Football can often feel like an exclusive club: You must be “this tall” to be recruited, and weigh “this much” to get playing time. You know the drill.
Unfortunately, this can feel like the case more often than not. That’s where Signing Day Sports comes in. Of course, our app is designed to allow athletes to be seen at a greater rate than ever before. What’s also important to us is motivating and educating athletes in order to be able to give themselves opportunities.
In today’s case, we want to talk about college football players who don’t fit the typical mold you would see on the gridiron today. Each of these athletes are inspirational in their own rights. High school athletes who feel marginalized or unseen should use their stories as motivation.
Jake Olson was 12 years old when he was told he would lose his vision. He had a rare form of eye cancer called retinoblastoma.
Understandably, he was saddened and depressed by this. The day before the surgery that would cause him to lose his vision, his parents asked him what he wanted to do. His reply: watch the USC Trojans practice.
From there, a dream was born. And when Pete Carroll heard about Olson’s story, he extended an offer that would include Olson as an honorary part of the Trojans. His time was meant to be spent exclusively on the sidelines, but Olson had other plans.
He had played the position of long-snapper in high school but assumed that his playing days would be over after graduating. Fast-forward to Clay Helton becoming USC’s coach, and Olson’s dream came back into the fold.
Before a season-opening game against the Western Michigan Broncos, a plan was hatched between Helton and Western Michigan’s head coach, Tim Lester, that would allow Olson to enter the game.
As Michael Duarte writes, “Helton offered a trade: The Trojans would not rush the Broncos’ first extra-point attempt of the game as long as coach Lester promised to not rush Olson’s extra-point attempt when the moment called for it.”
“Coach Helton told me what the kid meant to the team,” Lester told reporters during his postgame press conference. “I told him we’d be happy to be a part of it.”
Everything panned out according to plan, and Olson’s play was well-received by all involved. He was the hero of the game, fielding questions from media members post-game, and even leading the Trojan’s marching band with the sword.
“To have a situation where a 12-year-old kid is losing his sight and is going to have to face the rest of his life without seeing, to take a situation that ugly and then to fast forward eight years and to have that same kid be able to snap on the football field for the team that got him through that time is beautiful and special,” said Olson.
“The doctor told me, ‘You had about a week left,'” Conner said. “‘You had about a week at the rate it was growing.’ I think about that [stuff] every day. Like, I got to go hard.”
James Conner was a burgeoning young star at the University of Pittsburgh in 2015 when he was expected to compete for Heisman Trophy consideration in the upcoming season. The universe had other plans, however, as he ended up tearing his MCL in the team’s first game.
Though, the injury would end up being a blessing in disguise. During tests, doctors discovered a number of tumors growing in and around his heart. He would soon be diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
“I remember sitting there like ‘What you gonna do?’ What else is gonna happen at this point?” asked Conner. “The hardest thing about it was telling my [brothers]. It’s the first thing you think about when you wake up, it’s the last thing you think of before you go to bed.”
There aren’t many people in the world who can battle back from something so life-altering. He underwent grueling cancer treatments for the next six months before being medically cleared to return for the 2016 season.
One season after being diagnosed, Conner accounted for almost 1400 yards from scrimmage and 20 TDs. He was drafted in the third round by the PIttsburgh Steelers in the ensuing draft.
He has had a productive NFL career thus far, and recently was signed to a three-year contract by the Arizona Cardinals. Less than six seasons into the NFL, Conner is approaching 5000 yards of offense, and 50 TDs. Perhaps more importantly, he continues to be an inspirational figure for athletes around the world who are going through similar fights.
He is a native of Shaoguan, China. As he was nearing the end of high school, He’s parents decided to send him to a secondary school in San Diego, with the eventual goal of attending a University in the US.
In an interview with ESPN, He recalled a conversation with a parent at his high school that year in which they encouraged him to give football a try.
“I got nothing else to do,” he said.
Originally, the sport was used as a way to assimilate himself into American culture. And, as evidenced by the aforementioned sentiment, a way to kill time. Soon, the sport would lead him to many different places around the globe. He played on teams in San Diego, North Dakota, China, and eventually, Arizona.
After his experience in San Diego, his high school coach reached out to the University of Jamestown on behalf of He.
“Physically, he was talented,” said UJ head coach, Josh Kittell. “He was a strong kid that could run.”
Kittell gave him the chance he needed. The running back continued to gain the necessary experience that would be required of him if he intended to play at a higher level. Which he did.
Directly after playing in North Dakota, He wound up heading back home to China where he would spend time in a league that would keep his skills sharp. From there, he started applying to American schools, as was always the plan. After being accepted to Arizona State University, he made his way back to the States, to sunny Tempe, Arizona.
A piece in ESPN, written by Kyle Bonagura, follows He’s story as he arrived in Tempe:
“Shortly after he arrived on campus in October 2019, He walked over to the football building, went up to the third floor and told the front desk he was there to join the college football team. An on-campus recruiting staffer came out to meet with him, He shared his highlight tape from Jamestown, and a short time later he was practicing with the team.”
“He instantly became a source of positive energy around the program,” said Bonagura. “He developed a good rapport with the team’s equipment staff.”
This connection that He created was rewarded when the Sun Devil equipment staff decided to surprise him with a jersey that spelled out his name in Chinese symbols. By 2020, He was a full-fledged member of the Sun Devils’ football team.
When Arizona State made its way down to Tucson for the annual rivalry game, He was ready for the moment. Scoring a touchdown in a whopping 70-7 win over the Wildcats, He etched his name in history as the second Chinese-born player to ever score a touchdown in a college football game.
His background didn’t match up with what is normally seen in college football. Additionally, he had only played a handful of seasons of competitive football. With that said, perseverance pushed him to the pinnacle of collegiate football. The jersey worn by him when he scored the touchdown, with his name in symbols, is in the College Football Hall of Fame
“That just made me want to get better, and perform even better,” He said. “But I appreciate all the support and love from people back home and people here.”