PULLMAN – The Venanzi family, like many college football fans, had the date of the Washington State-USC showdown circled for a long time.
But their interest went way beyond the outcome of a key Pac-12 game.
Connor Venanzi is junior at WSU, studying psychology. One of his closest friends is Jake Olson, the blind USC long snapper who became one of the best stories of the season when he snapped for a PAT in the season opener against Western Michigan.
Venanzi and Olson grew up in Huntington Beach, California, attending school together from kindergarten through eighth grade. They played with and against each other on youth soccer and football teams. Connor’s dad, Mark, coached the boys one season.
“We’ve always been close even though we split up for high school and college,” Connor said. “There’s basically an inseparable bond. I consider Jake’s parents my second set of parents.”
Mark attended the USC-Stanford game on Sept. 9 with Jake’s twin sister Emma, a USC student, and Jake’s parents Brian and Cindy. The week before, a USC teammate escorted Olson onto the field and No. 61 fired an on-target snap on the PAT that accounted for the final point in a 49-31 over Western Michigan.
“I’m an SC fan but when the weekends come I get busy,” Mark said. “My wife started yelling at me, ‘Hey, hey, hey.’ They called that timeout and let him snap and get ready. I had seen him do it in high school. It was awesome. I sent Brian a text and told him what a great job he’s done as a dad and that he should be proud of what Jake’s done.”
Olson lost his left eye to retinoblastoma before his first birthday. The cancer returned eight times before he lost his right eye at age 12. Olson was a huge USC fan and his story reached then-Trojans coach Pete Carroll, who invited the youngster to practices.
They remain close friends and Carroll, the Seattle Seahawks head coach since 2010, made sure Olson was in attendance when they played in back-to-back Super Bowls. Carroll has told reporters he couldn’t stop crying when Olson entered the Western Michigan game.
Mark and Connor picked up Olson at the Spokane Airport on Friday because Jake isn’t on the team’s travel roster. Olson doesn’t suit up for road games but he was on the USC sideline Friday.
Olson has authored books, given hundreds of motivational speeches – the first within a few months of losing his eyesight – and he’s worked hard at football, gaining roughly 40 pounds since joining USC’s team in 2015. He was a guest on “Good Morning America” last week.
The Venanzi family isn’t surprised by Olson’s long list of accomplishments. They’ve witnessed Olson shoot golf scores in the low 80s and win closest-to-the-pin at a high school fundraiser tournament.
“In eighth grade, we put him back at quarterback and he threw a touchdown pass,” Connor said. “That’s probably my fondest memory.”
The two families stayed in touch prior to the game.
“Jake’s been telling me, ‘You better be wearing some USC stuff under your Wazzu gear,’ ” Connor said.
Friday’s game was just the start of a busy weekend. Connor, Olson and two more friends will likely visit with Carroll when they attend the Seattle-Indianapolis game Sunday at CenturyLink Field.