Photo courtesy of John McGillen/USC Athletics
In a truly inspiring event that will no doubt go down as one of the best moments in USC Trojan football history, Jake Olson, the Trojans long snapper who has been blind since the age of 12, carried out a perfect snap to help USC defeat Western Michigan in the first football game of the 2017 season this past week.
Jake was diagnosed at a very early age with retinoblastoma, a rare cancer that is the most common ocular tumor in children causing blindness. Approximately one in 17,000 children are diagnosed with retinoblastoma each year. At the age of one month, Jake’s left eye was surgically removed as the disease had aggressively advanced. Over the next 12 years, Jake underwent ongoing treatment for his eyes at the Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles (CHLA); unfortunately, retinoblastoma was affecting his right eye as well. The tumor recurred more than a dozen times and was eventually removed – rendering him permanently blind.
As a young boy, Jake had a passion for football. Before losing complete vision, Jake fulfilled his dream of meeting the USC Trojan’s football team, which was initiated by former USC head coach Pete Carroll. Learning to live with his vision loss, Jake persevered to make his football dreams a reality by officially becoming a long snapper on the USC Trojan roster in 2015. Embodying the true spirit of a Trojan, Jake finally had the opportunity to snap his first ball in last week’s USC home opener, proving that anyone can overcome a disability and become an inspirational force.
“I just think there’s a beauty in it,” Olson said in the postgame wrap-up interview with the Los Angeles Times. “If you can’t see how God works things out, then I think you’re the blind one. I think to have a situation where a 12-year-old kid loses his sight and is going to have to face the rest of his life without seeing is just ugly, and to fast forward eight years and have that same kid be able to snap on the football field that really got him through that time, is just really just special and incredible.”
In addition to receiving the required clearance by the NCAA to play, Jonathan Kim, MD, associate professor of clinical ophthalmology and director of the Ocular Oncology Service at the USC Roski Eye Institute, also provided clearance for Jake to play college football. Kim examined Jake to ensure that the cancer had not returned and that he was healthy enough for the aggressive physical action of college football. He also reviewed with Jake the safety measures and guidelines to avoid injury when playing a high contact sport, such as college football, while also wearing ocular prostheses. Kim continues to see Jake as a patient on a regular basis for routine surveillance and care of any eye health issues that may arise.
“As part of the USC Roski Eye Institute and Trojan family, watching Jake snap that football was a proud moment for us all,” said Kim. “Jake accomplished something that few of us can only dream of with or without visual impairment, and he is a true inspiration to all patients suffering from retinoblastoma.”
Several researchers from the USC Roski Eye Institute and CHLA have made great strides in the pursuit to find a cure for Retinoblastoma. Among them, David Cobrinik, MD, PhD, USC associate professor of research ophthalmology, focuses on understanding the behavior of the cells that give rise to retinoblastomas. He has identified the cell of origin, which was published in Nature in 2014. Jesse Berry, MD, assistant professor of clinical ophthalmology is currently developing a minimally invasive method to diagnose retinoblastoma in the eye, known as “surrogate liquid biopsy” that provides earlier treatment intervention. USC Roski Eye Institute researchers hope to one-day develop novel approaches like retinal regeneration treatments to prevent retinoblastoma from forming in predisposed children.
by Debbie Mitra