Blind but determined

When Jake Olson isn't playing football and golf for his high school, he's often offering inspiration or promoting his new book on his life.

While all his activities would be a lot for an average 16-year-old to handle, Jake is blind. When people ask how can he possibly play golf without being able to see the ball, he credits his father with guiding him.

But it seems apparent that his early experience playing sports as a person with sight and muscle memory — repeating behaviors over and over until they become second nature — have also enabled Jake to hit the ball, and quite well.

"I guess we're never blown away with what he's tackling because he does seem to reach for things and make stuff happen," said Brian Olson, Jake's father. "It never seems like it's crazy. It's just a part of his routine at this point."

Jake was born with a rare form of eye cancer that took away the vision from his left eye when he was an infant and eventually his right eye when he was 12 years old in 2009.

Rather than letting the retinoblastoma, a disease that affects the retina, hold him back, Jake used his loss of sight and his faith as sources of motivation.

"When I awoke from that surgery that took my right eye, I felt like I could go out there and I didn't have to worry about going blind anymore because I was blind and that's how I was going to be," he said.

"If I was going to sit on the couch all day feeling sorry for myself, I wasn't going to be doing anything. I decided right then and there that I wasn't going to let it stop me and that I was going to go out and persevere."

It was with that mind-set that the junior from Orange Lutheran High School in Orange was able to write his first book, "Open Your Eyes: 10 Uncommon Lessons to Discover a Happier Life," which came out New Year's Eve.

"It's about opening the readers' eyes to their true potential in life and making sure that they use all the abilities that they have," Jake said.

He will be in Irvine on Friday speaking at the Fellowship of Christian Athletes National Championship Breakfast, where he will talk to football players from Florida State University and the University of Auburn — the two teams playing in the 2014 BCS National Championship game Jan. 6 in Pasadena.

It will be his second time giving an inspirational speech to a group of collegiate athletes. Jake, an avid football fan, was first invited to speak four years ago when the University of Texas and the University of Alabama played for the national title in 2010.

The teen has toured the nation giving motivational speeches and has appeared on national networks, such as Fox Sports West and ESPN.

Jake's father said the family is impressed with what he has done with his life, including showing people that they can get through adversity.

"A lot of it is just his own desire to impact people, and it really comes from his heart," said Brian Olson. "As a parent, it's great to see that he's doing something that he loves to do."

Jake's experience with NCAA football teams doesn't end with his speaking engagements. In 2009, before the surgery on his right eye, Jake met with his favorite team, the USC Trojans, and then-head Coach Pete Carroll.

"I'm actually still friends with him, and I'll text him every once in a while," said Jake about Carroll, who is now the head coach of the Seattle Seahawks. "I've been up to Seattle a few times this year to see him, and he's just the real deal."

Jake played some football in middle school before losing his sight. Itching to play again, he needed to figure out which position would be safe for him as well as be something he could actually handle.

When the position of long snapper came up, he studied and practiced how to snap a ball over the summer, tried out in the fall and landed a spot on Orange Lutheran's varsity team.

"I really sucked at first because I had never done it, but I really practiced hard over the summer as I entered into the season," Jake said. "It was evident that I was the best long snapper we had."

As a long snapper, the player is face-to-face with the opposing defenders. He has two jobs: Toss the ball to the punter or holder as quickly as possible and block his opponents from reaching the ball.

Jake has to judge where punter is standing and then rely on intuition. Signals can come through touch or verbal cues.

He admits that the first game of the season was a little scary, but as the year rolled on he got used to the tackles and wasn't too concerned about getting hurt.

"The rules say that [defenders] can't bull rush me," Jake said. "They can try to get through the gap between me and the guards, so I definitely have to put up a block. But I'm 6-4 and 180 [pounds], so I can hold my own."

With the football season behind him, Jake is transitioning into golf, a sport he'd been playing since he was around 6 years old. He has had to relearn how to swing his clubs after going blind.

"But now I've gotten to the point where I'm playing better than I did with sight," the teen said. "I think a lot of it has to do with feel. Golf is about the feel, feeling my tempo, my swing, my weight shift and feeling the club [face] if it's open or closed. All those things come into factor."

Jake said his father assists him by aiming him in the right direction, telling him if the ball is in the center of the club face and making sure his stance is correct.

"After that, it's all me," he said. "[Golf] is kind of like all about feel, making sure you're consistent and having that muscle memory."

Brian Olson said his son's golf game has improved ever since he joined the football team.

"He's gotten stronger and hits the ball really well," the dad said. "He's got skills. He's got all the skills to be a really good golfer."

Jake said he hopes to become the first blind golfer to join the PGA Tour, but before that he aspires to attend USC and major in broadcast journalism.

Whatever path he takes, he probably will continue to give his inspirational talks.

"Your darkest hour can soon become your brightest, and with every setback, there's a setup," he said. "In every one of us, there's more potential than we can ever imagine, and it really is a choice.

"You already have it in you. It's you wanting to bring it out that's the deciding factor."

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