Kevin Olson is a gifted athlete. Strong, skilled and determined. His coaches at Hawley High School use words like “drive” and “heart” and “desire” when they talk about the 5-foot-10 three-sport senior.
Olson is an all-state football player, an all-conference basketball player and he has gone to state in track. But there is much more to Kevin Olson’s story, which began in the Central African Republic and has taken him to Hawley, a town of less than 20,000 people 22 miles east of Fargo, N.D. Through a stellar athletic career that includes a devastating injury, one thing is clear: Kevin Olson is sure to be a success no matter where life takes him.
“I think everybody is in awe at his athletic ability,” said Hawley boys’ basketball coach Jon Hinrichs. “But I guess I’m a person who’s in awe of Kevin as a human being.”
Kevin (pictured at right) was adopted at a young age. His adoptive father is Tom Olson, a minister in Hawley who spent 15 years working as a missionary in Cameroon and the Central African Republic. In 1995, Tom married Eunice, a native of the Central African Republic. And soon after, through adoption, their family quickly expanded.
“Within six months we had three kids,” Tom Olson said. “And we got two more in 1997.”
Kevin is the middle child and all five are related. His older brother Con and older cousin Fedilia also were adopted by Tom and Eunice, as were his sister Laure (a junior at Hawley High School) and cousin Olivia (an eighth-grader).
“They are really neat kids who have done a lot with the opportunity to come to the U.S. and have a better life,” Hawley athletic director Brett Schmidt said.
As a youngster in Hawley, Kevin gravitated towards sports. He suffered a knee injury playing basketball in seventh grade, but it didn’t seem serious and as Kevin said, “I just put it aside.” As an eighth-grader he was on the junior varsity football and basketball teams, and got a taste of the varsity level in those sports as well as track. But his left knee began nagging him.
After running in the state track meet as an eighth-grader, a doctor told Kevin that he needed surgery on the knee, where a piece of bone had been chipped off. He missed most of his freshman football season, and during the summer before his sophomore year he spent two months visiting relatives, including his birth parents, in the Central African Republic.
“That was an eye-opener because we hadn’t been there for eight years,” Kevin said. “There were a lot of emotions. I met my younger brother, who looks just like me, and my younger sister, who looks just like (Laure). I was amazed.”
He trained for football while in Africa, with his siblings tagging along. “It was hard to get the workouts done because they hadn’t seen you for so long and they wanted to do what you did,” he said. “I figured I might as well let them join in.
“The last day was kind of hard for me and my younger sister, having to say goodbye to our mom and dad. I remember breaking down and crying at the airport. I made myself a promise that I’d try to get them all here. “
His sophomore football season was a breakthrough year, as he rushed for 1,800 yards and helped the Nuggets reach the Class 2A state semifinals. His junior year was hampered by knee problems and a groin injury, but last summer he was invited to the North Dakota State football camp.
“The coaches started talking to me there. They said ‘If you can dominate your senior year, we’ll talk.’”
But on the third day of practice last fall, he reinjured his knee. Then came the worst news of all. In the original surgery, three screws had been used to stabilize the knee. The screws, as planned, had dissolved but bone in the knee had also dissolved. The boy who had dreamed of playing college football was told by doctors that his dream was an extreme long shot, if not an impossibility.
“It was really tough,” Kevin said. “It was really hard to take all that in at once.”
He was allowed to play football this year, wearing a knee brace normally used by athletes with torn ACLs.
“It was one of the most painful things we had to do when he had the knee injury,” Hinrichs said. “You sit down and you see the hurt in a kid’s eyes.
“Kevin’s initial thought was, ‘Why is this happening to me? Why is God doing this to me?’ One day I said to Kevin, ‘Maybe God did this for you. Maybe you were meant to be a coach and you still have that burning passion for sports and that's what the sports need.’ ”
Nuggets football coach Peder Naatz said, “I think the thing that makes him so special is his desire and his drive. As a sophomore he had well over 200 yards in a state quarterfinal game against Eden Valley-Watkins in a No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup. It took five, six, seven kids to bring him down. He’s physically tough, and it hurts him so much inside that he can’t do some things all the time because of his knee.” (In photo at left are Tom, Kevin, Laure and Olivia.)
Hinrichs said the greatest challenge in working with Kevin is helping him realize how talented he is. He can be modest almost to a fault, his coaches say. At halftime of one basketball game, Hinrichs told the entire team, “Raise your hand if you think Kevin needs to take more shots.” Every hand went up, with the exception of Kevin’s.
“He’s a tremendous kid to work with, he gets along great with other people, you can have fun with him,” Hinrichs said.
“I just think the world of him and I think the world of the family. With kids like him, it’s not the wins and losses that make coaching worth it, it’s the kids.”
Kevin is playing basketball this winter with a knee brace. He plans on attending North Dakota State and studying computer engineering; if no further surgery is needed he may try walking on with the NDSU football team.
And once he has that college degree, he has another goal in mind: he would like to help bring computers to people in the Central African Republic.