It would be accurate to call Carolina Panthers tight end Greg Olsen a superstar athlete, but what many people don’t know is that Olsen is also a superstar person. He has been running two charities throughout his NFL career, the HEARTest Yard and Receiving Hope.
Olsen was born and raised in Northern New Jersey. He attended Wayne Hills High School and became a starter during his sophomore year at the University of Miami. In his college career, Olsen had 87 receptions for 1,215 yards and six touchdowns.
In 2007, the Chicago Bears selected Olsen with the 31st pick in the NFL draft. Over four years with the Bears, Olsen had 20 touchdowns and 1,981 receiving yards, and in 2011, the Bears traded Olsen to the Carolina Panthers.
In Carolina, Olsen has become a star. He has made two Pro Bowls and has scored 29 touchdowns and racked up 4,411 receiving yards.
I sat down with Olsen at Panthers training camp in Spartanburg, South Carolina, to talk about his nonprofit work, his favorite activities off the field, and the team he (surprisingly) rooted for as a kid.
What made you want to start the HEARTest Yard?
In 2012 my wife and I had twins. T.J., my son, was born with a very serious heart defect. Through the process of caring for him in the hospital and at home, we saw that there was a huge need to help families in a similar situation. So we set up the HEARTest Yard program. We fund it through our foundation, and we bring that high level of care into the home to try to help the babies to be as healthy as possible. We help the families choose the doctors their child needs, and we help them when they come home from the hospital. And the HEARTest Yard pays for all of it.
What is your favorite part about working with the HEARTest yard?
Meeting the families at the events and having them come up to us to say how big of an impact the HEARTest Yard has had makes us feel our efforts are worth it. I also love doing the events. We do a golf outing. We did our first 5K this year. We’ve done concerts and a car auction.
What is Receiving Hope?
My mom was a breast cancer survivor. So in 2009 we started Receiving Hope. We run the world’s largest kickball tournament in Chicago. We just finished our eighth year doing that, and we had about 1,500 people and 65 teams. All of the money goes to cancer research.
What is your favorite thing to do with your kids?
We have three kids — a five-year old boy named Tate and twin three-year-olds, T.J. and Talbot. In the off-season, my two boys love coming to the training facility, where we play around in the weight room. Friday night we always do pizza night and go to the movies or do something fun. Some days Tate, T.J., and Talbot will just swim all day in our pool.
Besides football, what other sports or hobbies do you enjoy?
I enjoy golfing, even though I don’t do it that often. I also love taking the kids fishing, and we like going to the lake and spending time on the boat.
What was your best golf score?
I’m usually a 90s golfer. I play three or four times a year, so I don’t ever really get much better.
What was your favorite team growing up, and who was your favorite player?
I grew up in Northern New Jersey, so most people were New York Giants fans, but for whatever reason I was a big San Francisco 49ers fan. I loved Joe Montana, Steve Young, and Jerry Rice. I was a huge Jerry Rice fan. I had his jerseys and had all the 49ers gear. I grew up rooting for a team that was completely across the country.
What was it like playing in the Super Bowl?
It was a tremendous experience. Leading up to it was very exciting, all the festivities and the hype. The game itself was a little disappointing. I felt like it went very fast. It was kind of a blur. But to play on that stage in that game was a special experience in my career.
What has been your favorite NFL memory so far?
The highlight was last year at home after we beat Arizona, being up on that stage and getting the Halas trophy as the NFC champions. Also holding the trophy up and knowing that we were going to the Super Bowl. That was a pretty exciting time.
Who is your favorite teammate on the Panthers?
I have a lot of good buddies like Ryan Kalil, Luke Kuechly, Cam Newton, and A.J. Klein. We really like each other and have a good bond on and off the field. It’s a really fun team to be on.
What is your favorite thing to do with your teammates?
Here at camp, every night after meetings, A.J. Klein and I play against Ryan Kalil and Luke. We play FIFA on XBox. Throughout the entire camp we keep a running total of who wins more games.
Back to the charities. Tell me about the T-shirts you designed and sold last year to raise money.
Kalil’s buddy is a graphic designer, and he came up with the design for both the “Purrbacca” shirt and the “Caravan” shirt before the Super Bowl. Little did we know we were going to sell 16,000 of them. And $10 from every shirt went straight to the foundations, so we ended up writing a check for upwards of $160,000.
Photographs (from top): Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images; Charlie Olesker