College football: Another Olson to wear No. 58 at Minnesota
By Marcus R. Fuller
St. Paul Pioneer Press
Olson hated it.
Fortunately for him, the equipment manager let him know after the season that No. 58 was free.
“I’m like, ‘Give it to me, I’ll take it,’ ” Olson said. “Jack Lambert was one of my favorite players, who wore 58 for the Pittsburgh Steelers, so I wore it for three years. It just gets ingrained in you — “That ol’ 58.” That’s kind of how it all started.”
When Olson’s two sons, Ed Jr. (Eddie) and Tommy, were growing up, they always wanted to wear their dad’s No. 58 — from Pop Warner to high school and even after they followed in his footsteps to play for the Gophers.
Eddie, the oldest of the boys by two years, picked the number first. Not until he graduated from Mahtomedi High School in 2010 did Tommy get to switch from No. 53 to No. 58 with the Zephyrs.
The same scenario played out when the Olson brothers teamed up for three seasons at the University of Minnesota. Eddie wore their father’s No. 58 until finishing his career last year.
So Tommy not only gets to play the position his father did in college, but the Gophers starting senior center finally gets to wear the number he and his brother dreamed about donning in maroon and gold.
“We were talking about it last year when Eddie was leaving,” Tommy said. “I said, ‘I can’t wait to wear No. 58.’ In high school, I was ready for Eddie to leave so I could wear No. 58. Our dad was No. 58, and in middle school football, Eddie and I would always be No. 58, so we could emulate our dad.
“Eddie got to take it for the first few years, but now I get to take it and honor my dad and brother. I’m really excited to wear it.”
As kids, Tommy and Eddie were always on the same football team because Tommy played with kids two years older. Their dad was the coach.
“It was the best memories,” Tommy said.
They would wake up Saturday morning to go to their 9 o’clock football game, then immediately afterward jump in a car and rush down to the Metrodome to watch the Gophers play. That was the routine for about 10 years.
“My dad would try to emulate the Gophers’ running offense,” Tommy said. “I remember when (former coach) Glen Mason put the black socks on with the black shoes on his players, my dad bought us black socks so we could look like Greg Eslinger and Mark Setterstrom.”
By his freshman season, the buzz around Minnesota was that Tommy could be the next Eslinger or Setterstrom. He started for Mahtomedi as a freshman.
By his sophomore year in high school, he already was 6-foot-3, 275 pounds and, of course, committed to the Gophers. As a senior in 2010, Tommy was the No. 1 prospect in the state and in former coach Tim Brewster’s recruiting class.
Brewster didn’t hesitate to throw Tommy onto the field as a true freshman on special teams in the season opener at Southern Cal. He actually had a kickoff return.
Tommy started three games at left guard in 2011, including the first game he lined up alongside his brother in a loss at Purdue.
Eddie started 10 games that season as a redshirt sophomore.
“It seems like yesterday Tom was receiving that kickoff out at USC,” Ed Sr. said. “It’s just crazy. I wish he would’ve been redshirted, but that’s how things happen. He had an opportunity to play at this level and get an education, so we’re super happy and fortunate for that.”
Once his senior season was over, Eddie Olson was done with football -- seriously done. Done with the long rehab sessions, done with the icing, done with the limping after practices and games. And he’d had enough of the seemingly endless pain in his ankle.
“He wasn’t mad or mean or anything about it,” Ed Sr. said. “He just said, ‘I’ve had it up to here. I’m Gopher footballed out.’ ”
As a 6-foot-7, 320-pound tackle, Eddie drew interest from several NFL teams for a mini-camp tryout this year, but he said his body just couldn’t hold up anymore.
“I loved the game,” Eddie said. “But after surgery my junior year, it was an uphill battle my senior season. It was a great time playing with my best friends, but it was a tough season mentally.”
Even after ankle surgery, Eddie had to rotate plays with Ben Lauer at tackle. Lauer earned freshman All-American honors.
He was glad to play, but it wasn’t how Eddie envisioned his career ending. Still, the primary thought as his career wound down was that he was running out of games alongside Tommy. They started in the backyard, with 2-by-4s, painted maroon, for goal posts.
They would play on the same offensive line about a dozen times in college, but rarely consistently, and never close to a full season. Injuries to Tommy also derailed goals of the two becoming a dominant force on the left side for years.
In 2012, they started the first four games together, but Tommy was diagnosed with a Lisfranc fracture in his foot, missed six weeks and wasn’t the same after returning. He only recently regained all of his mobility, though he started the last four games of 2013 at center after Jon Christenson broke his leg.
So the Olson brothers started the last four games together.
“At the beginning of the season, we really didn’t think about it,” Eddie said. “But as it kept getting closer and closer to the end, we’d be like, ‘This is our last time going to a hotel for a home game,’ or ‘our last practice.’ We kept trying to cherish those things, and it was a great way to go out. It was a lot of fun.”
Just like Dad
Tommy Olson wasn’t thrilled with the decision to move him from guard to center last year.
“He literally hated it,” Ed Sr. said. “Now, he does it without even thinking.”
It helped to have a dad who played center for Joe Salem from 1979-82. He was a senior captain during the Gophers’ first season at the Metrodome in 1982.
“I’m tickled that Tom is playing center,” the elder Olson said. “The position really fits him well.”
Gophers offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover said Tommy improved enough to start, but the Gophers weren’t going to bench Christenson for no reason.
Tommy met with Limegrover midway through the season to ask what more could he do to play and was told to be ready in case of an injury. When Christenson broke his leg during a 42-39 victory at Indiana, he was.
“He helped us beat Indiana,” Limegrover said. “He helped us beat Penn State. He played his butt off against the big kid (Beau Allen) from Wisconsin. He played well in the bowl game (against Syracuse).
“I sat him down, and told him, ‘There’s not a lot separating you from (Ohio State transfer) Brian Bobek. You’re now in the spot Jon Christenson was in last year. Don’t give me a chance to say Brian Bobek is better than you.’ ”
Since the winter, Tommy and starting sophomore quarterback Mitch Leidner have practiced up to 100 snaps a day. The relationship with Leidner grew stronger after his brother and fullback Mike Henry, also a childhood friend and former high school teammate, moved out of the house they share upon graduating.
“Once Eddie left, I was kind of lost a little bit,” Tommy said. “But I’m finally coming into my own. I’m really enjoying taking more of a leadership role.”
The Gophers should have one of the deepest offensive lines in years, so expectations are high.
“We have a lot of potential,” Tommy said. “A goal of ours is to get (senior running back David) Cobb another 1,000-yard season, and (senior backup Donnell) Kirkwood 1,000 yards. It would be cool to get back to the old Gopher days when we had two 1,000-yard rushers like (Laurence) Maroney and (Marion) Barber.
“We also need to protect Mitch a lot better than we did last year. That was one of our big goals during the spring.”
Tommy is on the preseason watch list for the Rimington Award, given annually to the nation’s top college center.
Not bad for a player who has only four starts there. Maybe the last Olson to wear No. 58 will become the best.
“Now that he’s a senior, he has the confidence like nobody I’ve seen before,” Leidner said. “He’s ready to roll. I’m excited for him.”
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