clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

How USC’s Jake Olson is trying to help cure the cancer that took his eyesight

New, comments

The former Trojans long snapper bench pressed to help cure retinoblastoma at his pro day. That’s just part of his journey.

NCAA Football: Western Michigan at Southern California Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Lifelong USC fan and former Trojans long snapper Jake Olson has been inspiring people for years. Back in 2009, Olson made headlines when his diagnosis of retinoblastoma — a rare cancer of the retina — caused him to have both of his eyes removed.

Instead of treating the reality of losing his eyesight as only a setback, he decided to keep moving forward. He’s moved into the latest phase of that in 2019.

During USC’s Pro Day in late March 2019, Olson performed 17 bench press reps of 225 pounds. But he didn’t do it to impress NFL scouts.

The 17 reps were all to benefit a charity for research to further advancement for a medical device that could have saved his eyesight if it had been around when he was 12.

His efforts have already raised $54,000, per his charity page. He counts that as $3,233.63 per rep (and counting), with nearly 500 donors (and counting). The drive remains open.

“I remember hearing about [the device] actually 10 years ago, when I was facing the reality of losing my eye,” Olson told SB Nation. “At that point, it was so early on in the stages of development that it wasn’t really safe to use, so we couldn’t.”

Olson was diagnosed with the cancer when he was an infant, and at 10 months old, doctors removed his left eye. Twelve years later, they removed his right eye.

Dr. Brenda Gallie, the head of the retinoblastoma program at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children, has helped develop a device called the Episcleral Topotecan, along with Olson’s physician, Dr. Linn Murphree. In the last year, the device has successfully cured a 3-year-old with retinoblastoma and saved one of the child’s eyes. Upon hearing that story, Olson was motivated to contribute to the cause.

“It was really something that hit me hard in the sense that obviously if I had it 10 years ago it would’ve changed my life,” Olson said of learning about the device. “But since I’m in this position, I’m going to use it to the best of my ability to make sure that for the future generations they don’t have to go through the same situation I did.”

Although Olson told ESPN he was hoping to make 20 reps, 17 isn’t too shabby. He worked over the winter to raise his number by the middle of March.

“If I were to do a bench press on January 1, I probably would’ve done around 12,” he said. I added about five reps I would say over the next two months.”

Olson’s battle with cancer is what led him to be connected with USC’s football team in the first place.

A lot of college football fans first learned his name in 2009, when he was featured on a segment during ESPN’s College GameDay. When Olson and his family were told that his second eye would have to be removed, Olson wanted to see his Trojans one last time. Trojans head coach Pete Carroll made it happen:

”I’m just sad I won’t be able to see them ever again,” Jake said. “It’s so hard, and yet cancer wins. But I’m going to experience something no one else can experience.”

With more than a month before his surgery, Jake told his parents that what he wanted to see most one last time was another USC Trojans game. His wish reached Trojans head coach, Pete Carroll.

”The first thing was let’s make sure that he gets inside and gets to see everything that he wants to see,” Carroll said. “God bless him; he deserves every bit of it.”

Carroll then made Olson an honorary member of the USC football team. He eventually made his high school team as a long snapper, then walked on at USC in 2015. He had hist first live game action in 2017, thanks in part to an assist from Western Michigan:

I asked Olson what it was like to have one of the last things he does in his USC football career at Pro Day be something that might help cure the thing that brought him to the program in the first place.

“I mean, it’s crazy. That’s what kind of gave me goosebumps when I first realized that,” Olson said. “It’s humbling. If that’s what my purpose really is from this whole experience is that I had to go blind and endure that and push forward, and keep moving.

“And to be in this position where I can return it and change hundreds of lives in the future, I’ll pay that small price every day. It’s really cool and an honor that I get to be in a position to make a difference for kids that I can sympathize with who are facing reality, retinoblastoma, and the possibility of losing their sight.”

NCAA Football: Stanford at Southern California Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Olson figures he’ll keep spreading his message to carry on. He’s also developing a related business.

He’s slated to graduate from USC in May 2019 with a degree in business administration, and he’ll be active in speaking engagements, like he is now.

He’s even helped develop a booking website for speakers across the country, after finding the system for booking “antiquated.” His platform is called Engage.

“We tried to democratize the whole system and reinvent the system and make it kind of digital and centralized,” he said.

But don’t worry. Unlike Ja Rule, he isn’t planning on promoting his booking platform with a music festival. There will be no Jake Olson-organized Fyre Festival.

“It was really funny just to see how close they were to hitting this thing out of the park,” Olson said. “And so we’re like, ‘Alright, well if they didn’t, we’re just gonna do it ourselves.’”

Olson’s signed with a talent agency in Los Angeles, where he has a couple of potential projects on the horizon, he said, ranging from book deals to commercials. He plans to play in some golf pro-ams, too.

“I just want to show them through my actions more than words that you can live a happy, fulfilling life,” Olson said. “No matter if you do lose your eyesight, if you beat the cancer and you have one eye left or no eye left, if you only have one arm or one leg, I want to be another example of someone who was faced with an unfair situation, and wasn’t necessarily dealt the best hand, but I made it work.”

NCAA Football: UCLA at Southern California Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports