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  • Writer's pictureAaron Ferguson

Valparaiso High grad returns to gridiron eight months after stroke

Updated: Jan 14, 2020

Patrick Olson, left, shakes hands at the captains meeting with a St. Francis player. It was Olson's first game back after suffering a stroke eight months earlier. (Provided photo)

Patrick Olson was relearning how to walk eight months ago. Four weeks ago the sophomore defensive lineman returned to play college football — his motivation for recovery.

Olson suffered a stroke at his Valparaiso home March 2. He hit a milestone Oct. 26 — a day he’ll never forget — as he returned to the football field for the first time, walking out as a captain for St. Xavier University in its 44-28 win over Illinois' University of St. Francis.

“Football was my goal, to come back and play, and I achieved it, so now I have to find myself a new goal to stay motivated,” said Olson, a 2017 Valparaiso High graduate.

To say Olson is fortunate is an understatement. A resident adviser in college, Olson spent a rare night home celebrating his brother’s birthday. They were playing a game of pool when he started to go numb, losing feeling in half his body before being helped to and falling on the couch.

Olson was airlifted to Rush hospital in Chicago, where medical staff began running tests and treating him.

“Thank God, he was at home that night,” St. Xavier coach Mike Feminis said. "Patrick’s an RA for us, and there's a really good chance that (if) he was in his dorm by himself that he'd been gone because it happened at his house … he dropped and his brother caught him.”

Olson’s entire life changed. The 20-year-old’s journey is nothing short of remarkable.

“I was in the hospital for about a week, the rehab center connected to the hospital for another week after that, because I had to relearn how to do everything — walking, opening bags; I was left-handed prior to it, now I’m right-handed,” he said.

Feminis, the Cougars’ 21st-year head coach, never has seen anything like this — on the field or off it — in his 30-year coaching career. He was at a fundraiser when he learned of the news.

“The first thing is just its complete shock because how many times do you hear of a 20-year-old having a stroke?” he said. “It was just a very, very scary ordeal ... and then when you find out really how close we came to potentially losing him, it really kind of puts a lot of things in perspective.”

Feminis raced to Rush to be with the Olson family. Football was an afterthought.

“The first thing that they do from a rehab standpoint is make sure your cognitive skills are working,” Feminis said. “They were just asking the most basic of questions … and that's a pretty scary thought when you're watching a 20-year-old kid, a really intelligent kid, he's in great shape, having to go through this.

“After all that was done, to go through the physical part of things ... even get him to a point where he can get his legs underneath him and start walking normally and jogging normally and then ultimately running normally. It's a miracle.”

Another hurdle

Additional testing showed there was another problem. Olson had a hole in his heart that didn’t close after he was born. It’s a condition that affects 1-in-4 people.

He went through rehabilitation and slept with a heart monitor on to make sure everything was OK until he had surgery June 11 to help the issue.

“They ran a catheter through an artery in my leg and then put, it's like a plug almost closed both ends of my heart, in the hole,” Olson said. “And then my heart is currently growing around it, and it's going to do that for about two years.”

Not only was Olson dealing with physical rehabilitation, he was continuing his education. He managed to complete 12 credit hours after spending two weeks in the hospital and rehab center and two months at home rehabbing.

Finding inspiration

Olson looked to a pair of Hall of Fame football players as inspiration. He has a picture of Bears legend Walter Payton and is reminded daily of Payton’s influence.

“I have a picture of him up on my dorm room with one of his quotes: ‘Tomorrow is promised to nobody.’ (It) definitely hits home with me for now,” Olson said. “There’s an old saying, ‘Play every down like it’s your last,’ because for me that was almost reality.”

His life more closely resembles that of linebacker Tedy Bruschi, who suffered a stroke in 2005, weeks after winning a Super Bowl with the New England Patriots. He returned eight months later and played until 2008, when he retired.

Olson read Bruschi’s book, “Never Give Up: My Stroke, My Recovery, and My Return to the NFL,” to try and find motivation, tips and similarities to their recovery paths.

Both of their returns resemble resiliency. Olson and Feminis were the only two who knew he was returning to the football field the game day morning they woke up. It created a special moment for the program at their team breakfast.

“The outpouring of love from his teammates and the coaches really helped him and his family,” Feminis said. “This is a lot bigger than football."

Olson added, “All the guys came up to me and hugged me. I was trying not to show too much emotion before a football game. You’ve got to be tough, right? But definitely after (the game) I went, and I was overjoyed. It was just a wonderful feeling. It’s something that will always stay with me forever.”

All that Olson has accomplished hasn’t set in yet. It will one day, but he has a ways to go to get back to full strength. He plans to finish his degree in business administration, his college football career and get a master's degree.

He knows he has a powerful story — one that will motivate others — and he’s already gotten started sharing it, speaking to the Valparaiso High football team about fortitude earlier this season.

“I talked to them about how, at the end of the day, I don’t remember the scores of the games," he said. "I remember the guys around me and the interactions I had with them, and how those guys that I met were the ones that were reaching out when everything happened."

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