Football program earns NCAA sportsmanship award

contact: Kristin Keirns
| WMU News

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—Western Michigan University’s 2017 football team has earned a 2018-19 NCAA sportsmanship award.

The NCAA announced the Division I, II and III winners of its sportsmanship award Jan. 17. WMU won the honor in the male recipient category for Division I schools. The Broncos were recognized for their role in the 2017 game at the University of Southern California, in which blind Trojan long-snapper Jake Olson took his first collegiate snap.

Sportsmanship award

Each year, the NCAA Committee on Sportsmanship and Ethical Conduct recognizes displays of great sportsmanship. Any moment of sportsmanship across all NCAA-sanctioned sports can be nominated under its award program.

Established in 1999, the program recognizes a male and female award recipient from Division I, II and III, as well as one former or current coach or administrator.

Reaction from WMU

WMU is the first institution in the history of the Mid-American Conference to win the NCAA’s prestigious national sportsmanship award.

“This is an incredible recognition, and we are very humbled to receive this award for our small role in Jake Olson’s incredible moment,” says WMU head coach Tim Lester. “I’m proud of our players for doing something bigger than the game. Credit also goes to Coach Helton and his USC Trojans.”

Lester received a special request from No. 4 ranked USC head coach Clay Helton prior to the two programs’ 2017 season opener. Helton asked Lester for his help in allowing Olson a free attempt on an extra-point snap during the upcoming game. The two coaches reached the agreement that each team would not rush an extra point attempt during the game.

Olson, born with cancer in his retinas, lost his right eye at age 10 and left eye at age 12. However, Olson worked to live out his dream to play football, becoming a letter winner at USC.

“To play at USC and in front of millions on a nationally televised broadcast, on a trip that was initiated by WMU graduate Alec Gores, was an experience of a lifetime for Bronco nation. And then for all the stars to align to have our team be a part of a dream come true for their student-athlete was truly amazing,” says WMU Athletic Director Kathy Beauregard.

“People underestimate how impactful those types of moments are and how lasting they can be. We heard from countless members of the USC community from around the country on how special this was to them. Southern California super fan Will Ferrell even reached out to personally thank Coach Lester. Hats off to Coach Helton and Coach Lester for making this unforgettable moment for these student-athletes possible. Congratulations to Jake Olson on an incredible career and thank you for being an inspiration to us all.”

The 2017 game

WMU was giving the fourth-ranked Trojans all they could handle as the game was tied at 28-28 with seven minutes left in the fourth quarter, so Olson’s moment was held until the end of the game. With 3:13 left to play, USC had finally built a cushion that would hold for the eventual win. Helton gestured across the sidelines to Lester to give the sign, and Olson was sent onto the field following the Trojans’ final touchdown.

Before that moment, Lester had kept the deal a secret from his players and his staff.

“I had 10 seconds to bring the players over and clue them in as to what’s going on,” Lester said. “I told them the situation, what it meant and what it stood for.

“They said, ‘Yes, sir,’ and there was never any hesitation from our team. You could feel the energy and how special that moment was. Olson put the snap right on the money. I was proud of him and proud of our players.”

After their act of sportsmanship, Western Michigan players congratulated Olson on his feat and left the game with a renewed admiration for those who overcome adversity.

“Being a part of something like that is special and touching to everyone who saw it. It’s inspiring, and it was awesome to be a part of it,” WMU defensive back Justin Tranquill said.

Speaking to reporters in 2017, Helton said it was "a very special moment for us with a very special guy at the end of the game. I commend and I thank Coach Lester and the entire Western Michigan family for the honor of getting what I think is a very special person in Jake Olson in.”

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