When it comes to Jake Olson’s ability to snap a football, nobody knows better than Dean Vieselmeyer.
Olson is the long snapper for the University of Southern California’s football team. He grew up wanting to wear the USC cardinal and gold colors. Vieselmeyer was Olson’s high school position coach at Orange Lutheran High School, where Olson graduated as an accomplished math student with a 4.3 grade point average. In addition, he was the snapper on the varsity football team for field goals and extra points.
Vieselmeyer remembered when Olson first came to try out for the team.
“I saw him and the head coach talking at a practice,” Vieselmeyer said. “The coach told me he had another snapper for me, so I walked over. Jake and his dad both had shades on. I told him that tomorrow we’ll start working, and he said, ‘Great!’ I shook his dad’s hand, then I stuck out my hand, and Jake didn’t shake it. He just walked away.”
A few minutes later, Vieselmeyer told head coach Chuck Petersen the interaction concerned him since Olson didn’t shake his hand. Petersen shared one more detail with Vieselmeyer: “Oh, I forgot to tell you. He’s blind.”
Olson was born with cancer of the retina, called retinoblastoma. His left eye was removed when he was 10 months old. His right eye was removed at age 12.
Olson grew up a huge USC football fan, and then head coach Pete Carroll invited him to attend a game as a guest of the Trojans when he heard of his story. Olson grew close with the former Trojans head coach and the team as they continued to host him on campus and give him a chance to experience the Trojan family as a youngster. Olson’s relationship with the Trojans has been well documented, and the day before his surgery to remove his right eye, the USC team hosted him at practice and one-by-one, the players and Carroll wished him well.
“The tough part for him was when he still had his eye and knew it was going to come out,” Vieselmeyer said. “He was trying to look at his parents, look at everybody around. He wanted to visualize things.”
After surgery, Jake dedicated his life to only moving forward.
“I asked him, ‘What was it like when you woke up, and you didn’t have sight anymore?’” Vieselmeyer said. “He said that wasn’t hard for him because he prepared himself by saying it would be a new chapter in his life, and he was going for it. Once he came out of surgery, he said it was a new part of his life, and he was not going to look back.”
Since then, Olson hasn’t turned back.
Olson was an athletic high school student, and he played on the golf team. He also wanted to play football, so he worked with Vieselmeyer to learn how snap. And he worked hard. He had to, because he wasn’t that good.
Vieselmeyer puts it a little more bluntly: “He was absolutely terrible. We had constant drills I was putting him through. He had the audacity to ask me at the end of that first day how long it would be before he was snapping for the varsity team. I told him at the speed he was going, that would be never.”
The next day before Olson arrived at practice, Vieselmeyer wondered why his snapper wanted to play so badly and what it was like for him on the field. So while a few other players began practice, Vieselmeyer closed his eyes and just listened.
“After a few minutes, I realized that this kid really wanted to do this,” Vieselmeyer said. “When he got to practice, I told him that if he’s willing to learn then I’d be willing to meet him as much as he wanted, in practice or outside of practice.”
Olson worked 90 minutes each day just snapping with Vieselmeyer from May until late July. Vieselmeyer was the instructor, but he learned, too. He couldn’t just show Olson how to change his delivery of the ball; he had to position Olson’s arms and walk him through the process step-by-step after each mistake. He couldn’t throw the ball back to Olson after each snap; he had to walk it back (despite Olson pleading for him to throw it).
For Olson, he learned how to listen for a clap to know where to snap the football. He also had to learn how to listen to feedback. If the ball didn’t spiral or it was wobbling, he had to understand how to correct it. The procedure goes like this: A guard on either side of him taps his leg when the kicker is ready. The holder or the punter claps his hands to allow Olson to locate his position. Then it’s up to Olson to snap the ball when he’s ready. He can snap it right away, or he can wait to confuse the defense.
He got so good that the head coach named him the starter going into the season. In the first game, his team scored a quick touchdown, and Olson snapped it perfectly for the extra point. The team ran to the sideline in excitement, but Olson was nowhere to be found. Vieselmeyer realized they never created a protocol for Olson to get to the sideline with his team.
“The next day, the coach’s first order of business was not the game but to get Jake off the field,” Vieselmeyer said.
The high school rulebook stated that long snappers could not be hit if they did not pop up after snapping the ball between their legs, so Olson stayed in the bent-over position after the snap. In his second game, a frustrated defender crashed into Olson and received a personal foul. He did it a second time, and Olson’s teammates came to the rescue, applying their own payback with a couple of late hits to the opposing player. Olson’s coaches were furious, but Vieselmeyer realized the team was unifying around Olson by defending him.
“We didn’t condone what they did, but I told the coach right away that Jake was now accepted,” Vieselmeyer said. “He was on our team. He was one of us. That was a big turning point.”
Now he’s applying those adjustment techniques to the college football field and the campus at USC.
“Anything you do with a disability, it’s harder, but it doesn’t mean it cannot be done,” Olson said. “Is it harder to get to class sometimes? Yeah, I can’t just put some earphones in and hang my head and get lost with it in my thoughts to go to class. I always have to focus on which way I am going, which turn I am doing, how long. Just doing homework, I can go on a computer and I am thankful to live in the 21st century where we have the technology to do that with voice-activated systems.”
But Olson doesn’t dwell on the difficulties.
“It is different, but I really don’t want to get hung up on that. If you sit there and think about all the hard stuff you have to do, that’s when people get in trouble. Why can’t I go to a school like USC? I am able to walk to class because I have a guide dog, Quebec. I try to find a positive in everything.”
That is what has led him to USC to wear the Trojan helmet, although it was a bit of a process for him to be cleared by the NCAA to become part of the team.
Coming into this football season, head coach Steve Sarkisian (who has since been fired) invited Olson to become a walk-on with the team, which is typically reserved for practice players who do not receive financial assistance. However, Olson received the USC Swim With Mike Scholarship for athletes with physical challenges. Therefore, Olson was technically counted as a scholarship student-athlete, and his participation with the football team pushed USC over its NCAA maximum of 85 football scholarships. USC appealed to the NCAA, and Olson was cleared to practice and play with the Trojans in September.
“The NCAA was very cooperative,” Olson said. “We didn’t ever think they were going to deny it; we just had to figure out the details. That was a great feeling to know I could go out there without any roadblocks and start doing what I was prepared to do.”
Once cleared, Olson dressed and was on the sideline as USC’s backup long snapper.
“You do realize the significance of it and the impact of what you’re representing,” Olson said of wearing the USC uniform. “In that aspect, it’s humbling to know what you play for and who you play for is so meaningful to people. It’s also so fun to be playing with great athletes. It’s a tremendous opportunity.”
by Josh Pate