Jake Olson wanted nothing more than to be like his classmates at Lutheran High School in Orange, Calif. — to run onto the football field on Friday nights, hear the crowd and experience the thrill that accompanies wins.
It’s that passion for the game that brought Olson to the office of former North Texas assistant coach Chuck Petersen in May.
Even though he had lost his sight to cancer, Olson wanted to play football again.
What transpired has become a familiar story, broadcast on ESPN’s College GameDay and featured on websites and in newspapers across the country.
Olson is back on the field. He’s celebrated wins. He’s living out his dream while serving as Lutheran’s long snapper for extra points.
Ask the 16-year-old, who is nationally renowned for his courage and perseverance in the face of adversity, and he will say none of it would have been possible had it not been for Petersen, his coach who spent four years at UNT from 2007-10.
“I thank God for the chance to go out there and snap,” Olson said recently from Petersen’s office at Orange Lutheran. “There had to be some accommodations to get me out there. It took some creativity. Coach Petersen helped in the process of making it work.”
That process began innocently enough.
With less than 1,500 students, Lutheran is the type of school where the head football coach knows pretty much everyone at some level, especially someone like Olson, whom Petersen described as something of a rock star at the school.
Olson co-authored the book Open Your Eyes, which details how he has dealt with obstacles in life. He’s a motivational speaker and has a foundation called Out of Sight Faith that raises money to enhance the lives of other blind children.
Olson was born with retinoblastoma, a rare form of eye cancer that forced him to have his left eye removed before his first birthday. He battled cancer for 12 years before having his right eye removed in November 2009.
Olson developed a connection with the USC football program and former coach Pete Carroll, who is now with the Seattle Seahawks. The Trojans supported Olson as he prepared for surgery to remove his right eye, a journey that was documented on GameDay.
Despite losing his sight, Olson never gave up his dream of playing football. He brought up the idea of being a long snapper to Petersen in passing and later marched into his office this spring to see if there was any chance he could replace Chase Dominguez, a long snapper who was headed to Utah to play for the Utes.
Dean Vieselmeyer, a veteran assistant at Lutheran, specializes in working with long snappers. Perhaps more importantly, Olson and Petersen had a connection.
Petersen’s grandfather, Marvin Shannon, was a blind golf champion.
“He was very similar to Jake,” Petersen said of his grandfather. “You couldn’t tell that man there wasn’t anything he couldn’t do.
“Jake and I had that common bond.”
Olson says that bond and Petersen’s background with his grandfather played an important role in his story.
“Coach Petersen didn’t have the same reactions that people will have around the blind,” Olson said. “He never gave me a doubtful answer. I thrived off his attitude.”
Vieselmeyer worked on snapping with Olson, who continued to improve.
By the summer, Petersen was convinced that Olson had developed to the point he might be able to snap in a game.
The coaches and players on the team came up with a routine that made it possible. Lutheran’s kicker guides Olson onto the field, his teammates line him up and then the holder claps his hands. The noise gives Olson a sense of his target. A teammate taps Olson on the leg and he snaps the ball when he’s ready.
The plan worked.
Olson snapped the first few weeks of the season while Petersen tried to keep the story quiet, just to make sure he could snap in games. Once Petersen was sure Olson could handle the job, he started to share the story.
Petersen and Olson welcomed ESPN’s crew back to campus to tell the tale of Olson’s role with Lutheran’s team.
All the while, Petersen has marveled at the story and enjoyed his role in it.
He took Olson and the rest of his team to the GameDay set Nov. 16 when Stanford visited USC. Petersen and the team made an appearance on the stage seen by millions across the country each Saturday morning.
“It has been special to be involved in something like this,” Petersen said. “You never dream about something like this happening.”
That certainly was the case when Petersen left UNT following the 2010 season. Petersen spent 17 years on the staff at Air Force before joining the staff at UNT in 2007 under then-coach Todd Dodge.
UNT struggled during Petersen’s four years at the school, but it was a time he enjoyed. His son, Chase, won a state title while playing for Prosper, and the time they spent in Denton allowed them to live close to family for a few years. Petersen grew up in Fort Worth, and his wife’s side of the family also lives in the area.
“[UNT athletic director Rick Villarreal] was good to me and I loved the kids there,” Petersen said. “I’m excited about the success they are having. I knew that we recruited well. We didn’t play as well as we needed to, but we recruited a lot of those players. I am proud of that as a recruiting coordinator. I helped put some of those players in place.”
UNT quarterback Derek Thompson, who surpassed the 7,000-yard mark in career passing yards last week, said Petersen played a key role in his decision to play for the Mean Green.
Petersen keeps in touch with several of his former players at UNT, which at 7-4 appears poised to play in its first bowl game since 2004.
UNT linebacker and captain Zach Orr played for the Mean Green when Petersen was on the staff and wasn’t at all surprised that his former coach played a role in helping Olson realize his dream of playing high school football.
“He was a good coach and a good guy to talk to,” Orr said. “He always worked hard. He was a loyal guy who loved the players.”
The passion for the game led Petersen back into coaching after he left UNT and spent a year running a private coaching business and conducting recruiting seminars. Orange Lutheran officials contacted Petersen after the year he spent without a full-time coaching job to see if he would be interested in becoming the school’s next head coach.
Petersen had helped Lutheran install a new offense in the early 2000s and recruited the school while he was an assistant at Air Force.
“I prayed really hard for clarity,” Petersen said. “I looked at all the jobs that were listed at the school, and one was for a French teacher. That is what my wife teaches. The lady who was there before had just retired after 19 years.”
Petersen saw it as a sign. He took the job a short time later.
Lutheran made the playoffs for the first time in four years this season with Olson snapping.
Olson’s story has grown along the way, thanks in part to Petersen.
When told of Olson’s story, Orr smiled and said the tale sounded like something Petersen would be involved in.
Orange Lutheran might be a little further out of the limelight than UNT or Air Force, but Petersen is still doing what he loves and ended up playing a role in one of the feel-good stories of the year.
“Coaching is coaching,” Petersen said. “Being an influence in kids’ lives is why I got into it.”
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 and via Twitter at @brettvito.