Los Angeles — Jake Olson first imagined this moment long before he lost his vision to cancer eight years ago.
Southern California scored a touchdown Saturday against Western Michigan. Coach Clay Helton turned to the sideline and yelled his name: “Are you ready? Let’s get this done!”
The blind long snapper’s teammates guided him onto the field. They lined him up over the ball. The referee blew the whistle.
And Olson’s snap between his legs was straight and true.
“It turned out to be a beautiful moment,” Olson said.
It wouldn’t have happened without the cooperation of Western Michigan coach Tim Lester and his Broncos.
Helton called Lester last week to try to make arrangements for Olson’s appearance in the game.
“I give him all the credit,” Lester said of Helton, to USA Today. “That’s not an easy conversation. He was just being honest about a player he really cared for. He said he was gonna call every coach (this season) and just hope he gets it done. … He was just very nice in asking and he said he understood if I didn’t want to do it. He wasn’t forcing it down my throat, by any means.
“I didn’t think it was a hard decision at all. It was bigger than the game. I was happy to be a part of it.”
Although a rare form of retinal cancer took his sight as a child, Olson simply refused to give up on his dream of playing for his beloved Trojans. After years of dedication to football and two seasons of practice, Olson’s dream abruptly came true in USC’s season opener.
Olson got his snap to holder Wyatt Schmidt with 3:13 to play, and the ensuing kick set off a wild celebration for teammates and fans in awe of an indelible moment for an unstoppable athlete.
“I just loved being out there,” Olson said. “It was an awesome feeling, something that I’ll remember forever. Getting to snap at USC as a football player … I’m trying to say as much as I can, because I can’t quite believe it yet.”
Olson’s snap was the culmination of years of dedication to a seemingly crazy dream. The 20-year-old junior has been around the USC football program since 2009 thanks to former coach Pete Carroll, who first heard about Olson’s cancer and his love for the Trojans.
Olson lost his left eye when he was 10 months old. The cancer forced doctors to remove his right eye when he was 12 — and he asked to watch the Trojans’ practice on the night before his surgery.
“To take a situation that ugly, and then to fast-forward eight years and to have that same kid be able to snap on the football field with the team that really got him through that time, is just beautiful,” Olson said. “It’s emotional. Incredible.”
Although he is completely blind, Olson managed to play two years of high school football in his native Orange County. He has worked out with the Trojans since 2015, enrolling at the school with a scholarship for physically challenged athletes and gradually persuading his USC coaches and teammates that his dream was far more than just a stunt.
Helton vowed to get Olson into a blowout game against an opponent that would agree not to do anything that might injure the long snapper. Western Michigan agreed after the Trojans’ final TD essentially put the game out of reach.
When Lester and Helton met on the field before the game, they finalized the agreement regarding Olson.
As part of the deal, USC agreed not to rush the line on the PAT after Western’s first touchdown.
“It was a weird conversation to have,” Lester told USA Today, “but when you’re having this weird conversation for a good reason? We were talking about what’s out of hand, what’s not out of hand, but it was for a good purpose, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a young man.”
Lester did his school proud.
“I told Tim today, ‘Thank you for your leadership and pride in your alma mater,'” Western Michigan athletic director Kathy Beauregard told The News. “‘Your passion for impacting lives runs deep within your reasons for coaching young men and opening their eyes on the true lessons of life.'”
The score was close for most of a scorching afternoon at the Coliseum, so Olson’s parents, Brian and Cindy, didn’t think Saturday would be the day — until suddenly, it was.
“I was just screaming,” Cindy Olson said. “I was jumping up and down. We had everybody around us, even people we didn’t know, just screaming. I was saying, ‘That’s my son!’ Are you kidding? This was history. This was amazing. This was Jake’s dream.”
Olson takes his role with the Trojans very seriously: He has gained 40 pounds of muscle in two years since joining the team, and he is noticeably brawnier this year. Schmidt is his constant companion, guiding him to the proper spots on the field during practice.
“Jake has worked his butt off ever since he got here,” quarterback Sam Darnold said. “It’s awesome to see him finally get a chance.”
Detroit News staff writer Tony Paul contributed.