Dec. 4, 2013
The Olson family’s Mahtomedi, Minn., backyard boasts a unique feature: a set of wooden football uprights, constructed on the spur of the moment out of love for the game.
“We came home one day and we thought it would be cool just to play in the backyard like it’s at the Dome or something,” Ed Olson Jr. said. “We decided to put a couple pieces of wood together, and they’ve been up ever since.”
Just like those goal posts, Ed Olson has stayed in the backyard all this time. As a senior offensive lineman for the Golden Gopher football team, he now plays his games at TCF Bank Stadium, close enough for his friends and family to easily come watch. In fact, some of his family and friends even play alongside him on the team.
Olson’s younger brother Tommy and their other best friend, Mike Henry, join him on the Gopher roster. Long before they began playing in a 50,000-seat stadium, the trio played two-hand touch in the Olson yard. And yes, they actually did use those homemade uprights for field goals and extra points.
“We’re not the best kickers,” Ed said. “It was mostly just for show.”
In addition to the goalposts, the Olsons also put up some lights so they could play in the dark. Their football field hosted countless games throughout the boys’ childhood, from big gatherings of Mahtomedi teammates to annual Thanksgiving showdowns with cousins Matt and Dustin.
“There were a lot of arguments in those Turkey Bowls,” Ed said. “We never had refs. They were fun. We still talk about them today. We made little plaques and trophies.”
Olson went on to pursue more widely recognized hardware at Mahtomedi High School. He helped the Zephyrs claim a state runner-up trophy in the 2007 playoffs, and went on to earn all-state accolades as a senior in 2008.
When it was time to choose a college, his decision to attend the University of Minnesota couldn’t have surprised anyone. Gopher football is in Olson’s blood. His father, Ed Sr., played for the Maroon and Gold in the early 1980s. Ed Jr. and Tommy grew up cheering on the hometown team and asking their father questions about his playing career.
Eventually, Tommy and Henry joined Ed on campus. From the backyard to Mahtomedi High School to the U of M, they have constantly been together.
“Tom’s got the outgoing personality,” Ed said. “He’s the loud guy. Mike and I are more laid back. But we all complement each other. It all works with the three of us.”
Ed was the first to arrive, as Tommy is two years younger and Henry made a stop at community college. The big brother helped the others know what to expect in the transition to Division I. The trio rooms together near the Gibson-Nagurski Football Complex. Olson and his two closest friends are trying to enjoy the remainder of their last season together.
“I think 15 years from now, they’ll be coming to games together,” offensive coordinator and line coach Matt Limegrover said. “They’ll be out tailgating. They’ll be coming to the letterman club functions together. Those three guys are what it is to not only be teammates but to be best friends, and that’s pretty neat to see.”
In addition to each other’s company, the three also enjoy their proximity to home. The Olsons have steak dinners at home on Sundays, and Henry sometimes tags along.
Home cooking is not the only draw bringing Olson back to Mahtomedi frequently. Simply being with his parents, two of his biggest role models, is enough. His choice of jersey 58, his dad’s old number, at his dad’s school is evidence of their bond.
“He’s a hard worker and a great businessman,” Ed Jr. said. “That’s what I want to grow up to be like.”
The story of his mother, Kelly, has helped drive home just how important it is to spend time with loved ones. When the Olson boys were young, their mom learned that she had cancer and was told she had a slim chance of survival. But she beat the disease.
“She’s the hardest worker and toughest person I know,” Ed Jr. said. “She’s my hero. She fought each day, and she’s a good role model to look up to.”
Her lessons in perseverance paid off – though not on a life-or-death scale – for her older son during the past year.
From his redshirt freshman season, Ed was a regular starter for the Gophers at left tackle. Limegrover said that Olson, who arrived during the previous coaching staff’s tenure, was getting into a nice groove in the new system last season. But then he suffered an ankle injury during the Northwestern game. That injury lingered and ultimately required postseason surgery that caused Olson to miss 2013 spring practice. Coming into fall camp, he had his work cut out for him.
“It was tough,” Olson said. “But I would come to work each day, and the coaches were great to me. They’d always say, ‘Keep working hard.’ Everyone had my back, and I knew that if I kept working, it would all work out.”
“Eddie’s just had a great attitude and stayed with it,” Limegrover said. “He’s a real testament to not giving up, not giving in and just resigning yourself to a fate. He kept fighting. He kept working and had belief when I said the best five will play, and now he’s part of that group again.”
After an unfortunate injury to Gophers’ center Jon Christenson, Tommy also re-entered the starting lineup. In the Gophers’ win against Penn State, both Olsons and Henry took the field together for the first snap. Just like the backyard. Just like Mahtomedi.
“It’s almost surreal to be here playing,” Olson said. “When I was growing up, my dad was my coach and my mom would come to all the games. Now it hasn’t even changed. It seems like we’re still playing in the backyard.”
Young men from 18 different states and one foreign country left home to come to Minnesota and play football for the Gophers. Countless students similarly leave Minnesota to go to school elsewhere and experience a new setting. There is still something to be said for those who choose to stay and play in their home state in front of friends and family.
The Gophers would not have eight wins without their out-of-state players. They would not have the same personality without their out-of-state players. But they also need some guys who have known the “Ski-U-Mah” chant and “The Minnesota Rouser” and loved the Gophers for a long time. They need that deep bond with the state and people they represent. That is why players like Ed Olson are so important.
“They’ve been coming to games their entire lives,” Limegrover said. “It’s been a big part of their life even before they decided to come to school here. At the end of the day, when you have a guy like Eddie, he’s going to bleed Maroon and Gold not just because that’s where he goes to school, but that started way back for him. You know they’re going to be here until the end. They’re going to give it their all. That starts permeating throughout the rest of the team. Some guys who don’t know quite as much about Minnesota, some guys who come here for different reasons, they get caught up in it when you have enough guys like Eddie in the locker room.”
Story by athletic communications assistant Justine Buerkle
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