CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The low point for Carolina Panthers tight end Greg Olsen came in Week 12 against the New York Jets. He had spent nine weeks being a spectator in the 2017 season after breaking his foot in the second game, and after one half on the artificial turf at MetLife Stadium, he suffered a setback.
The foot was so sore that the medical staff didn’t let the three-time Pro Bowl selection play in the second half. He then was held out the next week in a pivotal game against the NFC South rival New Orleans Saints.
"That was really tough," Olsen said. "I had put so much time and energy into coming back. I felt OK that week at practice. I had a pretty good week, considering it was my only week I had before I played. I felt I had put a lot of work in behind the scenes of just being able to walk on the treadmill and then seven weeks later be able to run in practice.
"I felt like I was ready to go, and then the foot didn’t hold up great for whatever combination of reasons. That was frustrating."
On the field, it was Olsen’s toughest season since he entered the NFL with the Chicago Bears in the first round of the 2007 NFL draft. Between the injury (which kept him from earning $2 million in incentives) and the Panthers losing in the first round of the playoffs, it was not the campaign he envisioned.
He pictured himself playing in Super Bowl LII at U.S. Bank Stadium on Sunday, not being in Minneapolis on ESPN’s pregame countdown show talking about New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski and Philadelphia Eagles counterpart Zach Ertz.
But off the field, Olsen had one of his best years ever. The cardiac neurodevelopmental center that he and his wife, Kara, have been working to launch in conjunction with Levine Children’s Hospital and his HEARTest Yard campaign to provide extended care to children born with congenital heart disease became a reality.
That and other work done for breast cancer research through the Greg Olsen Foundation made Olsen -- the first tight end in NFL history to record three straight 1,000-yard receiving seasons -- a finalist for the league’s Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award for the second straight season.
The other two finalists are Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt and Baltimore Ravens tight end Benjamin Watson. Watt helped raise more than $37 million for Hurricane Harvey relief in Houston, and Watson led a campaign to battle human trafficking and violence against the poor.
The winner of one of the league’s most prestigious awards will be announced on Saturday night at the NFL Honors presentation in Minneapolis.
Olsen already feels like a winner.
"It’s an honor just to be chosen amongst your team, let alone be one of three guys in the league," the 31-year-old player said.
Good use of downtime
Olsen was two weeks from returning from his injury when he and Kara unveiled their plans for the cardiac neurological center, which will help families of children born with a congenital heart defect like the one their son T.J. was born with five years ago.
Their story and what it has meant to other families in similar situations has been well-documented over the years.
The center will take it to another level, helping kids far outside the Carolinas.
But on this day, Olsen jokingly said, "I hope I don’t get in the way" of a team that was 7-3 heading into the bye weekend.
Kara also was anxious for her husband to get back on the field. She jokingly reminded how “in the way” Olsen had been, being home so much at a time when he's normally engrossed in football.
But Olsen wasn’t just lazing on the couch watching soap operas. When he wasn’t rehabbing, he was working harder than ever on plans for the center that has been a five-year dream.
"It’s funny, when one thing is taken away, we’re kind of wired to fill that time with something else," Olsen said. "Good or bad, that’s the way a lot of us are wired. To be able to throw a lot of my effort and my attention and time to something that meant a lot to me, it helped occupy my mind and gave me a little purpose, for sure."
Olsen had never missed an NFL game for injury before this season. It was the first time he had missed a start since the 2011 season, his first with the Panthers after being acquired in a trade with the Bears.
So yes, he was restless.
"It was tough," Olsen said. "I took for granted I was going to be one of those guys that was always out there. I learned the reality is in this level very few guys have that experience. It just made me realize how lucky I had been, how fortunate I had been in 10-plus years to never really have to deal with that.
“That just became the reality of this season. As hard as it was, there was nothing I could do but try to get back as fast as possible and help as best as I could. For the most part, that’s what we were able to do."
Olsen won’t need follow-up surgery. He’s ready to move forward and start preparing for the 2018 season under new offensive coordinator Norv Turner, who replaced Mike Shula following his firing two days after the season.
The tight end knows career-wise it’s an important time, being the last year of his contract. He realizes the team has to make a decision on whether to go ahead and extend his deal this offseason or wait and see how things play out.
But Olsen isn’t worried that his role as a big part of the Carolina offense will change under Turner. He only has to look at past tight ends from Turner’s scheme.
Specifically, he looked at what Antonio Gates did in six seasons (2007-2012) when Turner was the head coach of the San Diego Chargers. The future Pro Football Hall of Famer had 377 catches for 4,943 yards and 49 touchdowns during that span.
Four times Gates led the Chargers in receptions, and the other two times he finished second.
"Obviously, his reputation of what he’s been able to accomplish over the years is second to none," Olsen said of Turner, with whom he recently met to discuss plans. "I’m looking forward to working with him, what his twist of what our offense will be."
But at the moment, Olsen is looking forward to promoting his off-the-field causes. His Twitter campaign to match the first $100,000 raised to support families at Levine Children Hospital was achieved on Wednesday.
Olsen is hoping on Saturday to be awarded the $250,000 the NFL will donate to Man of the Year for his charity. Watt appears to be his biggest competition for the honor that Carolina teammate Thomas Davis won in 2014 for his Defending Dreams Foundation.
What Watt did for the city of Houston following the hurricane got far more national attention than anything Olsen has done.
"That was a very unique and trying time for that city," Olsen said. "To have one of their biggest faces say, ‘Hey, I’m going to take a lead on this,’ was big."
Olsen is just glad the NFL recognizes the good work that players do, particularly after a season in which there was so much negativity in the league -- from player protests during the national anthem to the league investigation into Panthers owner Jerry Richardson over allegations of workplace misconduct.
"It’s important," Olsen said. "As we know, in today’s world there is so much focus on negativity and so much focus on the very small, very minority of guys who have things go wrong. The vast majority of guys connected to the NFL do great things."
For Olsen, being a finalist for the league award is another reminder that his frustrations over missing games for his injury aren’t nearly as important as what he has accomplished off the field.
"It was a trying year," Olsen said. "But the year has rejuvenated me a little bit. It’s re-energized me. I’m very excited to get back to my offseason training. Sometimes those trying years can act as a big motivating factor."