Jake Olson will never forget the first time he met his favorite football player.
It was 2009, and Olson — 12 years old and the center on his flag football team — was battling retinoblastoma, a rare cancer of the retina. The disease took Olson's left eye when he was 10 months; he would later lose his right one.
The Make-a-Wish Foundation paired Olson with USC, his favorite team. He was soon asked to name his favorite player. It was a no-brainer: Kris O'Dowd, a 2007 Salpointe Catholic graduate turned USC's standout center.
“Everyone back then would’ve thought Matt Barkley, or Ronald Johnson or Joe McKnight, or something like that," Olson said this week, mentioning some former USC stars. "But for it to be Kris, everyone was like ‘Who?’ Kris comes running down all happy because he was like ‘Oh my God, this is my one moment to shine.’
“He gives me a big hug and I got to sit with him for the rest of the special teams meeting. … Kris became that player that I really loved hanging out with.”
The two hit it off instantly. Olson continued to attend the Trojans' practices and team meetings long after his "wish" ended. O'Dowd would bring Olson to film sessions, in part because the Trojans' offensive line coach — noting the 12-year-old in the room — wouldn't yell as much.
Olson kept playing football; when he arrived at USC in 2015, the least likely long-snapper in the history of the sport, he received O'Dowd's old jersey number: 61.
“Kris definitely helped me through the hard times of my life and I helped him through the hard times of his, and there’s a special bond between us that doesn’t normally happen, but I’m not surprised,” Olson said. “Back when I was 12, we knew there would be more to our relationship than just USC football.”
The two two lifelong friends will share another moment with each other on Friday. Salpointe Catholic will retire O'Dowd's high school jersey number — 76 — at halftime of the Lancers' home game against Sahuaro.
Olson, in town for Saturday's game between the UA and USC, will be at O'Dowd's side. Olson's presence is about more than just support: O'Dowd will host a fundraiser Thursday night, with the proceeds benefiting the Arizona School for the Deaf and the Blind. Olson will speak to ASDB students on Friday night.
“Being able to help out the Arizona School for the Deaf and Blind and get this fundraiser to get the community together and help a cause, it makes it really special," O'Dowd said. "I’m using this platform as an opportunity to help children."
O'Dowd was arguably the best lineman in Tucson high school football history. He played left tackle at Salpointe from 2003 to 2006. Extra fans would pack in wherever the Lancers went, coach Dennis Bene said, because it’s not often a Tucson product draws attention from the best college football programs in the country.
O'Dowd received scholarship offers from 40 of the nation's top programs. He ultimately chose USC over Ohio State, UCLA, Tennessee and a late contender, the UA.
“He was the most dominant lineman in Arizona his senior year," Bene said. "I mean he just mauled people. I can remember going down to play (Sierra Vista) Buena and there was a line of like 500 people and they were all there by our locker room just to see Kris walk by. They came to see him, and he was a lineman. He was just one of those special types of kids you get every decade or so.”
O'Dowd was too heavy to play Pop Warner football as a kid, so he gravitated to other sports. He calls basketball "my first true love," and was set to play the sport for Salpointe coach Brian Peabody when an injury affected his growth plates. O'Dowd was 6 feet 3 inches at the time; he would grow just one more inch.
“Realistically, I knew basketball wasn’t going to take me to the next level,” he said.
O'Dowd began playing football seriously as a freshman. He chose No. 76 because Rams legend Orlando Pace was one of his favorites. O'Dowd played in a handful of games as a freshman and was a regular by the following year.
By his senior season, O'Dowd was Parade All-American and a second-team USA Today All-American. He also participated in the 2007 U.S. Army All-American Bowl.
O’Dowd played briefly with the NFL's Cardinals, Jets and Seahawks in 2011 and 2012. He now lives and works in Los Angeles. When USC played Washington State, O’Dowd — along with former USC quarterback Mark Sanchez — led the Trojans onto the field before the game. It was a twist; he was the inspirational leader while Olson, who once did the same, was the player.
“As much as he looks up to me, I truly believe in my heart that I look up to him more," O'Dowd said. "That is somebody I’d like to model my life after and to wake up with the type of energy, passion and dedication that he puts into everything that he touches. …
“What ended up being one meeting ended up into a beautiful friendship and a relationship that I will hold close to me for the rest of my life."
Kris O'Dowd calls Friday's jersey retirement "an incredible accomplishment that was definitely a benchmark that I tried to set for myself being a Salpointe Lancer. "
He will become the fourth Salpointe player to have his jersey retired. The others:
• John Fina, OL: The 1987 Salpointe grad Fina starred at the UA, and was a first-round pick of the Buffalo Bills in 1992. He played 11 seasons in the NFL before retiring to Tucson. Salpointe retired his No. 64 jersey.
• Jeff Heidrick, FB/LB: Heidrick led Salpointe to its first-ever state championship appearance in 1982, then took over at tailback when Joe Rowley got hurt in the first half of the title game. Heidrick's No. 45 was the first jersey Salpointe ever retired. He played collegiately at New Mexico.
• Zach Morgan, WR/DB: Morgan died in March 2005, his senior year of high school. The Lancers retired his jersey number, 24.
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