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Kevin Schnepf, Published November 11 2013

Schnepf: Bison must adjust to life without leader Olson

Fargo - Grant Olson knew something was wrong.

“I could tell my knee twisted in a way it had never twisted before,” Olson said.

The senior middle linebacker for North Dakota State’s football team – described time and time again as the anchor of the defense, if not the entire team – was talking about last Saturday’s play that has not only ended his season, but his career.

Olson tackled Illinois State running back Cameron Hunt on a routine play, the third play of the second half of NDSU’s 28-10 victory. As far as Olson can remember, there was perhaps too much weight on his left foot as he and Hunt tumbled to the Gate City Bank Field turf in the Fargodome. That’s when he felt his left knee buckle.

After Olson was helped to the sidelines, one of the team doctors told him the bad news: a torn ACL – the anterior cruciate ligament, which is vital in keeping the knee joint together.

“That was pretty hard to hear,” Olson said.

So here we are nearly three days later. The undefeated and top-ranked Bison, in search of their third straight national championship, are dealing with the fact that Olson will no longer be on the field, barking out instructions and making plays that has made him the team’s leading tackler the last two seasons.

So has all this sunk in for Olson, whose 6-foot, 228-pound chiseled frame topped with a Mohawk haircut and equipped with his raspy voice makes him seem even more like a linebacker?

“Oh yeah, it’s sunk in,” Olson said. “That the hardest part … knowing it’s the last time I’ll get to wear that Bison uniform or the last time I’ll get to run through that tunnel.”

Grant Olson has never missed a football game – not at NDSU, where he helped the 2010 Bison to the playoffs and the last two teams to national titles. Nor did he miss a football game at Wayzata High School in suburban Minneapolis, where his teams compiled a 34-2 record with one state championship. He thinks the only athletic event he has ever missed due to an injury was a sprained ankle that sidelined him for an AAU basketball game.

So it would be understandable if Olson would’ve wilted up and hid in the locker room Saturday afternoon. But that was far from the case. Dealing with some pain that subsided with some ice and a stabilizing wrap, Olson was pacing the sidelines – on crutches – like a coach eager to offer his advice.

“I was going to do whatever I could to help our team,” Olson said. “I want to be a part of the team and help them win.”

That’s why Olson has already approached head coach Craig Bohl about developing some sort of plan to get him involved with coaching during practices and games. That’s why he is delaying his surgery until after the season – which the Bison hope is after the Jan. 4 national championship game in Frisco, Texas.

Olson has already asked Bohl about a broken leg and an injured shoulder that ended his playing career at Nebraska.

“That’s when coach (Tom) Osborne hired me as a coach,” said Bohl, who has described Olson, an industrial-engineering major, the smartest player he has ever coached. “What’s different here is I was a third-string guy at Nebraska, and Grant is an All-American who has been playing. It was a little bit easier transition for me.”

The transition for the Bison won’t be easy without Olson. Carlton Littlejohn, who produced a career-high 16 tackles filling in for Olson, will join Travis Beck and Esley Thorton as NDSU’s three starting linebackers. The Bison are in good hands, but now depth becomes an issue.

The Bison are also facing the possibility of playing without All-American cornerback Marcus Williams, who suffered a slight MCL sprain in his knee last Saturday. In his street clothes, Williams joined Olson on the sidelines for the entire second half.

Bohl is hopeful Williams can play Saturday at Youngstown State – a game in which the Bison can clinch a Missouri Valley Football Conference championship with a win. But Youngstown, with only one conference loss, is thinking the same thing.

“We all realize Grant has been the backbone of that defense, and now we have to regroup,” Bohl said. “But I want to be real clear: it’s not a pity party. Our guys realize the next guy has to man up and let’s get ready to go. Everybody is very mindful of the contribution that Grant has given and they are also mindful of what opportunities we have and what challenges we have.”

Olson may be the linebacker who recorded a school-record 29 tackles in one game last year. He may be the linebacker who was the first Bison to surpass 100 tackles for a season since 1998. And he may be the linebacker who refused to let a bout with appendicitis keep him out of last year’s national championship game. In fact, Olson said if it were possible, he would try playing again later this season.

“But that doesn’t sound very realistic,” Olson said. “They are going to be fine without me. No one person is bigger than the team. The team needs to move forward and continue to get better. That’s just the way it is.”

Readers can reach Forum Sports Editor

Kevin Schnepf at (701) 241-5549

Schnepf’s NDSU media blog can be

found at www.areavoices.com