Chalk these up as words you might not expect to hear from a guy who can dash 40 yards in about 4.5 seconds:
“I don’t run. I walk,” Greg Olsen said. “I’m not a big runner.”
But in this case, the Carolina Panthers’ star tight end isn’t talking about football; he’s explaining what he’ll do after the starting gun goes off at the second annual The HEARTest Yard + Showmars 5K on June 17.
“I meet and greet, and mingle, and thank people, and share our story, share our mission, what our program is, the impact that we try to make,” he said. “I’m more there for that than I am trying to break any world record, that’s for sure.”
In fact, the more people who beat him across the finish line the better, since 100 percent of the proceeds from the event will benefit Levine Children’s Hospital in a way that is intimately connected to that story of his, that mission, that impact he tries to make.
Olsen’s family’s story is well-known here in Charlotte, but for those coming into it fresh:
His son, T.J., was born in 2012 with hypoplastic left heart syndrome, a complex congenital heart disease marked by an underdeveloped left ventricle and aorta that affects normal blood flow through the heart. T.J. underwent his first open-heart surgery two days after birth and before his second birthday had been through three more.
Even before all the surgeries had been completed, Olsen and his wife, Kara, had devised a plan with Levine Children’s Hospital to help other parents of kids with congenital heart defects being treated at the hospital. In 2013, they established The HEARTest Yard arm of Greg’s Receptions for Research foundation, and to date it has helped those families by providing services including in-home, private nursing care, physical therapy and speech therapy – to the tune of about $1.6 million.
That money was raised through private donations and events like the 5K, golf tournaments, concerts and the Weekend With The 88s (a collaboration with Dale Earnhardt Jr. that ranks among the most novel fundraisers anyone in Charlotte has ever devised).
In short, Olsen’s done a ton to raise awareness of children born with congenital heart defects over the past several years – and a month ago, the cause got another big boost when late-night host Jimmy Kimmel shared the story of his own newborn son’s diagnosis and open-heart surgery.
“When I watched that, yeah – it hit close to home, him sharing his story,” Olsen said. “Slightly different heart defect, but in that same very critical-type category. So I get it. It’s a very scary time for a family and, obviously, aside from worrying about the well-being of your kid, there’s a huge financial component.
“Unfortunately, for a lot of families, healthcare and the state of healthcare nowadays – all those things are a big factor. So we ... try to get you as un-dependent on the government and public programs as possible. We believe that private funding and private-entity-based healthcare is very powerful and really makes people less dependent on government, less dependent on qualifications and applications.
“Basically (with our program), if you fall into that world of congenital heart disease and you’re born at Levine Children’s, you automatically qualify. There are no questions asked, and it’s entirely medically based; it’s not socioeconomic-based. There are no qualifications other than the needs of your child.”
As for T.J. – who along with twin sister Talbot will turn 5 in October – Dad says he’s doing great. He’s got a pacemaker (put in during that fourth open-heart surgery), and needs to take one type of heart medication every eight hours and another every 12, but he’s doing great.
“He’s got an incredible attitude; he’s very positive,” said Olsen, who said T.J. (along with the rest of his family) will be out at the 5K this month. “I think he’s on his way to really understanding that he’s a special kid and he’s very fortunate in a lot of ways.”
As for the future? “We try not to dwell on it. Obviously, we understand it could be tough, it could be very uncertain and complicated. But we’re just gonna enjoy what we have now. We’ve got a healthy boy – relatively speaking, compared to where he’s been – a kid that goes to school, does well, has friends, plays with his brother and sister, and really has a great outlook and enjoys everything he does in life. As parents, it’s hard to ask for anything more than that from your kids. I mean, not all families in our situation have the outcome that we’ve had thus far. So we’re not gonna really spend every day worrying about tomorrow ... we want to enjoy the blessings that we have.”
The HEARTest Yard + Showmars 5K
Who: Showmars Restaurants and Greg Olsen and Receptions For Research: The Greg Olsen Foundation.
What: Run/Walk and Kids Fun Run.
When: 8 a.m. Saturday, June 17.
Where: CMC Myers Park (1350 S. Kings Drive) and Levine Children’s Hospital (1000 Blythe Blvd.).
Why: 100 percent of the proceeds will benefit the HEARTest Yard Program and the Program for Pediatric Hearts at Levine Children’s Hospital. Olsen hopes the 5K cracks 1,000 participants, which would be a 45 percent increase over the number of finishers in the inaugural year.
How: For additional information or to register, visit www.Showmars.com/HEARTestYard5K.