It wasn’t the hardest yard to gain by Greg Olsen's standards, on or off the field, but it certainly was a historic one.
“It’s a moment,” Olsen said, “that I’ll remember forever.”
The 2016 season was a disappointing one from a team perspective, as a Panthers team coming off a 15-1 regular season and trip to Super Bowl 50 entered their home finale with no shot at the playoffs. But still there was room for a feel-good moment on Christmas Eve, when Olsen’s relatively easy 17-yard reception early in the second quarter made him the only tight end in NFL history to post three consecutive 1,000-yard receiving seasons.
“That’s a big deal,” said Cam Newton, the quarterback who delivered an overwhelming majority of the pass to Olsen during his prolific run. “That’s Hall of Fame caliber stuff.”
The difficulty of Olsen’s accomplishment came even more clearly into focus early in the 2017 season, when in Week 2 he suffered a foot injury that ended a streak of 160 consecutive games played – 10 seasons worth of games. The injury derailed any hopes of a fourth consecutive 1,000-yard campaign.
“This record I feel like encompassed a lot of things that I’ve built my career on,” Olsen said. “Consistency. Reliability. Durability. Playing every down. Playing every game. I think a lot of those factors come together to be consistently productive, and that’s been my entire goal my whole career: to not be an up-and-down flash in the pan, but just do things right and do things well time and time and time again. I felt this was an example of that.”
While Olsen’s hard-earned yards may eventually catch the eye of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, it’s the “HEARTest Yard” that caught the attention of the NFL Man of the Year committee, contributing to him twice becoming a finalist for prestigious honor.
Olsen and his wife, Kara, began to battle adversity off the field during the 2012 season when twins TJ and Talbot were born. TJ was born with a congenital heart defect called hypoplastic left heart syndrome. The left side of his heart was severely underdeveloped and couldn’t do its job effectively. He’s undergone four surgeries - three open-heart procedures and the installation of a pacemaker - and is now healthy with no other procedures scheduled.
"Sometimes you just have to handle whatever life presents," said Olsen, who teamed with Levine Children's Hospital to establish The HEARTest Yard initiative that helps families facing the life-threatening condition. "This has been one of those cases where it's nothing you foresee happening to you. But once it does, you just have to come to the realization that this is your reality and find the best way to keep moving forward.
"Something like this will snap you back into reality really fast. It shows you what really matters and what true troubles are, what true problems in this world really are. We've been very fortunate to have the support of the organization and the guys on the team. It's made the situation a lot easier."
Head coach Ron Rivera said the way Olsen has handled the situation with his son while continuing to play at a high level was not only impressive but an inspiration to the entire team. Two years after TJ was born, Newton found himself thinking about how Olsen had handled an off-the-field obstacle of the highest order when Newton was in a harrowing car accident late in the 2014 season.
"I tell you what, man, to put things in perspective, life and health is Alpha to this game," Newton said. "We all want to be great. We only play this game for one reason, and that's for wins, right? You look at Greg Olsen's situation, and he comes in and expects a lot of not only himself, but of his teammates.
"He expects it on the practice field and he expects it on the game field, and I respect that. It's kind of made me look at my situation and say, 'You know what? If he can do it, I can do it. If he's doing what he's doing and not complaining about it, then I can do it, too.'"
In 2014, with Olsen’s attention understandably divided and with his quarterback surviving a scare that sidelined him for one game in the midst of a playoff push, Olsen recorded his first 1,000-yard season. In 2016, he recorded his historic third.
“I was asked about it in preseason at training camp. I said, ‘Damn right, I want to do it,’” Olsen said. “That’s something that I set out and took a lot of pride in trying to accomplish. I’m not a huge stat guy. You guys know me by now, but I’d be lying if I said that this wasn’t something that I wanted to accomplish.”
View photos from Carolina's 6-10 campaign in 2016.