Carolina Panthers tight end Greg Olsen and his foundation, the HEARTest Yard, will hold its inaugural 5-kilometer run on May 21 to raise money and awareness for infant congenital heart disease and disorder.
Since the Super Bowl, Olsen has done some traveling, taken in basketball games, taped a Comedy Central show and helped families with children battling various heart defects and disease.
Olsen’s son T.J. was born in 2012 with hypoplastic left heart syndrome (HLHS), and the HEARTest Yard fund helps the Levine Children’s Hospital and families with expenses.
In a 15-minute interview, the Pro Bowl tight end talked to the Observer about his offseason activities, the foundation’s 5k and the 2016 NFL season.
Q: I noticed you had been around a couple of places this offseason, including shooting something with comedienne Amy Schumer. What was that all about?
A: It was pretty cool. I had the opportunity to go up to New York and be on the “Inside Amy Schumer” show with Michael Strahan and Vernon Davis and those guys. That was an opportunity that presented itself, and it was something different and fun. I had a great time. Those guys are really good dudes, and she’s obviously incredibly talented. To be asked to be on her show and be asked to do something outside of my wheelhouse was a nice change of pace. (The episode airs in late April on Comedy Central.)
Q: I also saw you went to a Tar Heels basketball game this past season. ... Is that your team now?
A: We met coach (Roy) Williams at a Hornets game in 2014… and this year we were planning on going to a game up there and coach Williams asked us to come out. We got tickets through the athletic department. I had never been to the university before. Got to see the school and the facilities and go into his office and bring the kids into there and show them some cool stuff. They were so incredibly hospitable. (The team) took pictures with my kids and it was awesome. From that point forward we were Tar Heel basketball fans. We followed them closely. My boys and I would watch the ACC games and the championship, and my oldest stayed up with me as much as he could to watch the national title game. It was fun finally having a basketball team to follow. I was never really into college basketball over the years, so it was fun rooting for the local team.
Q: So your foundation is putting on a 5k on May 21. What motivated you to put on a race, and what can we expect from that?
A: Constantly we’re trying to come up with new ways to raise money for Levine Children’s Hospital. We are a fundraising arm that takes a lot of pride in maximizing the amount of revenue we can generate for the program. We think the program works. We’ve seen it work and so have the doctors. Most importantly the families think it works. It’s made a huge difference in the lives of the children, but also in the social dynamic of the household.
Our goal is to gobble up more and more kids, and we want to extend this to all critical pediatrics, not just cardiac. We’re giving a $30,000 benefit per family, free of charge, to everybody that we’re responsible for. At $30,000 clips, when you start tackling a lot of families, it requires a lot of money. And we take a lot of pride in trying to make sure that money meets the demand. And unfortunately the demand is high. I wish that tomorrow they’d call me and say there are no more sick kids, but as long as there are sick kids we’re going to try to give them that medical benefit to get the health care that they need. This is just another event that we hope not only raises money and write big checks to the hospital, but also get more people to hear our story.
The 5k is something we always toyed with. It’s a very 5k-heavy city. We were hesitant because we don’t have much experience doing it, but we were approached by the team at Showmars who had done these before and said let’s do this year together. That’s where we are.
Q: How have you seen awareness for HLHS increase over the past few years?
A: I think it’s really incredible that unless you’re affected by it – which I don’t want anyone else affected by it because it’s a tough road for these kids and families – but until you dive in into what congenital heart disease is, it’s the No. 1 killer of all infants in this country. I think that would shock a lot of people. It’s not out there on commercials, and there aren’t celebrities on TV promoting drives. For whatever reason it’s just starting to get that foothold. ... It’s a serious epidemic that hits our country. T.J.’s case is very rare because there are only 1,000 kids a year born with it, but congenital heart disease comes in all shapes and forms. It’s real, it’s serious and we take a lot of pride to use our platform and support this hospital and the cause. … We know when we were in (other family’s) shoes, we scoured the Internet for stories. We scoured newspaper articles about the kids who are thriving with it. If we can be that hope and we can lend any sort of comfort, we do that every day. We enjoy going out and doing that.
Q: On football, the Panthers have made very few changes since the Super Bowl. But what do you make of the moves – the new guys, retaining others – that Dave Gettleman and Ron Rivera have made in the past two months?
A: Everyone gets wrapped up in free agency, but first off the bat keeping Charles (Johnson) and (Mike) Tolbert was huge. We had the best record in the league for a reason last year, not only because we had great players but we had good guys. So let’s keep that. They get that. They know it’s not just who can collect the best football players but who can collect the best group of football players. And secondly, I think people forget that a year ago we did some extensions for guys who would have hit free agency. You have to count that as free agency additions: Luke (Kuechly), Cam (Newton), Thomas (Davis), myself. Those were all guys who were approaching or fast approaching free agency. So getting all those guys under contract for the next few years, it was almost like our free agency came a year early.
Q: On you individually, though, you have two consecutive Pro Bowl nominations. What do you want to improve on in 2016 to make sure it’s three straight?
A: Personally, I really approach every year the same way. I take my offseason training seriously. I’m getting older now. I just turned 31. Workouts are a little different when you’re 31 versus 21. Then you could step on the field and run for days. There’s a lot that goes into being able to play every game and every practice and take every rep. Every year it gets a little bit harder, but I also enjoy that challenge. … My goal is, I want to go three years with 1,000 yards. I don’t know how many guys have done that, but I don’t think it’s a lot. (Actually, six tight ends have had at least three 1,000-receiving yard seasons, but no tight end has ever had three consecutive 1,000 yard seasons. Olsen and New England tight end Rob Gronkowski have a chance at it in 2016.) If I go out and have that kind of year, with Kelvin (Benjamin) back and Teddy (Ginn) and Philly (Brown), we’re going to have a dynamic offense. My approach doesn’t change. Every year I want to impact the game on every play, with or without the ball. When the ball comes my way, Cam expects me to make a play mostly when he needs it the most. That formula has worked for a long time, and I’m going to do my best to keep that going.