Column: USC long snapper Jake Olson delivers in a key moment — ‘Certain things are bigger than the game’
Jake Olson will never behold his perfect snap, the wondrous kick, that glorious final point of USC’s opening-day victory.
But he felt it in the hugs, heard it in the roars and basked in its triumph as he trotted from the Coliseum field into the arms of his Trojans teammates.
Turns out, USC’s blind long snapper saw it better than anyone.
“There’s a beauty in it,” Olson said, still sweating through his uniform early Saturday evening. “If you can’t see how God works things out, then I think you’re the blind one.”
The beauty washed over the overheated Coliseum with barely three minutes left Saturday in USC’s 49-31 victory over Western Michigan. Eight years after the USC football program adopted him after he lost both of his eyes to retinoblastoma, a rare form of cancer, and three years after he joined the team as a walk-on, Olson snapped the ball in an official game for the first time.
This was not practice. This was not an exhibition. This was real, and the 20-year-old junior from Huntington Beach nailed it.
After Marvell Tell III returned an interception for the game’s final touchdown, Olson jogged onto the field with one hand on the shoulder pads of holder Wyatt Schmidt. Olson crouched into position, then quickly hiked the ball to Schmidt, who put it in place for the kick by Chase McGrath. When the ball sailed through the uprights, the USC sideline erupted in dancing and cheering, fans hugged and high-fived, and Trojans coach Clay Helton simply marveled.
“What a pressure player,” he said. “Is that not a perfect snap at that moment? It’s beyond words.”
At the end of a grueling game in 98-degree heat, it was beyond belief that the Trojans could pull this off, but, with a big assist from Western Michigan, they made it happen.
“Certain things are bigger than the game,” USC special teams coach John Baxter said.
This was one of those things, a moment during which all the statistics and expectations and hype around this Trojans football team were whittled into one small play for one giant of a kid.
“To navigate a situation where a guy has a great moment, that’s simple,” Baxter said.
Start with Olson. You’ve probably read about him. His story has been recounted many times since Pete Carroll took him under his wing in the coach’s final season here. But he’s no longer a little boy with a crazy wish. After snapping in regular games for Orange Lutheran High for two years, he is now a regular USC football player. With the exception of the times he places his hand on a teammate’s shoulder when navigating the field in practice, he is no different than anyone else, just another guy dressed in pads and intensity.
Then there’s Helton. In his short tenure here, he has been the ideal Trojans coach, preaching not just toughness but family, winning 10 consecutive games while building up a tight locker-room culture of trust and respect.
Helton saw how hard Olson worked, knew how much he was loved, and figured he deserved a chance. He thought perhaps the final moments against a big underdog like Western Michigan in the first game of the season would afford him that chance.
But first, he had to call Western Michigan coach Tim Lester and ask for his help. The Broncos needed to know that they might be facing a blind center so they could respond with the appropriate sensitivity.
So on Thursday, Helton called Lester and offered to make a most unique deal. The Trojans would not rush the Broncos’ first extra-point attempt if the Broncos would not rush an extra-point attempt involving Olson.
“Coach Helton told me what the kid meant to the team, I told him we’d be happy to be part of it,” Lester said.
So, indeed, after Western Michigan scored its first touchdown on a four-yard run by Jamauri Bogan midway through the first quarter, even though the extra point would tie the score at 7-7, the Trojans backed off.
“Sure enough, they didn’t rush our first extra point, they actually played a Cover 2 [defense],” Lester said. “That was the setup.”
About three hours later, when Tell scored on the interception return, even though the score was a dagger in the Broncos’ upset chances, good-guy Lester kept his part of the bargain. Before the Trojans’ extra-point try, he called his defensive players together and gave them an impromptu speech that could serve as a manual for sportsmanship.
“I told them the entire situation and said, ‘You can’t touch him, you can’t yell at him, everybody get down so it looks like a football play but nobody move,’” Lester recalled. “I told them, ‘What we’re about to do is bigger than the game. This is about what kind of people we want to be, what we represent; this is bigger than us.’”
And what did they say?
“They said, ‘Yes sir.’”
And, yes sir, it was an amazing moment, everything great about sports emerging from this afternoon of pain and sweat, Helton and Lester shining like true leaders, the Trojans and Broncos acting like real men.
“I commend and thank coach Lester and entire Western Michigan family for giving us this honor,” Helton said. “That’s a first-class organization.”
In the stands, Jake Olson’s family screamed.
“It’s surreal, it’s absolutely surreal,” his father Brian said.
On the field, their son completed this circle of renewed life that USC has helped him discover.
“To have a situation where a 12-year-old kid is losing his sight, to take a situation that ugly and fast forward eight years and be able to snap on the football field for a team that really helped him get through that time is beautiful and special,” Brian Olson said.
I asked Jake if there was any sensation on the field that surprised him. He said there was only one.
“The quickness of it,” he said.
Quick, but forever.
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