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OPEN YOUR EYES
10 UNCOMMON LESSONS TO DISCOVER A HAPPIER LIFE
By JAKE OLSON, MCKAY CHRISTENSEN
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2013 Jake Olson and McKay Christensen
All rights reserved.
IT'S TIME TO SOAR
"For I know the plans I have for you," declares the Lord, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future."
—JEREMIAH 29:11 (NIV)
Please, no, he thought. Please, God, don't let it be like this.
It wasn't black. He had expected black. He had expected the type of black you see when you close your eyes or when you're standing in a dark room with no light. But it wasn't like that.
After previous surgeries to remove cancer from his eyes, Jake had always kept his eyesight. He had been able to sense at least a glimmer of light leaking through the bandages. Not this time. This was brutally different. This lacked feeling altogether.
For the first time in his life, Jake was experiencing the complete loss of sight. Experts say our thinking, mood, and personality are inextricably linked to the visual stimuli we get from our eyes. If we're deprived of all visual sensation, depression sinks into our psyche.
For Jake, depression sets in when his friends talk about getting their driver's licenses, and he knows he will never have the experience of driving a car. It sets in when he wishes he could be on the football field experiencing the thrill of competition. Perhaps it is strongest when he's at school or hanging out with his friends, and because he can't see, he can't walk up to someone and engage in a conversation. He has to wait for them to say hello to him. Living in darkness can mean living in loneliness.
When the feeling of depression starts to sink in, like that day in the hospital, Jake has often thought to himself, How could this be the plan God has for my life? What will my future be like? Why did this happen to me? When Jake asks these questions, the answer is always the same: "'For I know the plans I have for you,' declares the Lord, 'plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.'"
God had a plan for Jake Olson the day he lost his eyesight. Without his sight, Jake's life would soar beyond all expectation. A miracle was about to happen. Can a blind boy open his eyes and see? Can God prosper you when you can't see a way out? For Jake Olson, the answer to those questions started on the football field ...
Since it first fielded a team in 1888, the University of Southern California has been a dominating force in college football. In total, 472 USC Trojans have been taken in the NFL Draft, more than any other university.
In the 1920s, USC earned four national titles and became known as "the Thundering Herd." In the 1960s and 1970s, the Thundering Herd entered its golden age under the direction of coaches John McKay and John Robinson. Under McKay's leadership, the Trojans produced two Heisman Trophy winners, Mike Garrett and O. J. Simpson, and won four National Championships. Under Robinson, two more players won the Heisman: Charles White and Marcus Allen.
After the turn of the century, coach Pete Carroll and the quarterbacks took over the next golden age at USC. Carroll returned the Thundering Herd to national dominance. Quarterbacks Carson Palmer and Matt Leinhart both earned the Heisman. Under Carroll's leadership, USC won seven straight PAC-10 championships, and two National Championships in 2003 and 2004. In 2007, ESPN named USC the Team of the Decade.
A "Perfect Day" was a phrase coined by USC football announcer Peter Arbogast. It's a Saturday when USC wins, and USC's most notorious rivals, Notre Dame and UCLA, both lose. The last Perfect Day happened on September 11, 2010. That day USC beat Virginia, Notre Dame lost to Michigan, and UCLA lost to Stanford. In total, there have been twenty-six Perfect Days in USC history.
Perfect Day number twenty-five was October 17, 2009, and was perhaps the most perfect of all USC Perfect Days. On that day, USC beat Notre Dame at Notre Dame, and UCLA lost to California. What made it most memorable, however, was what happened off the field that day in South Bend, Indiana.
Waiting excitedly for the team bus to arrive at Notre Dame Stadium early that morning was twelve-year-old Jake Olson. Jake's father, Brian, is a USC graduate. Jake grew up in the decade of USC prominence. He knows the players by name and position. He is a walking encyclopedia of USC football information. He bleeds USC cardinal red and gold. Once USC football gets in your blood, you can't shake it. It sticks to you. It's all you talk about between August and January. Regardless of what's on the front page of the newspaper, you immediately flip to the sports page and read the latest news from the Trojan locker room.
As Jake waited anxiously with his family for the USC players to arrive at Notre Dame Stadium, his heart began to beat faster. He loves to see the bus rock back and forth as the players inside stand up and step off the bus. That day as players exited the bus, Jake greeted them with a high five and words of encouragement. On that Perfect Day, they had come to compete, and Jake was there to inspire them to victory.
Joining Jake and his family at Notre Dame were Shelley Smith and a crew of ESPN cameramen and producers. Smith, a reporter for ESPN SportsCenter, earned her first of four Sports Emmys in 1997 for her story on Magic Johnson and AIDS among athletes. That day she was working on another Emmy Award–winning story: Jake Olson and his final wish on this USC Perfect Day.
Smith had gotten word of Jake just a few days earlier. One of her crew had been on the USC practice field and told her about a boy visiting the team. She immediately reached out to USC's athletic department. "Our crew was at practice today and what I understand is this twelve-year-old boy has cancer in his eyes, or is blind, or is going to go blind. I'm not sure, but I guess he was at practice today. Can you tell me what is going on?"
What Shelley didn't know at the time was Jake had been diagnosed at eight months old with a rare form of eye cancer called retinoblastoma, leaving him with cancerous tumors in both eyes. His left eye was removed at ten months old, and he immediately began chemotherapy and cryotherapy to save his right eye. Miraculously, Jake's doctors were able to save it. This single eye had shown Jake his world for twelve years. Although the cancer had returned on eight different occasions, each time Jake was able to beat it.
In September 2009 the cancer returned once more. This time, however, the doctors ran out of miracles and options for viable treatment. The safest course of action, it was determined, was to remove Jake's remaining eye. The surgery was scheduled for November 2009, leaving Jake only a matter of weeks to take in all the sights of the world. As he contemplated his last few weeks of sight, Jake immediately thought of USC football. After surgery, he would never see a football game again.
Ever since he can remember, Saturdays have always meant one thing: USC football. Before he lost his eyesight for good, as one last wish, Jake wanted desperately to see a USC game up close. When news of Jake's wish reached head coach Pete Carroll, Carroll immediately invited Jake and his family to visit a USC practice session and team meeting.
When the family arrived at practice, they were enthusiastically greeted by Mark Jackson and others from the athletic department. Within minutes they were being hugged and welcomed by Coach Carroll. Carroll insisted the entire Olson family, not just Jake, be invited into the pre-practice meetings that he directed with the assistant coaches. In front of all the players in the meeting room, the first thing Coach did was introduce Jake. As soon as the players heard about the boy, Coach Carroll's voice was drowned out with a roaring chant by all the players: "Jake, Jake, Jake, Jake ..." It gave Jake and his family goose bumps.
They were then invited into the offensive line meeting led by Coach Pat Ruel. Jake's position on his little league football team was center, and his favorite player on the USC team was center Kris O'Dowd. Kris stands at six foot five and weighs three hundred pounds. He was the first true freshman in USC history to start a game at center. He was a first-team All American in high school and the anchor of the USC offensive line. Jake loved to watch Kris play.
Jake quickly bonded with Kris and the entire offensive line. As Coach Ruel roared through the Notre Dame game plan, Jake tossed out calls from the game book right on cue (with help from Kris). One of Jake's favorite moments came after a film session, when he got to say to offensive lineman Charles Brown, "Charles, hit that linebacker." The players laughed.
Coach Ruel, a thirty-four-year college and NFL coaching veteran, made Jake's wish of seeing USC players up close become a reality. With a kind heart and a twinkle in his eye, Coach Ruel made Jake a part of the USC offensive line. Jake felt right at home. After practice, the Olsons ate dinner with Kris and the other players in the athletic mess hall. There, nestled in the middle of a noisy squad of hungry athletes, sat Jake and his twin sister, Emma. They chatted with the players and Coach Carroll as if it were a family picnic. That day, a special relationship took root that would last a lifetime.
The Olsons received tickets to the USC–Notre Dame game from a friend, so they flew into South Bend the night before to watch the team go through their pregame walk-through.
When game day arrived, Jake was at the stadium early to welcome the team. As the players prepared for the game, Jake was on the field. Prior to kickoff, Jake fired up the offensive line. He was taking it all in and enjoying every minute of his new role! He would only have hours to enjoy these precious moments but a lifetime to remember them.
That day, something amazing happened in South Bend. It's what always happens when you get around Jake. He's inspiring. The coaches, players, and film crew were infused with extra faith and optimism because he was on the field.
Shelley Smith saw it right away. She could sense something special. She interviewed Coach Carroll with Jake at his side prior to kickoff, and the ESPN camera crew captured Jake's every move all day. Jake let them film, but he was too busy taking in the game to worry about what they were doing. It's what makes Trojan football so special for him; he has always been able to shift his attention from his pain to USC. Once again, facing the prospect of losing his sight in another painful surgery, Jake happily lost himself in USC football—only this time he was actually with the team!
The players were inspired by Jake's fearless spirit and went on to victory. Kris O'Dowd said, "How can a seventh grader make a hundred guys dead quiet and just hear every word that comes out of his mouth? It's because they have a mutual respect and love for this kid." O'Dowd later told Smith that he calls Jake his "little brother." He said, "Having Jake come into my life, really finding myself as a person and a man ... I've learned a lot of lessons from him."
After the victory over the Irish, Jake was invited back to the locker room, where he shared in the celebration. Coach Carroll led the team in "Fight on for Victory." Jake got hugs from all the guys, including Matt Barkley, Joe McKnight, and of course, Kris O'Dowd.
Jake was inspiring others with his faith and determination long before ESPN found their way into his life. What ESPN did so incredibly well, however, was make it possible for millions to see and be inspired by Jake's life. His is one of the most recognized inspirational stories in the media today.
The ESPN video story captured the irreplaceability and preciousness of Jake's final hours with physical sight. This was more than a wish come true; it was serious stuff. It was permanent memory-making for Jake. He was storing the last glimpses of football and friends in his mind. These sights would have to last an entire lifetime.
Jake was frantically memorizing how everything looked that day: the players, their faces, the way they moved, their long hair, their beards, and all the images of USC football. Coach Carroll made it possible. He was kind and generous. As Brian Olson, Jake's dad, said, "Coach Carroll is an amazing person. He had such compassion for Jake and our entire family and extended his hospitality to all of us. He especially included Emma in all the activities in which Jake was able to participate. He innately knew that cancer affects everyone in a family, not just the person who has it. His warm welcomes and big hugs helped make this very difficult time easier for all of us. We'll be eternally grateful to Coach Carroll and the USC organization."
Jake would return to visit the USC football team a few weeks later, but this time without his sight ...
Jake and Emma are twins. This was part of God's incredible plan for their family. It's as if God knew what would happen to Jake and sent a twin angel to live with him. Jake and Emma share a special bond that has allowed his persevering spirit and her kind and protective nature to balance perfectly throughout their childhood. Emma was always by his side in school and always praying for him while he spent countless hours in the hospital.
With Emma by his side, Jake wasn't afraid. Her peace and optimism gave him the strength he needed to persevere. Emma would teach Jake the lessons he missed from school, help him keep up with his homework assignments, and maintain his connections with friends and teachers. Because Emma made sure he stayed au courant with what was going on, Jake never missed a moment. Emma reported the details of everything Jake was missing. She helped him with homework and even organized messages from fellow students to lift Jake's spirits during the most difficult treatment sessions.
As time progressed and Jake's vision in his remaining eye deteriorated, Emma became his "eyes," protecting him and leading him when necessary. Each of us has a God-given path, a calling to fulfill while we are here on earth. No doubt Emma was sent as Jake's twin to bless him. God knew he needed a guardian angel on earth.
But Emma also needed Jake. The lessons Emma has learned while sharing Jake's trials and treatments have shaped her character and given her tools she can use throughout her life. She understands how to cope with adversity almost as well as her brother. She knows how to trust in the Lord.
Emma's faith and confidence in God have been a blessing to the entire family. Through her prayers she has seen and experienced the tender mercies God bestows on his children. She has learned, through the whisperings of the Spirit, how to succor the weak and be an instrument in God's hands to bless those around her.
"Emma's faith that God would heal Jake and protect our family has never wavered," says Jake's mom, Cindy. "She is the solid rock of our family."
A Childhood with Cancer
Retinoblastoma is a malignant tumor of the retina that affects children under the age of six. It's rare: less than 3 percent of cancers in children are diagnosed as retinoblastoma. It occurs when a cell in the developing retina forms a mutation, causing it to grow out of control and become cancerous. In minor cases, it can be treated with laser surgery. In serious cases, such as Jake's, it threatens to spread to the brain and other parts of the body. Therefore, if radiation and other treatments fail, removal of the eye is the only treatment.
After doctors removed Jake's left eye at ten months old, Jake's parents did everything possible to help him keep his remaining eye. They traveled from their home in California to New York to participate in experimental treatments. One such treatment required a tube to be carefully threaded through Jake's main arterial system from his leg all the way to his eye to deliver chemotherapy. Each procedure lasted four to five hours with the risks of blindness and stroke. The family traveled to New York three times in an effort to kill the cancer. Before and after these procedures, Jake endured harsh radiation treatment. Jake knows the painful realities of fighting cancer.
INSIGHTS FROM JAKE
When I was six years old, my cancer returned. The tumor was large and it was leaking fluid. After six months of treatment, the doctors were recommending that my eye be enucleated, which would leave me blind. My parents didn't tell me about the doctor's recommendation.
During this challenging time of my life, God had put in my heart to get baptized. Although I was only six, I understood what this meant. I had been reading the Bible since the age of four and attending a Christian school, so I understood the Word and works of God. I made the decision during our Sunday service. God was pulling on my heart. I got baptized the next Sunday. The following Thursday, we went to what could have been my last checkup before the removal of my eye. But the cancer had disappeared. The doctors could not explain it because the treatments had not been working. It had seemed like the cancer was not receding. But during this exam, the cancer was gone. Completely gone. I knew God blessed me and rewarded my faith in him.
Turning to Their Faith
Upon learning of Jake's cancer at such an early age, the Olsons were devastated. The first thing they did was turn to the Lord. They had built their family on a foundation of faith, but that foundation would have to get stronger to endure what was ahead of them. Once they dealt with the devastating news, they decided to exercise their faith and move forward, taking each challenge one at a time. In their own words, "We serve the God of hope, and hope has never disappointed us."
As a toddler, Jake would set up an amphitheater in the living room and sit his family down. He would then inform everyone that he had a sermon prepared. He would give his sermon and lead the family in prayer. Jake's performances had a theatrical edge to them, but his faith was real. Jake has a tangible intimacy with the Lord, an intimacy that many believers never obtain. As Brian says, "Jake's level of faith and spirituality at age six made me step up as a Christian man to a higher level. Not just reading the Bible and praying, but how I lived and the actions I took. It made me grow in faith and action. Jake has a gift for inspiring others in a similar way."
Excerpted from OPEN YOUR EYES by JAKE OLSON, MCKAY CHRISTENSEN. Copyright © 2013 Jake Olson and McKay Christensen. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
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