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Ex-Challenger Dante Olson chosen Person of Year

EDITOR'S NOTE: Former Cascade Christian football player Dante Olson, a finalist for the FCS defensive player of the year award, was named GoGriz.com's Person of the Year. Here's the story that accompanied the award:

*****

The most interesting story about Dante Olson isn't really about Dante Olson at all.

Rather it's about his great-grandfather, Dante Natali, who was living in Italy at the time of the Second World War and became such an outspoken critic of the country's fascist regime that Benito Mussolini had Natali blacklisted.

Realizing his life was in danger, Natali took the most valuable thing his family owned, his wife's wedding ring -- an exquisite piece of jewelry, an opal with a diamond on each side -- sewed it into the hem of his coat for safekeeping and fled the country, with little else to call his own other than his free will.

When Mussolini's hitmen did arrive at their doorstep, Natali's wife, according to family lore, continued the ruse and told them that her husband had abandoned her and her children. What she kept secret was his intention of heading to America, to Ellis Island to start anew.

Natali, an engineer in his former life, made it to the U.S. and used the value of the ring to bankroll his time at Columbia University and earn another engineering degree, one that would be recognized in his new home country. He sent for his family, started Natali Construction, and the rest is history.

It's possible to see Dante Olson through the prism of that story, with the Natali family making its way to California, with his parents both ending up in southwest Oregon, where they met, with Olson being offered a chance to play football at Montana, the dots all connecting, simply.

But it's an incomplete view. So is that one that comes into focus when the prism is rotated to the next side, the one that reveals the inside of Washington-Grizzly Stadium.

More than 20,000 fans saw him from that angle a half dozen times last fall, in full sight but mostly hidden from view behind helmet, shoulder pads and his No. 33 uniform that was involved in more tackles than any other at the FCS level during the regular season.

All that mattered those Saturdays: Redshirt junior, linebacker, Medford, Ore., a cog in the machine that coach Bobby Hauckis slowly piecing back together, repairing, the one that operated so efficiently a decade ago but had been tinkered with in the years since, never humming quite the same way.

He emerged each week from a tunnel, Olson did, appearing with his teammates out of a discharge of smoke, cheered as a Griz football player, only to be swallowed back up at game's end by the same tunnel, not to be seen again until the next home game.

But what if we could spin that prism one more time, to its third side, to the one that reveals everything we need to bring the incomplete views of the other two into focus? To the one that sees deeper than a general family history and gets to the heart of a person.

To the one that can get us past the protective armor and down to flesh, where things are more human, more real, where there is blood and tears and pain, so, so much of it, and the sometimes uncomfortable realization that few paths to greatness are ever easy.

What would that reveal about Dante Olson?

That the boy had a childhood of dreams, growing up within the football program at Southern Oregon, where his dad was the head coach, his brother the record-setting receiver, his sister and mom both across campus, student and professor, all there to complete a tight circle, everything feeling perfect?

Would it show how the boy always seemed to gravitate toward a particular type of player, the one nobody believed in but had ignored all the voices and the naysayers and done something about it and become a college football player anyway? How he connected with his own, even at that age?

Would the prism be angled in such a way that inside the family home, above the boy's bedroom door, we could see the sign, the one written in pencil -- a manifesto -- the one slapped every morning on his way out, every day since the fourth grade, the one that read No One Will Ever Outwork Me?

Could we see into the darkness of what came next: the boy, now in middle school, overweight, without friends, tortured by the scourge of acne, bullied so much and so close to the edge that thoughts of suicide became his constant companion, for the relief and escape it promised to deliver?

And what about the man who comes into view, the one born without arms and legs, the miracle that Jeff and Linda Olson had been praying for, the one who would, despite his own limitations -- or maybe because of them -- lift Dante Olson out of his despair?

Would you see a 5-foot-9, 150-pound sophomore making his first career start for Cascade Christian and would it dare project him to be in Frisco, Texas, six years later, now 6-foot-3, 235 pounds, one of three finalists for the Buck Buchanan Award, the one that recognizes the nation's top defensive player?

Perhaps it could gift us one final image before the prism is shelved and all the visual threads woven together: Linda, sitting in the stands inside Washington-Grizzly Stadium, watching her son play the game he loves, and the tears arriving every fall Saturday without fail, because she already knows the story.

*****

Jeff Olson made his way to Ashland, Ore., because of football. Raised in Southern California, he played it at Palomar College before transferring to SOU and becoming a Raider. The program became his life as he advanced from player to assistant coach to coordinator to interim head coach to head coach.

Somewhere on that timeline Linda Natali arrived in town, single mother of two kids, doing what her grandfather had done before her: making the best she could of the situation that life had presented. Put your head down, get to work, don't expect anything to come easily. It's what her DNA demanded.

She earned her bachelor's degree, then her master's, all while working four part-time jobs, Natali to the core. After getting her advanced degree in business administration and communication, she was asked to stay on campus and teach.

She and Jeff knew each other for a year, dated another 12 months, then got married, when Elijah was 12, Autumn 10. Jeff wrote vows for both of them on the day of the wedding, a coach through and through, making sure every last person on the roster felt like a vital and loved part of team.

It would be years later when Dante arrived, and he entered a world that was all football, all the time. His parents gave him a year, maybe two, before the football facilities at Southern Oregon became his second home, nearly 100 guys becoming his big brothers, his extended family.

"He was either going to learn to love the sport or hate it as he grew older," says Jeff, who stepped down after the 2004 season, when Dante was 7, with 50 wins, second-most in program history.

Elijah was on the team, Dante was around every day, Jeff's wife and daughter, who transferred from Oregon State because she didn't want to miss a moment of the fun, were on campus as well.

"It was a remarkable time in my life," Jeff adds.

Jeff probably didn't recognize it at the time, not with the way the boy would buzz around the locker room, the training room, filling up ice buckets and dumping them into the players' ice baths, but Dante became closest with a particular type of Raider, a bond that seemed to come naturally.

"He really looked up to guys who had to work through some challenges, guys who were told in high school that they weren't good enough or not big enough and that they can't," says Jeff. "But they did because they believed in themselves enough."

Kindred souls they were, the ones who had faced their trials and succeeded and the young one who had no idea of the things that would be coming his way, perhaps seeking out role models by instinct, their stories of inspiration to be stored in memory and recalled when most needed.

It's the same reason the Olsons had to purchase an extended-cab pickup truck when Dante was young and the family was frequently going on camping trips. He never sought out the most popular kid in class to invite. Quite the opposite.

"He always brought the uninvited ones," says Linda. "It was pretty cool."

Those would be heady years in Ashland. Southern Oregon went 9-2 in 2001, losing in the NAIA national quarterfinals at home, 16-13, to Carroll. The Raiders went 8-3 a year later. Again the end came against Carroll, 35-31 on the road, again in the quarterfinals against that year's national champion.

"Those were some good times," says Dante. "That's when I developed a love for football. I was a young boy who loved football and didn't have any cares in the world."

Those would arrive soon enough, the most serious of them hitting him when he began middle school. At a new school. With all the markings of an easy target. He was bullied, "to an extreme," he says.

It's hard to imagine now, with Olson being one of the nation's most respected defenders, that a younger version of himself could have been the student leaving school each day as a seventh grader, in full tears, vowing to never again return. It was that bad, both emotional and physical.

There was one boy who did a bulk of the bullying, but to Olson it felt like the entire school was against him, for some reason hated him to his core. How could he not believe that when he sat down for lunch one day at a table full of students, only to watch every one of them get up and move to a new table?

He was no longer the carefree kid who had been taken in by every Southern Oregon football team and made to feel special. Now he was being judged by his peers as not being worthy, of anything really. He slowly, dangerously, assumed their views as his own. And one boy continued tormenting him.

"The disappointing thing was that the typical adult reaction was, 'Oh no, not him. He would never bully anyone.' But we're here with our son telling you what's happening," says Linda.

"In addition to the pain of what your child and your family are going through, you feel like you're not even being heard by the people who are supposed to be protecting your child."

Jeff was no longer at Southern Oregon, but he was still in the game, coaching at the high school level. He was raised on football, a sport where the strong survive and thrive and the weak are relegated to the bench. Things not going your way? Toughen up.

"The instincts in me said, Dante, you're going to have to learn how to deal with this. You've got to stand up to him," says Jeff. "But that isn't his nature. On the field, yes, he can be a violent dude. Away from the field, that's not who he is.

"I saw him every day and he was crying and saying he was never going back to school. I didn't appreciate the extent to which he was truly suffering until years later. Shame on me for not recognizing the signs. It breaks my heart to know he'd thought those thoughts."

Thoughts of suicide.

The family had a home that sat on five acres of land and bordered thousands more of quiet wilderness. It would become his refuge, his place of safety. He could go with his dog and leave this world behind, into one where there was no worry, no fear. It's what allowed him to keep the demons at a distance.

And then one day, even that was taken from him. His mom was laid off from her job and to make ends meet, the family had to give up what Jeff had believed was their "forever home."

"That was the breaking point for me," says Dante. "That property and my dog was my outlet from the stuff that was going on at school. When that happened, I started having suicidal thoughts. I didn't want to live anymore. I didn't want to go through it anymore."

He's not sure where the voice came from or what it represented, but when things were at their most dire, it always gave him the strength to get to the next day, then the next, the thoughts of suicide never becoming more than a notion. Dante, don't do it. There is more out there for you.

He had been raised in the church, brought there on a weekly basis by Jeff and Linda, but what he believed to be true had always come under the faith umbrella of his parents. When the bullying was at its worst, when it had to be his own convictions that got him through, he just couldn't reconcile it.

"I kind of gave up on my faith, the faith I had through my parents. God wasn't for me anymore. Why would God let anybody go through times like this?" he says. Anger became his default setting, which was at odds with the way he was wired and how he was born. He continued a downward spiral.

Neither Jeff nor Linda would know fully until years later the strain their son was under and what it had him contemplating. But, says Dante, who had been diagnosed at the time with severe depression and anxiety, they were still desperate, without answers, and didn't know what to do next.

Until Nick Vujicic, he of no arms and no legs, rolled into town, ready to save a life, just as his had been.

If Dante Olson had found his kindred spirits among the doubted and overlooked within the Southern Oregon locker room and the uninvited among his schoolmates, he found the liberator from his afflictions on a stage at Ashland High School.

"The experience that day was literally life-changing for Dante," says Jeff.

Once Vujicic started telling his story, the world came to a halt. It was a packed gymnasium, but to Dante, it felt like there were only two people there, that Nick was speaking directly and only to him.

He spoke of how he had been bullied and felt like there was no place for him in society, about the depression and the loneliness. How he'd tried to commit suicide by drowning, but how there had been something inside of him that kept him going. You can't do this. There is more for your life out there.

What is the sound of a life reversing course? This, the primary message of Vujicic's testimony: When you don't know the truth of who you are, you'll believe the lies of who the world says you are.

Jeff and Linda were amazed, first at Vujicic, then as they saw the impact his presentation was having on their son.

Until that day, they were winning in the battle for the boy's life, his spirit, his soul, whatever evil forces had led people to get joy out of making his life miserable. No longer. Counseling hadn't done it, long talks with his parents hadn't either. Only the boy himself had access to that innermost dial.

But nobody had been able to help him discover and reach it. Until now.

"I was bawling my eyes out. It just clicked with me," says Dante. "At the end he called people up. He said, 'If you want to devote your life to Christ today, he can do some pretty cool things in your life like he's done in mine. He can pull you out of the dark and difficult times you're going through.' "

Without any urging from his parents, their son stood up, made his way to the aisle and approached the front and the man who was the long-waited-for light who would lead the eighth-grader out of his personal darkness.

"I remember going up there, still crying, and rededicating my life to Christ," he says. "That was the moment I became a believer. I went from thinking nobody would care if I didn't show up at school the next day to nothing really mattering at that point except that I was back on the right path with God."

The Dante Olson you see today -- the all-American football player, the business management major with a 3.87 GPA and a platform he uses to share his story, the man who most people see and probably believe has had it all figured out and go his way from birth -- emerged that day.

"To see the transformation in Dante, I really believe that day at Ashland High School was the turning point in his life," says Jeff.

He still had to return to school and a building full of students who hadn't changed, who hadn't refined their own attitudes toward him, but now he was better equipped to handle it, stronger, more sure of himself, no longer believing it was him against the world.

"He was still fighting demons, I guess you could say, but you could tell he felt more comfortable in his own skin," says Linda, one of two Olson parents who tear up even today at the retelling of that time in their lives. "Over time we saw him grow and heal and just become more comfortable with who he was."

Those players at Southern Oregon, the ones he was drawn to, the ones who had faced their own darkness and come out the other end as winners? He was now officially part of their club. "Ultimately his belief in himself helped him work his way through the challenges he faced," says Jeff.

The bullying stopped years ago, but the scars will be there for life, forever tender to the touch. It's why he'll jump at any chance he has to tell his story. Because if he can reach just one person, like Nick Vujicic got through to him, any discomfort he has in revealing his history, particularly to kids, will be worth it.

He is fully aware of the damage that was done and how close to the edge it pushed him. But he also owns the belief that the Dante Olson we all see and appreciate in 2018 wouldn't be quite the version of himself without the Dante Olson of eight and nine years ago.

It's why this shouldn't surprise you, that if he had a chance to meet up with that bully today, face to face, Olson wouldn't channel his inner Marsellus Wallace and get medieval. Not even close. That's not his style.

"I would tell them thank you, because ultimately those experiences made me a better person and the person I am today," he says. "They had an outcome on my life and who I am and what I stand for and what I believe in."

Before he could travel to Gerber, Calif., the next Griz football player in line to take over the pen-pal duties started by Cooper Sprunk, before he could tell his story as part of Fields of Faith, he first had to stare down the demons and share his testimony where things were the most raw, back at his old school.

It's where his parents first heard that their son had been considering suicide as a way out years before.

"It was mostly kids who grew up with him, and a lot of them had no clue. There were 300 people there, including several kids who had wounded him, and there wasn't a dry eye in the chapel when he was done," says Linda.

"There was one in particular who was sobbing and asked Dante to forgive him, because he knew he'd been one of them."

Through all the hardships growing up, football was always there, from the first grade on. When his dad was the coach at Southern Oregon, the sport had a certain importance in his life. It connected him to so many guys he looked up to. As he grew older, it took on new meaning, something much deeper.

He started to become good at it, so people wanted him to be on their team, a new feeling that was diametrically opposed to the bullying he had experienced for nearly three years. He went from worthless to worthy. It gave him a way to feel included, no longer excluded.

"The importance of football in my life started when I was young," he says. "It's only grown over time for personal reasons. I wanted to prove people wrong about not being able to amount to something. Football was always an outlet to be able to do that."

That approach to football spilled over into everything he did in life as he began high school at Cascade Christian. Average wasn't going to cut it. Average didn't even approach the level he wanted to reach.

"That was the point I committed myself to being excellent in everything I did," he says, still slapping that No One Will Ever Outwork Me sign each day, two forces -- fully committed to the task at hand, an uncommon work ethic providing the engine -- combining to bring the full Dante to the surface.

His dream became to play the sport he loved at the highest level he could, which meant college football, but commitment and work ethic can only take a young man so far. Because of the bullying in middle school, he'd developed a minor eating disorder. Going into high school he was 5-foot-7, 135 pounds.

"I'd known for a long time what his goals were, but when you're that size, it's going to be tough," says Jeff, a realist when it came to his son's dreams given his background as a college football coach. He knew a thing or two about what recruiters would be looking for. His son didn't measure up.

But even though he didn't have the size, not yet anyway, he had something that stood out, no matter the sport, whether it was football, two years of high school basketball or even tennis as a sophomore, nicknamed "Caveman" for his singular talent of standing at the net and ending balls that came his way.

He even gave track and field a shot, as a senior, after the second of two knee surgeries had healed. He threw the shot, for all of two weeks. In that time he won districts, then took second at state, all from a standing throw.

"There was always an intensity level that was a little different than the vast majority of the other kids he played with or against," Jeff says. "There was just a competitive edge to him that was a little different.

"I thought, If he can just grow, but that's what a lot of kids say. My wife and I impressed upon him that he had to get it done in school. Your academic performance is going to get you opportunities post-high school. Be the best you can be and keep working. God has a plan for you."

If He works in mysterious ways, consider this: Jake Cookus, today the special teams coordinator at Oregon State, got his first job in coaching, after his playing days as a Beaver were over, at Southern Oregon, under Olson.

Back then, prior to Dante Olson's junior year of high school, Cookus was on Mick Delaney's staff at Montana. Jeff Olson reached out. Cookus said, Sure, bring him over for our summer camp and we'll give him a look. Bring the whole family and make a vacation out of it.

By then he was 6-foot, 175 pounds and at least inching his way onto the recruiting radar, even if it was at its outermost boundaries, not where Montana typically operates in its quest to remain among the nation's top programs.

He continued to train, continued to lift, continued to grow and put on weight. And he continued to slap that sign above his door. "It was probably my junior year when my coach said, I've never seen anyone as devoted as you to football. If you continue to grow, you'll have an opportunity to play on," recalls Olson.

He returned to Missoula for camp the summer before his senior year. He'd long before given up on the idea of playing at Oregon or Oregon State. He believed Montana was the level he could reach, but he didn't know for sure.

Until the second day of camp, when he was in the south end zone of Washington-Grizzly Stadium, in the stretch line.

Delaney made his way over and asked, Hey, Dante, what do you think about the University of Montana so far? I love it. What do you think about what we have to offer as a football program? It's incredible. Well, we're going to give you the opportunity to play here on scholarship.

"I was awestruck," says Olson. "It was the culmination of everything. It's hard to describe the feeling, with what I'd been through in middle school and people in high school telling me I'd never be good enough or big enough or strong enough to play at the next level. It was a dream coming true."

Jeff Olson was in the stands. After camp, he learned that his son was going to be playing football at Montana. He cried. "I can't explain the blessings that I felt that day," he says.

But there would be more challenges to face, starting with a coaching change at the school to which he'd committed. Following the 2014 season, Olson's senior year at Cascade Christian, Delaney stepped down. He was replaced by Bob Stitt. One coach who believed in Olson, another who had never heard of him.

When Olson arrived in Missoula the following fall, he was in for a shock, the same one most first-year Grizzlies go though.

"The speed of the game, there is no way to prepare for it," he says. "I don't think it matters what level of high school you go to. It's so much faster and there are so many more things you have to learn. There was no way I was ready to play in a game my freshman year."

So he redshirted, but that doesn't mean he took the season off. Why would he start accepting anything but the best from himself now? He was named the program's Defensive Scout Team Player of the Year.

"Being on the scout team isn't the most glamorous thing, but I've come to learn it's a vital part of the team. If you give the offense or the defense a bad look, that's not helping us," says Olson.

"I took the approach that it was my opportunity to go against the best talent we had and maybe I could learn a few things and get better. The guys would give you a hard time and say, Don't be a scout team hero, but it made me better."

Still he waited, earning the Hauck Family Special Teams Player of the Year as a redshirt freshman in 2016. He was a repeat selection for the award the next year while also adding second-team All-Big Sky honors for his play on special teams.

Then, that November, Stitt was let go and Hauck was hired, the most important thing that could have happened to Olson, for he is a Hauck kind of guy and by that we mean a Montana kind of guy. Don't talk. Don't tell me what you're going to do. Just bring it.

Olson was at the right school. Now he was in the right program being led by a coaching staff that is "in my book the best in the business," he says.

"Our first practice of spring, which was no pads, I asked (safeties coach Shann Schillinger) who (No.) 33 was. I told him, I think he's our best player," says Hauck. "He said he's never started or played much. I said, all right, I'll give it until we have a day of pads.

"I gave it a day in pads, then I grabbed Shann again. Why wasn't this guy playing? He's our best player. He's big, he's fast, he's aggressive. He just does everything."

Who knows why the former staff held him back? Maybe he was just a little too ... nice? Maybe he didn't fit into their mold of a football player?

"He's like a giant teddy bear. He's hilarious and he loves children," says Linda. "Then he goes out on the football field and I don't even want people to know I'm his mom, because he hurts guys. He's just out there laying the wood. It's such a paradox to me."

Given his chance, at last, against Northern Iowa in early September in the season opener, all he did was record a game-high 13 tackles, with a sack, and return a third-quarter interception 26 yards.

He followed that with 16 tackles against Drake, with three and a half tackles for loss, plus a forced fumble, and later totaled 24 tackles in Montana's road win at Cal Poly. The accolades, at both the conference and national levels, start piling up.

He would finish the season with a school-record 151 tackles, 50 more than any other player in the Big Sky, yet he didn't earn league Defensive Player of the Year honors to complement his first-team accolades.

His response to the perceived slight -- was it or wasn't it? -- perfectly sums up Olson: He's human (yes, he wanted it for himself) but he recognizes the selfishness in wanting to glorify the individual. It's not how he likes to roll, or wants to, so he changes course to something that is more fitting for him.

"Deep down that's something you selfishly want. To be able to say you were the Defensive Player of the Year is a pretty big deal, but at the end of the day, it's not the most important thing to me," he says.

"The most important thing is the guy next to me. Having the respect of your teammates is more important. And that comes with going every day, being ready to get to work."

Yeah, he's a Hauck guy.

"The beauty of a guy like Dante is he's willing to work at it. He doesn't view himself as a finished product. He views himself as a work in progress, which all of us should. That bodes well for his future," says Hauck, who will in Year No. 2 of Hauck Era No. 2 next season. Or shall we say starting next month.

"Wins are earned January through August. Then you have to play well enough to get them. We have to do the work to earn the wins we want next fall. Dante is the guy who can lead the charge this offseason."

Olson, who will be a fifth-year senior next fall, had little say in how he's been used on the football field over the years. It's not a meritocracy after all. All a guy can do is put in the work and leave it up to the coaches to decide how to best use him. Or not use him.

As for school, that's different. It tends to be more formulaic, as in time + effort = good results. If you're wondering what Olson is like in the classroom, Dr. Michael Harrington had him last spring for business law.

"It's a tough course. It hits them with some things and can be overwhelming. But Dante is an opportunist. He thrives with a challenge. From the first day I met him, he was a guy who was always striving to get better," says Harrington.

"He has a lot of native intelligence, but that didn't cause him to pull back on the throttle and not put in the time. He had a real positive effect on the other students in the section. He was a real joy. Guys like that, we love putting out in the real world."

And maybe that's the best thing you can say about someone like Olson, that every group he's a part of wants to claim him as its own, for its own good and benefit, whether that be the business school or the football program. Everyone wants to put him on their pedestal as their exemplar.

Of course, it wasn't always like that. And his parents have witnessed the whole saga, from the halcyon days at Southern Oregon to the dark days of middle school to striving against the odds to reach his goals in high school to realizing them in full last fall on the football field at Montana.

That's why Jeff and Linda get first dibs on all claiming and bragging rights. They've earned it, don't you think? But not even Linda always feels she's worthy. "He's a way better person than I am," she claims. "God's had His hand on Dante since the day he was born. It's pretty humbling."

All of it, the entire ride of Dante's life to date, is why you can look into the parents' section at a football game, home or away, and find Linda, oftentimes in tears. "I cry because I'm just so unbelievably happy for him. It's an amazing joy I feel for him. It's the rewards, because he's worked so hard his whole life."

*****

Maybe we didn't need the third side of the prism after all. Or even the second. Maybe everything we needed to understand Dante Olson was back at the start, at the story of Dante Natali.

It's about that ring, his wife's wedding ring that Natali put up for sale multiple times as an investment in himself after he arrived in the U.S. He sold it, put himself through Columbia, then bought it back. He sold it again, started Natali Construction, then bought it back.

It didn't matter how many times he sold it. He always knew he'd get it back. It came down to believing in himself and knowing no one would ever outwork him. Because of it, the ring became a family totem, carrying with it not just the heft of the opal and diamonds but the weight of that story and its legacy.

It sits most of the time in a safe-deposit box in Oregon. But it will be in Frisco, Texas, early next month, on Linda's finger, on a hand that's constantly wiping away tears, when the Buck Buchanan Award is presented to one of three finalists. Her son is one of them.

It will come two weeks after Dante Olson was named the 2018 GoGriz.com Person of the Year.

But more than the ring has been passed down. Her son is now a fifth-generation Dante, the name carrying on from generation to generation, an honor as significant as that ring.

Go to a Griz football game next fall and you'll see Dante Olson listed in the program and a simple Olson across the back of his jersey. Just know this: His legal name is Dante Natali Olson, fitting for the great-grandson of a man who faced and fought off struggles by going all in on himself.

And the rewards followed. For all of us.

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