Scott Fowler

On field and off, Carolina Panthers tight end Greg Olsen gets it right

The past two weeks have showcased the NFL at its worst. If you just read the headlines, you might think every player in the league is a borderline criminal.

That’s far from true. And in case you need reminding, consider the story of Carolina Panthers tight end Greg Olsen. He has been shuttling from a Charlotte hospital to Bank of America Stadium and back for the past month – staying with his sick son, catching passes, hosting charity benefits, co-captaining his team and generally trying to keep his head above water.

Olsen’s son, TJ, is almost 2 years old now. TJ has undergone four open-heart surgeries because of a congenital heart defect. It was only supposed to be three – the third surgery came in late August – but there have been complications. The fourth surgery came Sept. 11, when doctors installed a pacemaker.

Olsen and his wife, Kara, take turns staying with TJ at the hospital and caring for their two other children at home, with Olsen himself usually taking the night shift at the hospital. He reckons he has averaged about six nights per week staying in the hospital with TJ over the past four weeks.

From there, Olsen goes directly to the Panthers’ stadium each morning.

Said Olsen of the situation: “It’s taught me a lot about myself – what it means to have a lot of responsibility as a father and as a husband and as a teammate and a player here, and I take all of those roles really seriously. They all mean a lot to me. You try to be everything to everyone at the same time, the best you can.”

Said Cris Collinsworth, a former NFL receiver who will be the TV analyst for Sunday night’s nationally televised 8:30 p.m. game between Carolina and Pittsburgh: “Playing football in the NFL is stressful enough. But to be able to balance his other duties as a husband and father so well really tells you all you need to know about Greg Olsen. What I always tell people about NFL players is that the Greg Olsens are the rule. Some of the other guys we’ve been talking about who get into trouble? They are more of the exception.”

‘An underrated talent’

As a player, Olsen is so consistent that it’s easy to take him for granted. National critics wrung their hands the entire 2014 offseason, bemoaning the “fact” that Cam Newton would have no one to throw the ball to since his top four wide receivers were gone.

That ignored the obvious: Olsen is Carolina’s best receiver, even though he’s a tight end. He led the team in both receptions (73) and yards (816) last year – the first time since the glory days of Wesley Walls in 1997 that a wide receiver did not lead the team in either category.

After two games in 2014, Olsen has 14 catches for 155 yards – again team highs in both categories. Olsen is also the NFL’s only active tight end with five or more receiving TDs every year since 2008.

“Greg is an underrated talent in this league to say the least,” Newton said. “He’s a very smart football player and a reliable source each and every time the ball is thrown to him – that’s what I like about him the most.”

“Greg Olsen is a great player,” said Tampa Bay coach Lovie Smith, whose Buccaneers were victimized by Olsen for 83 yards and a touchdown in Week 1. Smith used to coach the Chicago Bears, who drafted Olsen in the first round out of the University of Miami in 2007.

“There’s a reason why I drafted him in the first round,” Smith said. “He’s been good each year he’s been in the league.”

At 6-foot-5 and 253 pounds, Olsen runs his routes so precisely, has such good hands and is such a big target that Newton looks for him repeatedly. Wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery, who only joined the Panthers a few months ago, found that out quickly.

“Greg is an awesome dude,” Cotchery said, “and he’s always open. So you better get open before he does.”

“I don’t think people give Greg Olsen enough credit for the type of football player he is,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. The coach said he is surprised that Olsen, who is 29 and an eight-year veteran, has never made it to the Pro Bowl.

With Atlanta’s Tony Gonzalez having retired, Olsen might have a better chance this year than before, but New Orleans’ Jimmy Graham and San Francisco’s Vernon Davis both made it to the all-star game ahead of him in 2013.

“There are a lot of guys out there who are bigger names and who are recognized more,” Olsen said. “I don’t really care too much about that stuff. I feel very comfortable about what I bring to the team.”

J is for Jerry

Traded to the Panthers in 2011 from Chicago for a third-round draft choice in one of the best deals Carolina has ever made, Olsen has started 112 straight games in his NFL career. That is second only to Dallas’s Jason Witten (173) among active tight ends.

Olsen said he has relearned toughness from his son, TJ. The “T” is for “Trent.” The “J” stands for “Jerry” and is a tribute to team owner Jerry Richardson and the Panthers’ support during the family’s two-year medical odyssey.

Kara Olsen was pregnant with twins in 2012. Prenatal tests showed her unborn daughter was developing normally. But her unborn son had a rare condition known as hypoplastic left heart syndrome (HLHS), a congenital heart defect marked by an underdeveloped left ventricle and aorta.

TJ spent the first month of his life in the Levine Children’s Hospital in Charlotte. Olsen juggled hospital time with practice time and game time for much of the 2012 season, and unfortunately that has become a familiar routine for the family by now.

“Obviously your heart breaks for the kid,” Olsen said of TJ. “It’s unfortunate what he’s been through in his short life. We try to be as strong as we can as a family. ... We don’t have the magic answer.”

The first time Kara ever saw her husband cry came when TJ’s HLHS was first diagnosed. The family has since endured one day at a time – like so many families coping with a severe health problem.

“It’s been a struggle,” Olsen said. “We’ve had our ups and downs. We’ve had our good times, we’ve had our weak moments and we’ve never shied away from that. But it has taught us a lot about ourselves.”

‘We do the best we can’

The Olsens have established a charitable foundation to help children born with congenital heart issues similar to their youngest son’s. The HEARTest Yard has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to Levine Children’s Hospital so that pediatric heart patients can be provided home care and additional therapy once they are discharged from the hospital. A fundraiser Monday night at Coyote Joe’s, featuring country star Lee Brice, drew thousands of people.

Said Collinsworth: “I think ultimately that nobody is going to remember any of us for much of what we did on the football field. I think we are all going to be remembered and judged on what we do away from football, and Greg Olsen is getting it right. I admire him.”

Olsen has missed a number of Panthers practices because of TJ’s health issues – although he has never missed a game. He is such a diligent student, however, that Newton said Olsen sometimes corrects him in the huddle about exactly how a play should be called.

Olsen – elected as a Panthers’ captain for the first time a few weeks ago – has nothing but praise for the off time the Panthers have allowed him.

“The support I’ve gotten from the organization from the top down has made a very difficult situation much easier,” he said. “I have never been made to feel guilty – I don’t know if ‘guilt’ is the right word – but I’ve never had to feel bad about having to miss something. It’s been ‘Do what’s right for your family. Do what you need to do.’ ”

Through it all, Olsen has successfully compartmentalized his life. He and Kara have an older son, Tate, who is 3, as well as TJ’s healthy twin, Talbot. The twins will turn 2 in October.

“We do the best we can,” said Olsen, who said he and Kara both have lots of help from both sets of grandparents, as well. “(Tuesday) my wife stayed at the hospital most of the day so I could stay home with the kids who are at home. We try to be there for all of them. But there is no perfect solution.”

So the juggling act continues. And as usual, when the ball is in the air, Olsen is at his best.