Blind football player defies odds on the field and in life

Blind football player overcomes adversity
Blind football player overcomes adversity

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Story highlights

  • Jake Olson is a long snapper for USC Trojans
  • He lost his sight to eye cancer at 12
  • "Long snapping is an art. ... But a lot of it is just feel," Olson says

Los Angeles (CNN)When Jake Olson steps out of the tunnel on game days, he can't see the fans or the football field like his teammates.

The long snapper for the University of Southern California is blind.
"When I put on that jersey, I realize the significance of it," he said. "There's a vibe in the air, an energy in the air."
    Olson grew up a huge USC Trojans fan. But after losing his eyesight, he never dreamed that one day he would be walking on the field as a player.
    "When I was 8 months old, I was diagnosed with a rare form of eye cancer called retinoblastoma," he said. "When the doctors found my cancer, it was completely taking over my left eye. ... The greatest fear is the cancer spreading through the optic nerve to the brain."
    To save his life, the doctors removed his left eye. Olson endured chemotherapy and laser treatment to save the right one. But the cancer kept coming back.
    "After about eight times of that happening, the doctors finally said, 'Listen, we've pretty much exhausted all treatment options,' " he said.

    A grim diagnosis and resilient reaction

    Olson was 12 when he found out he would lose his other eye.
    "Realizing what I was going to be confronting ... a life without sight, it was difficult," he said. "I didn't feel completely hopeless, but there was this sense of 'I don't know how I'm gonna do anything anymore.' "
    But during his darkest hours, there was hope.
    Former USC head coach Pete Carroll heard Olson's story. He knew Olson was a huge fan and invited him and his family to meet the team.
    "Little did I know, he had all these plans: introducing me to the team, having me sit in on meetings, going to practice and eating dinner afterwards. And then after that, it just escalated into being part of the team" as an honorary member, he said. "Everything about it was just amazing and something that I will always be grateful for."
    When Olson entered high school, he never considered playing football. "I didn't think I could participate in a way where I would really be benefiting the team," he said.

    A position he could play

    But then he heard about long snapping. "It kind of clicked in my mind that it is a consistent position in that you're snapping the same distance for every snap," he said. "You definitely have the mechanics of what you're supposed to do, but a lot of it is just feel."
    Olson told the coaches that he wanted to play.
    "They really did not take me too seriously, especially at first because I did not know how to long snap," he said.
    "One coach, however, really did take me seriously, and he practiced with me every day that summer. ... When I came back in August and showed the team and the coaches what I could do, that's when they realized, 'OK, this kid is for real. ... This kid could actually be a valuable asset to us.' "
    Olson played his junior and senior year as the long snapper for the team. His persistence and determination caught the attention of the USC coaching staff.
    Last year, he brought his talent to USC as a walk-on player for his beloved team.
    On September 14, 2015, he tweeted:
    "I went into playing football with the mentality that I had nothing to lose," he said. "Either I'm gonna learn how to play this position and participate, or I'm not gonna learn how to play and be back at square one just watching it. I really had no fear."
    Off the field, Olson maintains a similar attitude. He co-wrote a book, "Open Your Eyes: 10 Uncommon Lessons to Discover a Happier Life," served as a motivational speaker and played varsity golf in high school.
    "Going through adversity or challenges in life, it really does make you stronger," he said. "Life's unfair, football's unfair, things are unfair. But at the same time, it's up to you how far you want to take yourself. ... It's taught me not to give up. It's taught me to keep fighting."