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

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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

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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

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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.

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 


2017 Rare Disease Champion Finalist: Dexter Williams, Notre Dame

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.

williams-action-2DEXTER WILLIAMS

University: University of Notre Dame

Vitals: 5-11, 210-pound running back

Quick Hits: The native of suburban Orlando, Florida came to Notre Dame as a Top 125 player overall in the 2015 recruiting class. … Because of injuries at the running back position, was forced into a full-time reserve role on the depth chart as a true freshman in 2015. … Scored his first college touchdown against UMass as a true freshman. … Averaged more than 7.1 yards per carry as a high school senior at West Orange HS with 10 touchdowns. … Saw action in all 12 Notre Dame games as a true sophomore in 2016 totaling 200 yards with three touchdowns and averaged a respectable 5.1 yards per carry. … Had a career best 80 yards on the ground October 1, 2016 in a victory over Syracuse.


Normally, when any player receives an offer from Notre Dame and he wants to play for the Fighting Irish, the decision to head to South Bend, Indiana is pretty easy. That wasn’t the case for Dexter Williams.

In order to pursue his dream of obtaining a degree from Notre Dame and playing for the Fighting Irish, Williams had to leave the side of his mom Cheryl in Florida.

After battling this rare disease for nearly a decade, there is a level of familiarity for the Williams family. But for most of those years, Williams and his mom walked through it together. Now, Cheryl and her son are nearly 1,200 miles apart most of the year.

Like any mother would be, despite her personal struggles with a rare autoimmune disorder called myasthenia gravis, Cheryl was thrilled for Dexter’s opportunity at Notre Dame.

Inspiration comes in many shapes and forms. And in this case the extremely tight relationship between Williams and his mother serves mother and son well on so many fronts.

The two still talk almost every day and any chance Williams gets to play in front of his mom is special. Because of her struggles with her rare disease, she can’t travel much.  Even seeing him play  in high school was difficult.

But earlier this season, Cheryl was in good enough health to make a trip to Notre Dame stadium for its game against Duke. Williams not only played in the game, he scored the third touchdown of his young Notre Dame career on a 13-yard run with his mom in the stands.

And after he crossed the goal line, Williams pointed right at his mom who was crying in her seat. Those types of moments might appear fleeting to some, but for the Williams family they are the ties that bind.


Cheryl was diagnosed with myasthenia gravis following a series of strokes in 2006.  The Williams family has endured the fight with this rare disease for more than a decade.

This particular neuromuscular disease is long term and leads to varying degrees of disconnect between the nerves and voluntary muscles. It results in weakness of the legs, arms, causes double vision, drooping of the eyelids and makes it difficult to chew, speak, swallow and breathe.

Cheryl Williams undergoes regular chemotherapy and plasmapheresis treatments that require hospitalization every three or four months.

While some symptoms and complications from this rare disease are treatable, a myasthenia crisis is a life threatening condition that affects breathing.

That’s what happened to Cheryl Williams in 2010.

Williams came home from school and as he went down to give his mother a kiss, he found she was unconscious laying on the couch. Cheryl was rushed to the hospital and spent nearly three months on life support.

Less than 24 hours before the family was going to turn off the machines, Cheryl woke up. And right there by her side was Williams, tears streaming down his face telling his mother “not yet.”

The distance between Orlando and South Bend has been difficult for both mother and son equally. But through this decade-plus rare disease battle they each have provided the other with hope and determination to keep fighting the battle.


“I watch every game, some during treatments with the doctors and nurses. They all know him. There is nothing greater than seeing him and the joy in his eyes when he’s given the chance to play. I literally cry like a baby when he’s playing, but simply out of joy and gratitude.” – Cheryl Williams


2017 Rare Disease Champion Finalist: Mitchell Meyers, Iowa State

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.

meyers-action-1MITCHELL MEYERS

University: Iowa State University

Vitals: 6-4, 255-pound senior defensive end

Quick Hits: Came to Iowa State from Texas as a three-star recruit and after a redshirt season became a starter in 2013 as a redshirt freshman. … Also was a starter in 2014 as a redshirt sophomore and was one of only four Cyclones to play in every game that season. … A three-time First Team Academic All-Big 12 selection (2013, 2014 and 2016). … Was a Capital One Orange Bowl-FWAA Courage Award Finalist in 2015. … Earned the Bill Dailey Unsung Hero Award for Iowa State in 2014. … Was voted a team captain by his teammates for the 2016 season. … Graduated with a degree in supply chain management. … Wore No. 58 his final year. Since 2014 a lineman at Iowa State takes over the No. 58 jersey in honor of a beloved former ISU coach who passed away suddenly.


Mitchell Meyers had positioned himself to become a big-time contributor for the Cyclones football program after his 2014 redshirt sophomore season.

He was a two-year starter who had played defensive end and also spent some time playing inside. So he was versatile, experienced and still had two years of college football to look forward to.

During the off-season, a swollen neck escalated into what Meyers described as a feeling of being choked. That led to a CT scan and eventually a diagnosis of Hodgkin’s lymphoma in February of 2015.

That was the start of an 18-month journey for Meyers where playing college football again was always on his mind, but his priority had to be fighting off his rare cancer and getting healthy.

Meyers kept his eye on playing again, but he knew he was a different player. The toll of the fight would have an impact. But it didn’t slow him down. Once he returned to campus, Meyers went to work re-building his body. Being cleared to play was not guaranteed, though.

And if he was cleared to play, which eventually came just prior to fall camp, a spot on the field would have to be earned with a new head coach and staff in place.

Meyers not only earned a starting spot after 18 months away from the game, he played all season at defensive end registering nearly 30 tackles. In his words, his final year as a college football player “went above and beyond” his expectations.

His wasn’t the road most travel, but in the end Meyers did it his way. He came back to play football his senior year, not just to be a story.


Inspiration comes in all shapes and sizes. For the Iowa State football program, the long and winding journey with Hodgkin’s lymphoma for recently graduated Mitchell Meyers is one that will stand the test of time.

What started as a swollen neck during the off-season, Meyers remembers waiting for it to just go away, became a full rare disease diagnosis in February of 2015.

The first phase of treatment was chemotherapy every other week for six months. Instead of shrinking or going away, the cancer actually grew after the first round of treatments.

Meyers lost 20 pounds, his hair fell out and he faced a second demanding round of treatments knowing he was in for a battle. So he returned home to Texas and put academics and football on hold.

He went through a second round of treatments and it appeared the cancer was gone. But it wasn’t, so he endured another five rounds of chemotherapy.

In December of 2015 Meyers received his first clean PET scan and it was worth celebrating. But he still had one final phase of treatments to complete.

Early in 2016 he underwent a stem cell transplant, the next step in his journey, and spent three days in the hospital. Another clean PET scan allowed him to finally begin radiation treatments.

He returned to Ames, Iowa in the spring and most of his friends and previous teammates had graduated and were gone.  There was a lot of change around the Iowa State football program.

Naturally, Meyers, wondered where he would fit in.

A change in the coaching staff from Paul Rhodes, the coach who recruited him, to Matt Campbell would present another challenge for Meyers. But he was told there would be an opportunity and the rest was up to him.

Deep down, even though he knew he wasn’t the same player physically, his battle with Hodgkin’s lymphoma had not robbed him of his muscle memory.

After missing two spring practices and a full season, Meyers was cleared for full contact just prior to camp. He wasn’t at the top of the depth chart, but he answered when opportunity knocked.

During camp, the new coach, Campbell, and his staff happily recognized that post Hodgkin’s lymphoma Meyers still excelled and they welcomed him as a starter for the 2016 Iowa State Cyclones at defensive end.


“Battling cancer is a lot like playing football. Obviously the implications are a lot bigger battling cancer. But you learn a lot about mental toughness playing football. It helped me a lot to get through what I went through, and vice versa.” – Mitchell Meyers

“This young man that had this upbeat spirit about himself going through this, and it can put you in your place really fast. One of the best stories in college football.” – Iowa State head coach Matt Campbell