By Lisa Zimmerman, Player Engagement Insider
For the second consecutive year, Carolina Panthers tight end Greg Olsen has been chosen as the team’s Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year award nominee. He has also been selected as one of three finalists, with the winner to be chosen on February 4th, the night before Super Bowl LI.
“I think it’s a tremendous honor,” Olsen said. “Especially that I’m the team nominee for the second year in a row. We have a lot of worthy candidates just on the Panthers and then to be selected from 32 across the NFL down to the final three is really an honor.”
In 2009, after being inspired watching his mother battle and defeat breast cancer, Olsen founded Receptions for Research: The Greg Olsen Foundation and worked to raise money to support research for the disease.
Then in 2012, another medical crisis faced the family. Olsen and his wife, Kara, were expecting twins, when they discovered that their unborn son, T.J., had a rare condition called Hypoplastic Left Heart Syndrome. T.J. ultimately underwent several surgeries, all of which were a success and resulted in T.J. being a now healthy and thriving four-year-old child who goes step-for-step with twin sister Talbot and five-year-old brother Tate.
Throughout the process, the Olsen’s were faced with numerous financial responsibilities, including needing private nursing care in their home, which they were fortunate enough to be able to handle both through their insurance and their own finances. But what they realized was how many people were not in that position and quickly knew they wanted to do something to help those people as well.
“We knew there was a space we wanted to get into, but we didn’t want to abandon our original cause,” Olsen said.
So, that same year, the Olsens created the HEARTest Yard Fund as a separate arm of their foundation, with their fundraising efforts on behalf of cancer research, being dubbed, Receiving Hope. The HEARTest Yard Fund provides resources for families whose children are also dealing with heart issues and who couldn’t otherwise afford them.
“People identify with our story,” Olsen said. “People want to talk with me and I think that nobody tells our story more than we can. We’ve lived this. We know what this program is and how big of an impact it is having.”
Although his own children are still quite young, the Olsens include them as much as possible in activities that are appropriate for them. The children often accompany their parents on hospital visits to the children they call T.J.’s “heart friends.”
“It’s something we try to have our kids experience firsthand, [and teach them that] the world doesn’t revolve around them,” Olsen said. “We are very fortunate that we have an opportunity to impact other peoples’ lives. Not everybody has the same set of circumstances, some people need a hand. The biggest message we try to give to them is to help others who need help.”
All their efforts are driven and expedited by the Olsens themselves. The foundation has no paid employees and no office space. Money raised goes directly to the individual cause, which doubles the work since each part of the foundation operates totally separately from the other.
However, Olsen embraces every moment. While he is grateful for the recognition given to him with the Walter Payton award nomination, he is even more grateful knowing that the work he is doing off the field has been so valuable.
“Families tell us what this program has done for them and helped their lives and it gives us such great purpose. It reenergizes you to find new revenue-generating events and to share our story with as many people as possible. If we can help people a little bit, that’s our mission.”
The Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year award is presented annually to an NFL player who exemplifies excellence both on and off the field. The winner of the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award will receive a $500,000 donation in his name for the charity of his choice and two finalists will each receive a $125,000 donation for a charity of their choice. The additional 29 winners will each receive $50,000 for a charity of their choice.
Lisa Zimmerman is a long-time NFL writer and reporter. She was the Jets correspondent for CBSSports.com, SportsNet New York’s TheJetsBlog.com and Sirius NFL Radio. She has also written for NFL.com.