Catching up with 2016 Rare Disease Champion, USC long snapper Jake Olson

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

2016 Uplifting Athletes Rare Disease Champion Jake Olson is one of the 1 in 10 Americans affected by one of more than 7,000 rare diseases.

The native of southern California was born with retinoblastoma, a rare cancer of the eyes. He lost his left eye when he was 10 months old and despite numerous procedures on his right eye, he lost his sight completely to this rare disease in 2009 at the age of 12.

A huge USC Trojans fan all his life, Olson watched as much USC football as possible before losing his sight. When former Trojans coach Pete Carroll learned of Olson’s story he invited him to practices, Carroll then went a step further and made Olson an honorary member of the team.

The loss of his sight never slowed Olson down as he continued to flourish on so many levels. During his final two years of high school, Olson was the varsity long snapper for the football team at Orange Lutheran. And in 2015, as a true freshman, he earned a spot on the roster as an invited walk on for the team he grew up loving, the USC Trojans.

Olson just completed his second season with the Trojans and is busy navigating his sophomore year in college. We decided to catch up with the student, college football player, author and motivational speaker.

Uplifting Athletes: Let’s start with school and your studies in this your sophomore year. Tell us about exactly what you are studying and some of your thoughts in terms of a career?

Olson: I am studying Business Administration and plan to get an emphasis in finance. I hope to eventually become an investment banker while continuing to do motivational speaking. I also am thinking about getting into the broadcasting field. At the end of the day, my main goal is to do something where I can continue to make a positive impact on society.

Uplifting Athletes: This was your second season as part of the USC Trojans football team. How was the 2016 season different than year No. 1 as a member of the Trojans?

Olson: Although we did face adversity in the beginning of this season, we continued to grow as a team under the steady hand of Coach Helton. Personally, I gained a much better understanding of what it took to succeed on the USC football team both physically and mentally. This year I was able to accomplish much more in practice. Overall, there was more stability.

Uplifting Athletes: You saw some action in the spring game last year. What was that experience like?

Olson: It was a surreal experience to take the field as a member of the team I grew up idolizing. I never believed it would happen, and I am so thankful to all the people who helped me reach that point. The support of Trojan fans blew me away. It was also a sign to me that if I continue to work hard in practice and in the classroom, I could see game action for the Trojans.

Uplifting Athletes: We have to ask about the Rose Bowl game against Penn State. You’ve experienced plenty as a life-long Trojans fan. What was it like to be a part of a game that special and dramatic while wearing the cardinal and gold and being on the field?

Olson: It was the most memorable experience of my life for sure. I finally feel like the Trojans are back on top, and I feel blessed to be a part of it. More than anything, it got me really excited for the years to come. Being part of a game like that is something I will remember for the rest of my life and tell my kids and grandkids about.

Uplifting Athletes: It is an honor to have you listed as one of our Rare Disease Champions. Your story has touched so many, but what do you see as the next chapter of that story?

Olson: The next step for me would be snapping in a USC game. That is my end goal. After college, I hope to find a way to continue to inspire people and use the platform I have already developed to help spread my message.

Iowa State defensive end Mitchell Meyers wins 2017 Uplifting Athletes Rare Disease Champion award

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Iowa State University defensive end Mitchell Meyers is the ninth winner of the Uplifting Athletes Rare Disease Champion award.

Meyers earned more votes than the other three 2017 finalists in a public online vote that opened January 9 and closed at midnight on January 31.

The Cyclones’ defensive end outlasted a field of finalists that included: Pitt running back James Conner, Michigan fullback Michael Hirsch and Notre Dame running back Dexter Williams.

The Rare Disease Champion Award is presented annually by Uplifting Athletes to a leader in the world of college football who has realized his or her potential to make a positive and lasting impact on the rare disease community.

Meyers will be presented with the 2017 Rare Disease Champion trophy as part of the Maxwell Football Club Awards Gala on March 10th at The Tropicana Casino and Resort in Atlantic City.

Meyers endured a long and difficult 18-month journey with the rare disease Hodgkin’s lymphoma. An impact player in 2013 and 2014 for the Cyclones, Meyers lost his 2015 season when he was diagnosed in February of that year.

During his roller coaster 13-month chemotherapy and radiation treatments, getting back to school and playing football again were always in the back of Meyers’ mind. He made it back to the ISU camp in the spring and was cleared for full contact just prior to preseason camp for the 2016 season.

After 18 months away from the game, Meyers not only earned a starting spot but also became a big-time contributor up front defensively for the Cyclones this past season. He played all season, recorded 30 tackles and was named to the Academic All-Big 12 team.

Meyers was voted as a team captain for the 2016 season and wore the No. 58 for the Cyclones. Each year Iowa State hands the No. 58 jersey to a lineman who best embodies the spirit of a beloved former coach who died suddenly in 2014.

Previous winners of the Rare Disease Champion award include: American Football Coaches Association Executive Director Grant Teaff (2009); Dickinson College quarterback Ian Mitchell (2010); Princeton running back Jordan Culbreath (2011); Nebraska running back Rex Burkhead (2012); Penn State offensive lineman Eric Shrive (2013), Nebraska fullback C.J. Zimmerer (2014), Auburn wide receiver Sammie Coates (2015) and USC long snapper Jake Olson (2016).

Voting to determine 2017 Rare Disease Champion hits the stretch run

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Voting to determine the ninth winner of the Uplifting Athletes Rare Disease Champion award has reached the home stretch.

The 2017 winner is decided by a public online vote that runs until midnight on January 31st. You can vote once each day for your favorite finalist.

Each year since 2009, Uplifting Athletes has recognized a leader in college football that realized his or her potential to make a positive and lasting impact on the rare disease community as the Rare Disease Champion. USC long snapper Jake Olson was the 2016 winner.

This year the four finalists are: James Conner, Pitt; Michael Hirsch, Michigan; Mitchell Meyers, Iowa State and Dexter Williams, Notre Dame.

Voting to determine the 2017 Rare Disease Champion started on January 9th, and with less than a week remaining Iowa State defensive Meyers is leading the way.

The 2017 Rare Disease Champion will officially be announced on February 1st to kick off Rare Disease Month. And the winner will be formally honored as part of the annual Maxwell Football Club Awards Gala on March 10th at Tropicana Casino & Resort in Atlantic City.

Illinois Chapter President Joe Spencer named Wooden Citizen Cup Finalist

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Illinois football center Joe Spencer was recently announced as a finalist for the Wooden Citizen Cup, an award given to the most outstanding role model among athletes.

The award, named after famed UCLA men’s basketball coach John Wooden, is given to one college, professional and high school athlete (or athletic figure) per year for character and leadership both on and off the field and for contributions to sport and society. Athletes for a Better World is presenting the Wooden Cup for the 13th year.

Spencer’s work in the community and the classroom has been incredible during his four years in Champaign. The 2016 Big Ten Sportsmanship Award honorees’ long list of community involvement includes serving as president of Illinois’ Uplifting Athletes chapter, president of the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee, raising nearly $40,000 for charity in two years by organizing the Illini’s “Lift for Life,” helping organize Illinois’ student-athlete variety show that has raised more than $80,000 in the last five years, being a “Big” at the local Big Brothers Big Sisters, spearheading the Leadership Summit for local middle school students, volunteering at the Special Olympics, and visiting nearly every elementary school in Champaign-Urbana.

Spencer was a team captain for the 2016 Illini football team and earned All-Big Ten honorable mention honors by the media. He started 37 games during his Illinois career, including 11 this season. Spencer is enrolled in the MBA program at the University of Illinois after earning a bachelor’s degree in finance in May 2016.

Recipients of the Coach Wooden Citizenship Cup are determined by the Wooden Cup Selection Committee after reviewing voting by the Board of Directors and over 100 distinguished individuals involved in athletics across the country.

The 2017 Collegiate Wooden Cup recipient will be announced at an award ceremony in April in Atlanta.

On behalf of the rare disease community Uplifting Athletes serves, thank you Joe Spencer for using your platform as a college football student athlete to inspire others with hope.



Clemson Tigers highlight Uplifting Athletes Chapter bowl season by winning National Championship

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Clemson became the second university with an Uplifting Athletes Chapter to win the college football National Championship with its dramatic victory over defending champion Alabama.

Florida State won the final BCS National Championship in 2014 to cap a perfect 14-0 season.

Two of the last four champions of college football, Clemson and Florida State, are part of Uplifting Athletes student-athlete chapter network.

The Clemson Chapter held its inaugural Lift For Life event this past summer and also held a Touchdown Pledge Drive for the Syracuse game this season in support of the rare disease community.

Congratulations to the Tigers on winning their first National Championship since 1981 and thanks to Clemson Chapter President and punter Andy Teasdall for all his hard work in making 2016 a success on and off the field.

Big Ten champion Penn State and Pac-12 winner Washington each finished its respective seasons with losses, but that won’t diminish the huge strides forward each program made nationally.

The Huskies fell to Alabama in the College Football Playoff semifinal and the Nittany Lions were part of a thrilling and record setting Rose Bowl game won by USC.

Clemson climbed the highest mountain in college football by winning it all, but five other programs with an Uplifting Athletes Chapter ended the 2016 campaign on a high note with a victory in their respective bowl game.

Florida State edged Michigan in the Orange Bowl, Northwestern held off Pitt in the Pinstripe Bowl, Georgia Tech nearly doubled up Kentucky in the Taxslayer Bowl, NC State put up 42 points on Vanderbilt in the Independence Bowl and Baylor snapped its losing streak by rolling Boise State in the Cactus Bowl.

Maryland, Nebraska and South Carolina were also part of the 2016 bowl slate but came up just short.

Public online voting to determine 2017 Uplifting Athletes Rare Disease Champion opens up

2017-rcd-logoUplifting Athletes is pleased to announce the four finalists for the 2017 Rare Disease Champion Award.

The Uplifting Athletes Rare Disease Champion Award is given to a leader in college football who has realized his or her potential to make a positive and lasting impact on the rare disease community.

The four finalists chosen to determine the ninth winner of the award are: Pittsburgh running back James Conner, Michigan fullback Michael Hirsch, Iowa State defensive end Mitchell Meyers and Notre Dame running back Dexter Williams.

A public online vote will be live from January 9th until midnight on January 31st to determine the 2017 Rare Disease Champion. In order to cast your vote, visit the Uplifting Athletes Rare Disease Champion website. Fans can vote once per day for your favorite finalist the rest of the month.

The finalist with the most votes will be winner. The champion will be officially recognized on February 1st to kick off Rare Disease Month.

The 2017 Rare Disease Champion will be honored as part of the Maxwell Football Club Awards Gala on Friday, March 10th in Atlantic City at the Tropicana Casino & Resort.

USC Trojans long snapper Jake Olson was the 2016 Rare Disease Champion and became the fifth FBS player to capture the award.

Uplifting Athletes is a national nonprofit founded in 2007 that inspires the rare disease community with hope through the power of sport. With a network of university chapters run by current college football FBS and FCS student-athletes, Uplifting Athletes has had a more than $400 million economic impact on the rare disease community.


2017 Rare Disease Champion Finalist: James Conner, Pittsburgh

Each of the finalists for the 2017 Uplifting Athletes Rare Disease Champion Award will be featured here. In order to cast your online vote to help determine the 2017 Rare Disease Champion, you can visit our voting page.

conner-action-2JAMES CONNER

University: University of Pittsburgh

Vitals: 6-2, 235-pound running back

Quick Hits: A star on both sides of the ball as a running back and pass rusher coming out of high school in Erie, Pennsylvania, Conner was recognized as an All-State running back his senior year. … Rushed for nearly 800 yards and eight touchdowns as a redshirt freshman in 2013. … Became a big-time star for the Panthers in 2014 by rushing for nearly 1,800 yards with 26 touchdowns to earn ACC Player of the Year award and was on several All-America teams. … Suffered a season-ending knee injury in the first half of the 2015 opener. … Diagnosed with a rare disease less than three months after injuring his knee. … Returned for the 2015 season four months after his final chemotherapy treatment to rush for more than 1,000 yards and was a first-team All-ACC selection. … Selected a captain for the 2015 Panthers. … Awarded the inaugural James Conner Courage Award by Stanley M. Marks, MD, who was Conner’s oncologist and serves as the chairman of the UPMC CancerCenter. … Winner of the Disney Spirit Award. … An administration of justice major who recently declared for the NFL.


Very few can understand the work ethic and grind it took for James Conner to play football for the Panthers in 2016.

And the long odds he overcame to rush for more than 1,000 yards as a team captain. His journey to step on the field this past September was inspirational and uplifting to others.

But what you almost forget is Conner was not only battling the rare disease Hodgkin’s lymphoma, he was also trying to recover from a major knee injury that cost him the 2015 season.

Yet through it all, Conner never stop thinking of others or looking for ways to help and inspire others. The fabric of James Conner the person was on display for all to see.

People from his hometown were sending him support letters, there was the hashtag #ConnerStrong on Twitter, other cancer patients were opening up and sharing their stories with Conner.

But it was still a struggle, as you would expect, during his 12-rounds of chemotherapy treatment. The star running back who felt invincible on the football field, in an flash realized he wasn’t.

His knee injury that started him down a path that would create a whole new prism of life was unexpected.  He didn’t feel like the injury was that bad. Conner, who admits he’s emotional and has no problem crying, was distraught and crushed.

Three months later a knee injury seemed like a scratch when doctors told him he had Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

Conner admits deep down he was nervous, worried and scared. But his teammates, friends and doctors gave him the confidence to believe in himself and remember he was the guy who became the ACC Player of the Year two years after only one Power-5 school, Pitt, offered him a scholarship.


After losing his 2015 season to a serious knee injury, Conner had his surgery behind him and was on the road to full recovery in preparation for the upcoming 2016 season.

For a couple months, though, Conner had been battling bloating and swelling in his head, fatigue and night sweats. Doctors thought it was the flu, strep throat or maybe even pneumonia. But becoming a “regular” at the pharmacy with no results, Conner had a chest X-ray.

The results indicated there was something in the chest area so he was immediately scheduled for a PET scan. And on Thanksgiving Day of 2015 the doctors called and said it might be lymphoma.

After an agonizing four-day wait, Conner had a biopsy and was told he did indeed have Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

Instead of training for the 2016 season, Conner was staring a dozen chemotherapy treatments in the face. Football wasn’t going to take a back seat, though.

Conner continued to train at the level his body would allow. He practiced during spring drills with a mask and was not permitted contact because his chemo port was still in his chest.

If he was given a cancer-free diagnosis, Conner wanted to be ready. His final chemotherapy treatment was in early May 2016, but he didn’t celebrate. He waited two full weeks until his PET scan before celebrating because he remembered his doctor telling him nothing was guaranteed.

Conner was thrilled when given a clean bill of health, but over time he realized, most importantly, that he was given the opportunity to repay the kindness people showed him for the rest of his life.


 “There are people out there fighting and they don’t get to receive any awards if they win. Someday I look forward to starting my own cancer charity to help children fighting this disease. That may seem like something that’s easy to say, but I’m going to do it. You can count on that. It just wasn’t the famous people and athletes who reached out and showed me love. It was everyone. And I can’t wait to do that for people the rest of my life. Because even before I played football again this season my battle was already won. Beating cancer … everything else was a reward.” – Former Pitt running back James Conner

Duke v Pittsburgh