video report on Jake the day they met, then happened to run into Jake at North Shore and invited him to go surfing.
"We got on a tandem board together, and the first couple of times I was just trying to get up on my knees, just kind of get the feel of it," Jake said. "And over time I just got the real feel of it and stood up, and it was a great feeling."
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Jake has stayed in close contact with the Trojans, especially quarterback Matt Barkley and O'Dowd. They text constantly -- Jake has a phone that has talking text, meaning a voice reads to him what the text says or who is calling.
"It's always fun when he hits me up and usually before a game or something like that " Barkley said. "Just talking to him brightens your day and gives you perspective as to how blessed you are."
O'Dowd, who has visited the Olsons several times, was scared witless with how fast Jake wanted to ride on a tandem bike. They played cards -- using a Braille-edition deck -- and Jake went to USC's campus for O'Dowd's final practice the week before the UCLA game, escorting him to the field to great fanfare. O'Dowd now calls him his little brother.
"Having Jake come into my life, really finding myself as a person and as a man, and him finding himself as a man even though he's 13 years old, I've learned a lot of life lessons from him," O'Dowd said.
When the NCAA sanctions were handed down this past spring, Jake reached out to O'Dowd and Barkley, refusing to let them get down about something that had been out of their control and, he thought, unfair.
"What I wanted to do was plan a rebellion against the NCAA," Jake said, laughing again, something he does often. "I wanted to give them courage, say this is just temporary, you'll move on in two more years."
Both players said that Jake's story put their plight into perspective and that Jake helped give the season meaning.
"Jake just reminded me that life is fragile," Barkley said. "To take advantage of every opportunity you get, whether it's 12 games, 13 games, whether it's your life, you never know when it's going to be gone. Just thinking about that and realizing how blessed we are -- still get to play football, you get to see what's going on; Jake's never going to be able to do that. It allows you to attack life; that's what he does."
And even Carroll, who left to become coach of the Seattle Seahawks in January 2010, kept in touch with Jake and his family, inviting them to Seattle in December and taking him inside the Seahawks' world. Jake ran onto the field with the team, led both teams in prayer and played catch with Carroll on the field before the game.
His life has been turned upside down in other ways, too -- invited to speak at dozens of charity events, church gatherings, business meetings -- he was the keynote speaker at Dick Vitale's Jimmy V fundraiser last June. He is writing a second book about his faith and his journey.
"I knew he would stay in touch," Jake said. "But I never knew that I was going to get to see team practices and run out with the team and that he was going to involve me with all that stuff."
In addition to golf -- Jake says his goal is to be the first blind golfer to win the Masters ("It shouldn't take long," he said in a recent text) -- Jake and his dad have devised a way to play catch with a football: Brian claps and Jake aims.
"When you clap your hands and he can understand where you are, he'll generally hit you right on the hands or right in the chest," Brian Olson said.
So it was of no real surprise to Jake's father when his son threw a 60-yard touchdown pass in his final game of middle school flag football.
"I knew where my wide receiver was going to be, and he was lined up to my left," Jake said. "I knew that he was going to be doing a post over the field and he was going to clap his hands. I really didn't hear his clap, but I kind of waited and threw it in the middle of the field, and it was perfect."
Jake's mother, Cindy, said it was like a scene out of a movie.
"The coach on the other team cried," she said. "And then everyone was crying."
Carroll tweeted about it, which Jake took as the ultimate compliment. His life has been turned upside down in other ways, too. He has been invited to speak at dozens of charity events, church gatherings and business meetings -- he was the keynote speaker at Dick Vitale's Jimmy V fundraiser this past June. He is writing a second book about his faith and his journey.
Jake's parents say he is so upbeat that they sometimes forget he is blind. He moves around his house without his blind cane, looks at people when they speak and generally acts like any other kid. Jake's father said he sometimes needs to be reminded by moments such as when he walks by Jake's bathroom and hears that he's taking a shower -- and there are no lights on.
"And I forget that he is so organized, he knows where the shampoo is, the conditioner is, he never asks for help," Brian Olson said. "But he's there in the dark, and it hits me."
Amid all the attention of a year in which nobody really knew what to expect, Jake says a touchdown pass and a bike ride with a USC center have given him the most joy.
"He's made that transition so much easier for us," Cindy Olson said. "Because 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."
Jake said he knew all along what his new life would be like.
"It's awesome."Shelley Smith is a reporter for ESPN.
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