“I think people get a kick out of seeing athletes just doing what other dads are doing,” Greg Olsen tells me in August as we’re discussing his offseason, which included several surprising viral moments on social media. Olsen coached his son’s little league team, which became an internet sensation, so much so that the team’s performance was the topic of conversation in football press conferences. There was also a brief interaction between Olsen and Barack Obama among a crowd of well-wishers at a Duke–North Carolina basketball game in which it appeared that Obama knew who Olsen was.
Obama is a man of the people, even the Cameron Crazies. pic.twitter.com/om4F4xUKZi— ESPN (@espn) February 21, 2019
Olsen received tickets to the game as a thank-you for a speech he gave at Duke Children’s Hospital. He said he couldn’t say for certain whether Obama recognized him. “We’d never met before, but he’s a big Bears fan, so there might have been some recognition, to some degree, from my time in Chicago. That’s my guess.”
Olsen is one of the best tight ends of his era. He’s hauled in 682 passes for over 8,000 yards in his career, which he began as a second-round pick of the Bears in 2007. He’s played in Carolina since 2011 and has caught 35 touchdown passes from Cam Newton—14 more than any other Panther since Newton entered the NFL. (At the time of our interview, Newton was recovering from a foot injury. After starting the Panthers’ first two games, Newton missed Week 3 with the same injury; his return date is unknown. In the meantime, Kyle Allen is the Panthers starter.)
Olsen talked about how important health and depth would be to the 2019 Panthers, an astute comment after the 2018 season was derailed in part by injuries to both himself and his QB. But I wanted to talk to Olsen about a number of different topics, including how he spent his offseason. He said he now gears his offseason toward spending time with his children. “To having experiences, let them see and experience different things, and give them perspective on what they are able to do.” This includes meeting Obama. It also includes coaching little league. Here are a few of the highlights from our conversation.
When Amazon chronicled the Panthers’ 2018 season in All or Nothing, one thing viewers probably didn’t expect to see was Olsen explaining to teammates, including Newton, the premise of the Broadway musical Hamilton.
“I was just really fascinated by the show and the story,” he said. “Of course, we’re all at least somewhat familiar with the story of the Founding Fathers. We all took high school history classes—to see it spun in the manner in which they did it, it was just really cool. Going there, we heard so much about the show, and very often things never live up to their expectations. To walk out of there and say, ‘That may have been even better than we thought.’ You came home, and you wanted to describe it to everyone. But of course, unless you saw it, it was really hard to describe because nothing you said did it justice. You can’t say, ‘It’s a bunch of guys rapping and singing about the founding’ because people would say, ‘Wait, what?’ Because that was kind of my reaction. So I’m not sure if [my teammates] totally get what I’m trying to tell them, but I feel like it was my duty to do so.”
On American Health Care
“We lived it,” Olsen told me. “As much as you don’t want to make things political, in a lot of these disciplines, you have no choice.”
Olsen and I were talking about health care because I asked about his charitable foundation’s $2.5 million donation to establish a new heart clinic at Levine Children’s Hospital in Charlotte, North Carolina. Olsen’s son T.J. was born in 2012 with a congenital heart defect and had three heart surgeries. “We’ve been very hands on. You learn a lot about the complexities of health care and how hard it is,” Olsen said. The foundation provides services to families with children with congenital heart disease, including nursing care, physical therapy, and speech therapy at no cost.
He continued about his family’s experience with his son’s health care: “When we were coming out, there were a handful of government programs you could apply for. The applications were very complicated. They were very specific. We weren’t deemed sick enough by our health care provider to bring in the extra help into the home we needed. The program we felt the state was offering, we felt it was just to check a box. We didn’t feel like it was any kind of a quality program that would make a difference to our son. So we turned to the third option, which was to turn it into a philanthropic program, and we were fortunate enough to be able to spearhead that and fundraise that. That was the avenue we felt delivered the care the best way.”
I asked him, given his experience with his son, who was diagnosed with hypoplastic left heart syndrome, where he thinks health care needs to go in America. “What the magic solution is, it’s hard. I sit on one of the boards on one of the health care systems, and we have quarterly meetings,” he said. “You see the ins and outs of what these hospitals are dealing with. It’s hard to pay bills when not everyone pays, and trying to pay bills when not everything is reimbursed is hard. There’s also the expectations of your citizens who say, ‘I not only want health care, but I want it at a certain level.’ It’s just a really difficult situation. So we just said, ‘You know what? Let’s just forget all that. We’ll pay for it ourselves.’ That’s what our program we started seven years ago does. That’s how we got to where we are.”
Panthers coach Ron Rivera told me that he’d recently talked to a friend who is a police officer who had a colleague whose son had a similar congenital heart defect. Rivera told Olsen, who replied by saying, “Coach, give him my number.”
“The thing about Greg is that initially he had a dog in the fight and it very quickly became his passion,” Rivera said. “He realized he’s not the only one in this fight, but because of where he is, he’s able to afford it and take care of it. He began to see others that didn’t, and I think he realized he had the ability to help others who didn’t.”
Olsen told me that the hospital is gutting 22,000 square feet to make room for a new cardiac clinic that has a handful of subspecialties such as heart transplants, and “our big focus is on getting that funded.”
“We had a lot of resources to bring in extra help, and that’s not reality for most people,” Olsen said. “To be able to fill that void and take one thing off their plate and give them the type of health care they expect for their child has been one of our greatest experiences.”
On a Career in Broadcasting
“You can’t help now, when you’re watching games, to be a little more into the broadcast,” Olsen said. “How they go in and out of breaks, how they throw it to the sideline reporter.” Olsen has a different view than most NFL players when he’s watching games. Two years ago, he called a game for Fox, and he’ll do so again during the Panthers’ bye week this year. Olsen and Jason Witten, who returned to the Cowboys this season after one year in the Monday Night Football booth, are the only two tight ends who have been in the broadcasting booth. I asked him how this has helped him as a player; whether he benefits by having to do different types of research and getting new perspectives on the sport. “It’s been a unique way of preparing for other teams—teams you aren’t going to play, but you have to talk about for three hours. It was challenging. It was fun. It’s a really cool angle to watch a game from,” he said. “First and foremost, I get to study other offenses, and that’s cool. You get to study the entire thing, the entire roster. You have to learn ‘OK, you know the right guard’s name because he’s an All-Pro, but if he goes out, who is the next guard? Do you know enough about him so you can talk about him and his background?’ There’s a lot that’s different.”
Olsen was linked to the MNF gig, among other broadcasting jobs this offseason, but opted instead to return for a 13th NFL season.
“It’s so cool to scout that stuff for a week or two,” he said. “Two years ago, it was the Vikings and Rams, two teams I knew, but until you dive into the weeds, you see there’s a lot of names you don’t recognize, a lot of guys at positions you don’t recognize. Then there’s a lot of carryover. There are a lot of things in how I study tape as a player that I applied as far as how I watched tape in what order, what I saw, how I took my notes, it was a very interesting process.” He’ll call a Giants-Cardinals game next month. It very likely won’t be his last broadcast. No word on whether he’ll duck into Manhattan for another Hamilton viewing.