How Jake Olson is using USC's pro day to fight cancer

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Blind USC long-snapper's inspirational journey to the field (7:53)

Jake Olson reflects on his journey from USC fan to player and snapping on an extra point in Week 1. (7:53)

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. -- Speaking to a crowd of about 200 commercial bankers inside the historic Beverly Hilton, Jake Olson was on a roll. He had given hundreds of these types of speeches over the past decade, and it showed: The audience was engaged and his jokes landed as he walked the crowd through the story of how he lost his eyesight to cancer at age 12 and still managed to join the USC football team as a long-snapper.

Then the banging began. Whack, whack, whack.

It was loud and, at first, there was an uneasiness in the room. Olson was alone on the stage, trying to tell his story, and a loud construction project was threatening to drown him out. He already is a sympathetic figure for his audiences because of what he has had to overcome, and it was only natural for those in attendance to feel for him even more as he pushed forward without missing a beat.

This was the second time in a couple of months that Raul Anaya, Bank of America's Los Angeles market president, had brought Olson in to speak with a group of his employees, and when he finished his speech, Olson directed his voice toward where he knew Anaya was standing.

"I see they started construction on your new suite, Raul," Olson said.

The joke killed, and any lingering sympathy in the room vanished. Not because it wasn't warranted, but because it was clear Olson had no need for it. In his speech, he talked at length about turning "setbacks into setups" -- and then lived it in real time.

Over the next few months, Olson's schedule is packed. He has speaking engagements lined up all over the country and is set to graduate from USC in May with a degree in business administration. He plans to enter a couple of pro-am golf tournaments, has discussed appearing on "Dancing With the Stars" and will devote more time to a company he started with his manager, fellow USC student Daniel Hennes, that provides a booking platform for talent, mostly aimed at facilitating speaking engagements.

But before Olson, who turns 22 on March 26, focuses his complete attention on life after football, he has one more event to tie a bow on his career: Wednesday's USC pro day, during which he'll participate in the bench press as part of a fundraising campaign designed to benefit research for a medical procedure that, had it existed a decade ago, might have prevented him from going blind.

Olson was born with retinoblastoma, a rare form of cancer that begins in the retina, and he went through the full gamut of cancer treatments before it became necessary for both eyes to be removed -- the first one when he was less than a year old and the second at age 12. When he was going through treatment, retinoblastoma research was in its relative infancy and his physician, Dr. Linn Murphree, was heavily involved in advancing treatment procedures.

Murphree, who is based in Orange County, California, worked with Dr. Brenda Gallie, the head of the Retinoblastoma Program at The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, and researcher David Carpi of 3T Ophthalmics to create a device with the potential ability to cure retinoblastoma. And in the past year, they've reported a major breakthrough.

In a letter dated Oct. 11, 2018, Gallie outlined a procedure using an Episcleral Topotecan device, which was used to successfully cure a 3-year-old with retinoblastoma.

"Under a compassionate use protocol approved by the [Institutional Review Board] at the Hospital for Sick Kids in Toronto, we treated a 3-year-old child with recurrent/refractory intraocular retinoblastoma in an only remaining eye that had previously failed all standard therapies, including systemic chemo (multiple cycles and combinations) and intra-arterial chemo (IAC -- multiple cycles)," she wrote.

Without this form of treatment, the child's remaining eye would have needed to be removed -- as was the case for Olson a decade ago.

"We consider these results remarkable and game changing," Gallie wrote. "We predict that this new ocular drug delivery system will be transformative in ophthalmology and life-saving, especially for retinoblastoma children in under-developed countries."

When Olson first heard about the advancement in care, his natural instinct was to get involved. Clinical trials are necessary for the treatment to become approved for use in the United States, and Olson wanted to help on the fundraising side.

That's where USC's pro day comes in. As part of Olson's fundraising campaign -- Jake Olson's Reps for Retinoblastoma -- potential donors can pledge money for every bench-press rep Olson does or donate a flat amount. The money will be split between Uplifting Athletes, a nonprofit organization created to inspire the rare-disease community, and retinoblastoma research supporting Gallie.

When he arrived at USC, Olson isn't sure he could even do one bench-press rep at 225 pounds. On Wednesday, he is hoping to do 20 -- five more than his teammate, linebacker Cameron Smith, did at the NFL combine.

"It gives me chills right now, just kind of like thinking I could come back 10 years later and help aide the treatment that took my eyesight," Olson said. "It gave me goosebumps when I first heard about it because I'm just like, 'Wow, we're at this pivotal moment right now.'"

For Olson, it goes back to turning a setback into a setup.

Speaking to the group of bankers on March 6, Olson made the point that if he hadn't lost his eyesight to cancer, he probably wouldn't have ended up on the football team at USC. His association with the Trojans goes back to the Pete Carroll era, and one of the final things Olson did before losing his vision was attend a USC practice in 2009.

"It gives me chills right now, just kind of like thinking I could come back 10 years later [from losing my eyesight] and help aide the treatment that took my eyesight." USC long-snapper Jake Olson

During his USC career, Olson appeared in three games -- two in 2017 and one in 2018 -- and though it frustrates him that he was never fully cleared for contact, he is appreciative of the opportunities.

"Every time we went out there, it was kind of a little bit surreal," he said. "It gets your heart pounding.

"I didn't want to make too much of a deal out of it. I just knew it was -- here's a chance to go out there and play on the Coliseum turf. Like, let's just have freaking fun with it."

If Olson and Hennes' idea for a booking platform for talent sounds familiar, it might be due to its similarities to what the Fyre Media app was supposed to be before the epic failure of its associated Fyre Festival, which was co-founded by would-be entrepreneur Billy McFarland and rapper Ja Rule.

"So, we were like 18 months in this thing as the Fyre Festival comes out and we're like, 'Man, this is exactly what we're kind of doing,'" Olson said. "Except, obviously, we're not a bunch of bozos trying to run a music festival."

Hennes, who started helping Olson manage his schedule when they were both freshmen, serves as the CEO of Engage, which already has an impressive list of nearly 100 people available for speaking engagements and custom experiences. The list includes the likes of former NHL player Jeremy Roenick; former Green Beret and NFL long-snapper Nate Boyer; former USC quarterback Matt Barkley; Erik Weihenmayer, the first blind person to ever reach the summit of Mount Everest; and, of course, Olson.

"I've been fortunate enough to travel with Jake to speaking engagements, and I've seen the effect it can have on people," Hennes said. "If this platform can help more companies and more brands bring that type of experience to their employees, we're all better off for it."