Jake Olson, one of the most feel-good stories in college football history, took on the bench press today at the USC Pro Day with a mission to do benches to raise funds for retinoblastoma, a form of cancer that took one eye as a baby and eventually led to him losing his eyesight completely. By now you’ve seen the Olson story on one of ESPN’s E:60s or Outside the Lines. I immediately stop and watch if it’s on. Instant watch.
You know how Jake befriended Pete Carroll and the team and was pretty much told he’ll always have a spot with the USC program. One thing led to another and Olson took up long snapping. That led to a walk-on position with the Trojans and now he’ll leave school in May with a business administration degree.
Here’s the letter Jake wrote to accompany his bench press fundraiser:
My mom and doctor didn’t know I was listening to their conversation.
“No more options,” my doctor said. “We will have to remove his remaining eye.”,
I held the old, bulky telephone closer to my ear and the unthinkable reality of going blind sunk in. It was similar to previous conversations, but the past seven times my cancer returned we had a solution that wouldn’t cost me my sight. I was 12 years old.
My sudden screaming cut their conversation short. As my mom ran upstairs to console me, I pleaded with her: How could we not fight it with something?
More chemo? I had already undergone a lifetime max of systemic chemo. More radiation? No, I had maxed out and was at a high risk of inducing a secondary fatal cancer. More laser treatment or cryotherapy? The cancer had become immune, it would no longer affect the tumors. How about where they go up my leg? No, the cancer would no longer respond to intra-arterial chemotherapy, we have done it too many times. PLEASE, I was begging, ANYTHING!
Retinoblastoma is an aggressive, rare, fast-moving form of eye cancer located in the retina. In cases where all treatment options have been exhausted, removal of the eye is necessary to save the life of the child. It cost me my left eye at eight months old and my right eye at 12. However, even after losing my sight, I have never let it stop me or become an excuse to not live my life to the fullest.
In almost a decade without sight, I have shot in the 70s in golf, graduated high school with honors, become a professional speaker and author, set up my own foundation to help others, and started my own company, Engage. I played Division I football at USC, and I will graduate with a bachelor’s degree in business administration in May.
I can now look back at the scared 12-year-old boy who was eavesdropping on a phone call that would forever change his life and see that devastating moment as an enormous blessing. I knew that my resilience, my persistence to fight even after defeat, would define my future.
I have learned that in every set back there is a set up waiting to happen, I have learned to listen to the winner within telling me what I’m worth, I have learned to leverage failure without pointing fingers, and I have learned the power of gratitude. However, despite these lessons and accomplishments, I still remember the pain, sorrow, and agony that I endured as a child battling Retinoblastoma. For this reason, I am determined to cure the disease that took my eye sight, and I could not have chosen a more opportune time.
Over the last 20 years, my childhood doctor, Dr. Linn Murphree and his partner, Dr. Brenda Gallie, with the help of researcher David Carpi at 3T, have developed a device that has shown the ability to cure even the most severe cases of Retinoblastoma, even cases like mine.
The Episcleral Topotecan device, or what we’ll refer to as the chemo plaque, is a non-invasive reservoir that is implanted in the eye. The device delivers direct chemo, Topotecan, to the tumors and vitreous seeds located within the eye and the results have been astounding. Last year, two children who had one tumorous eye left and who had maxed out on every other treatment option, were completely cured through the use of the chemo plaque.
I remember hearing about the development of this plaque around the time of my surgery and the reality is that this Episcleral device would have allowed me to see today. Even though it was too late for me, it doesn’t have to be too late for the children who are facing the same reality I did nine years ago.
Episcleral Topotecan needs funding in order to undergo a clinical trial that will eventually make it the standard for treating Retinoblastoma. I am raising money through my pro-day bench press on March 20th so that no child has to lose their sight again to the cancer that took mine. I am asking for your help. All funds will be directed to Uplifting Athletes and Doctor Gallie and will go towards funding the Episcleral clinical trial. Thank you for joining me in my mission to cure this disease for good as I rep it out for Retinoblastoma.