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The fireman’s son

Jay Fitzpatrick | Friday, September 5, 2008

This offseason, Notre Dame guard Eric Olsen’s body changed. Not only did it get bigger (along with the rest of the offensive line), it got more colorful.

The change was the addition of a tattoo covering his entire right upper arm.

The tattoo took months to finish, with Olsen beginning it in December after the season ended and not finishing it until this summer.

The tattoo has some more common aspects, including an American flag and a family crest, but the back of his arm has a more personal design: angels crying on the shoulders of a firefighter.

“It’s a real famous image in New York from September 11. My father was a firefighter, so it fits in with the theme [of the tattoo] ‘Only the strong will survive,'” Olsen said.

Olsen’s father Andy – who lives in Staten Island – was already a firefighter when the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center occurred, and was called to Ground Zero after the initial attacks.

The elder Olsen was at home when the planes first hit the buildings, on a two-week vacation after being promoted. But after the attacks, he and other off-duty personnel were called to Manhattan to assist with the emergency relief.

Olsen said his father was stuck in traffic on his way into Manhattan and forgot that he had his officer plates with him. He put them on his windshield, and a police officer escorted him to Ground Zero. Olsen said his father arrived shortly after the towers fell.

“If he had noticed that he had [the plates] sooner … who knows what could have happened,” Olsen said.

When the attacks initially happened, Olsen was in eighth grade and, like many other students that day, was unaware that the attacks had occurred. After he found out about the attacks, Olsen said he felt “a lot of anger that someone could do something like that.”

“I felt a lot of anger toward the terrorists, a lot of pride in New York. Knowing the pain that my dad had to go through – it just hits home on a real personal level,” he said.

Olsen also said that he felt helpless and frustrated because, at only 14-years-old, he said he felt there was not much he could do to help his dad.

Olsen said one of the worst parts of the day was his father’s direct involvement in the rescue efforts. Olsen said some of his father’s best friends had died in the effort.

“Being a firefighter is like a brotherhood, like being on a football team or a fraternity,” Olsen said. “Watching the losses that he had to endure – his friends, the people that he knew – was really painful.

“The relationships that he had with those guys, seeing the pain on his face and the pain on my mom’s face and the people that we’re close with, it was a really hard time for us.”

Olsen said every anniversary of the attack – which is coming up on Thursday -brings back his memories and emotions from that day.

“It hits you when you are sitting in class and on the top corner of the page you write ‘September 11,'” he said.

Olsen said that helping with the attacks was just one ordeal his father has had to go through. Andy Olsen has had 12 surgeries, including two for his anterior cruciate ligaments (ACL) and quadruple bypass surgery three years ago. He was also electrocuted at one point during his firefighting career, leading to some nerve damage.

Although Olsen still harbors bad memories from Sept. 11, 2001, he did move on, entering Brooklyn Poly Prep high school the next year.

Olsen was a stand-out player in two sports in high school, anchoring the football team’s offensive line as a tackle and leading the lacrosse team’s attack, including a 50-goal season as a junior. Olsen said he still weighed over 300 pounds when he played lacrosse, but it was “a little different 300” and that he was leaner and had more muscle than in the past.

“It was easy [playing attack]. The little guys couldn’t stop me,” he said.

Olsen said he tries to keep up with playing lacrosse, and has been trying to play with tight end Will Yeatman – who also plays lacrosse for Notre Dame – but has not done that yet.

Even though Olsen described playing lacrosse was one of the happiest times in his life, he said he never had any interest in playing anything other than football in college.

Olsen fell into tight end coach Bernie Parmalee’s recruiting area, but offensive line coach John Latina, his current position coach, also recruited him.

“I saw [in Olsen] a big, strong athletic guy that showed he liked playing football and had passion playing football. That’s what I saw in high school and that’s what I’m seeing now,” Latina said.

Olsen said determining where he wanted to play college football involved multiple factors, and Notre Dame was the best fit.

“I was looking for the complete package of academics; football, obviously; and the situation on the offensive line, in terms of depth. Everything had to be perfect,” he said. “And when you look at those characteristics and break it down, not many schools can compete with Notre Dame.”

Olsen took advantage of the various academic opportunities available at Notre Dame, beginning as an art studio major before switching to industrial design.

“I have a passion for drawing. It’s something I like to do in my free time. I’m also interested in marketing, so I figured I could somewhat combine the two in industrial design,” Olsen said.

Olsen said the recent success of the program is exciting and that he is impressed by some of the projects his classmates have done.

He also said managing his time as an industrial design major is tough because of the number and length of classes involved.

“I had to take a couple studio classes each semester and the studio classes can be up to three hours long,” he said. “It kind of fills up my schedule a lot because I’m just going from class-to-class and then straight to practice.”

This season, Olsen is slated as the No. 1 right guard on the opening day two-deep depth chart. He’s been a source of leadership for an offensive line determined to improve its play from a year ago.

Latina said he always envisioned Olsen playing as a guard, despite having been a tackle in high school. The coach said that is the easier transition to make than guard to tackle because tackles often play against faster opponents and have no one covering their outside. Latina said guards play “big guys like yourself in a phone book amount of space,” making it an easier adjustment.

Latina said Olsen has done well since transitioning permanently to guard after his freshman season.

Olsen played sparingly as a freshman, but saw increased playing time last season, including his first Irish start against Boston College. That added experience has given him more confidence to perform well, Latina said.

“He’s just older, smarter, wiser, more confident,” he said. “… Now he gets to reflect back and pull from past experience.”

Notre Dame head coach Charlie Weis agreed, saying the game has slowed down for Olsen since last season.

“When you first start going out there and you’re lining up there the first time on the offensive line as a young guy, okay, it’s like, whoa, everything is happening real fast,” Weis said. “Everything’s happening real fast and those guys you’re playing against are pretty good. Now it’s a year later and he thinks he’s one of those good guys now. Where last year he was trying to get his feet wet.”

Even defensive coordinator Corwin Brown said Olsen has improved to the point that he has been a big help in improving the defensive line play this season.

“Olsen is a tough guy. Everybody else has to be tougher because they are watching him play,” Brown said. “I gotta choose my words right. You gotta do your business or get off the pot.”

But despite this confidence and improvement, Olsen said the only thing that matters is a win.

“That’s the only thing we can do,” Olsen said. “We can talk the talk all we want, we can talk all off-season and have confidence and be excited about the season. But all that matters is Saturday.”