Panthers tight end had a blast this summer as a coach of his son’s state championship-winning team. 

SPARTANBURG, S.C. — Carolina Panthers tight end Greg Olsen couldn’t hide the disappointment.

“It’s heartbreaking,” the three-time Pro Bowl selection said as he recalled the end of his son’s season four days before training camp began last Wednesday. “We made it to the semifinals. Won the area tournament. Won the state. Went to Tennessee and were 3-0 out of the pool. Lost in the semifinals.

“Tough 5½-hour drive home from Tennessee. But the kids were awesome. We had a good time with the families. It was bittersweet to end a couple of months.”

The only consolation to seeing Tate’s 8-year-old machine-pitch team fall one win short of this weekend’s Cal Ripken Invitational World Series in Florida was that Olsen won’t miss it because of training camp.

It would have been gut-wrenching to have helped coach the team this far and then not be there for the grand finale.

It was gut-wrenching enough for Olsen, the first-base coach for the South Charlotte Cardinals, to see the season end.

“I was devastated,” Olsen said.

It also arguably was one of the best times of Olsen’s life. After years of dealing with the congenital heart defect of his son T.J. and consecutive offseasons of rehabbing from a foot injury that jeopardized his career, the 34-year-old Olsen was having fun in ways he never imagined.

“He considered the experience one of his top five sports moments,” Olsen’s wife, Kara, said. “Obviously, the NFC championship [after the 2015 season] was big. His first touchdown was another one.

“But this may have been 3 or 4. Seeing it from a different angle, being a coach and seeing the impact he could make from that, was just so … he just loved every second of it.”

It was by far the most normal offseason Olsen has had since learning in 2012 that his other son, T.J., who has a twin sister named Talbot, was going to be born with hypoplastic left heart syndrome that would require multiple surgeries.

“I learned that the simplest things made me the happiest,” Olsen said. “On a Friday night when a lot of people wanted to do a million different things, I was taking the boys to practice, then meeting my wife and daughter and the other families for pizza down the street, sitting there and hanging out with the other families and my kids and wife.

“We didn’t need to do anything fancy or go on fancy trips. It was really a unique experience. I really enjoyed it.”

Normalcy

Olsen’s life changed when doctors said T.J. was going to be born with half a heart.

T.J. needed four surgeries: three open-heart procedures and the installation of a pacemaker. Olsen and Kara at times felt their lives spinning out of control. Olsen’s biggest initial fear was mixing the infant formula incorrectly and causing T.J. to die.

Caring for T.J. and raising money through Olsen’s HEARTest Yard initiative to raise awareness and help other families going through similar experiences was like a second full-time job.

Once Olsen seemed to have that part of his life stabilized, a broken right foot ended his 2017 and 2018 seasons prematurely. After three consecutive seasons of surpassing 1,000 yards receiving, something no tight end in history had done, his own playing future was in question.

There also was the lure of becoming a full-time broadcaster, something Olsen still wants to pursue when football is over.

So being a regular dad on the field provided a needed outlet for Olsen, whose foot is completely healed as he heads into his 13th season.

“Since his mind wasn’t consumed with T.J. or anything to do with the hospital, he put all of his effort toward coaching these kids and helping them become the best team they could,” Kara said. “They had a rough last game, but all in all it was a great experience of memories, especially for him.”

Olsen, a finalist the past two years for the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award because of his foundation work, needed only one word to describe the experience.

“Awesome,” he said.

It also was special having T.J., now 6, help as a bat boy on game days and designated runner in practice.

“He took it very serious,” Kara said of T.J.’s role. “He always joked he had the most steps out of anybody. He loved it. He cried more than anybody when they lost.”

Perspective

Olsen had one rule at the field: no posing for pictures or signing autographs until after games.

From the time he arrived at the ballpark until the game was over, he was a coach and a dad first.

“After the games, a lot of kids and parents from the other teams wanted to take pictures and whatnot,” Olsen said. “That’s great. But as I told someone, you’ve got to let me tend to my kids first. Once the game is over, I can make time for everybody else.”

There were perks for the Cardinals in having a celebrity coach. It began with getting the best gear: Nike uniforms and New Era caps.

The team also got the same intensity from Olsen as a coach that he brings to the football field.

“I think everybody thinks I’m a little crazy,” Olsen said. “The thing I always tell the kids is they are old enough to listen and do things the right way and understand that we’re not just out here [to have fun].

“I told them if we’re going to be out here all summer when it’s 100 degrees, let’s do it right. Let’s play up to a standard you guys have shown us.”

Kara laughed, recalling a few times when she thought her husband was “too serious.”

“We had multiple times when we went to bed, I said, ‘Greg, are you serious?’” she said. “But that’s part of why they were successful. The coaches made them accountable.”

Like many dads who are coaches, Olsen sometimes was hardest on Tate, who played first base.

“There was one night where he was really tough on Tate,” Kara recalled. “He was crying. Greg was furious. And Greg’s dad, who was his longtime coach, said, ‘Listen, I don’t get mad at you when you don’t catch a touchdown pass.’

“I’ll never forget that quote.”

Return to top form

Several of the Cardinals and their parents attended Carolina’s first practice Thursday at Wofford’s Gibbs Stadium.

“They came to give Greg a little bit of what he deserved after yelling at the boys all season,” Kara joked.

Olsen acknowledged that.

“For a change, they got to judge me and yell at me instead of the other way around,” he said.

Olsen is ready to be judged. He is ready to return to the standard he set from 2014-16 when he was considered one of the ’s top tight ends. He knows it will be tough to reach 1,000 yards receiving with more talent around him at wide receiver and Christian McCaffrey, who set an single-season record for running backs last season with 107 catches.

But with New England’s Rob Gronkowski retired, Olsen believes he’s as good as any tight end in the league even though he’s not showing up on preseason lists as one of the ’s top 10 at his position anymore.

He almost takes offense when asked what it will take to get back to the elite level.

“Can’t break my foot,” Olsen said. “That’s really been the only thing that has ever prevented me from being productive. …

“If I can stay healthy, I know what I’m able to do.”

Olsen also knows now better than ever when to step back from his career and be a dad. He told Cam Newton in April that if Tate’s team was playing when the quarterback held his pre-training camp workout with receivers that he would be a no-show.

And had the Cardinals advanced to the World Series, Panthers coach would have given his tight end a few days off to be a dad and coach, even though Olsen insists he would never have asked.

Rivera, whose daughter played softball in college and throughout her youth, understands how important dad time is.

“If we’re going to sit here and preach about family, why shouldn’t he get time off?” Rivera said. “He probably would have only missed a day or two. I get it.

“If I had a regret, I h I had been there a little more [for daughter Courtney]. To see young guys, our guys, who are becoming parents, I want to at least be able to say do the things you need to do to support your family.”

Olsen called the experience “a nice mental break” from the pressures of football “because I had a lot of other things to obsess over.”

When he says “obsess,” Kara understands after spending the past five months watching her husband work out in the mornings and focus on most afternoons and evenings.

“You know how they say, ‘We interrupt this marriage for football season?’” she said. “It was, ‘We interrupted this marriage for youth season.’ I got more conversation out of him last night than I have in the last five months.”

So when Olsen says seeing the season come to an end was devastating, he means it.

“That first night or two was tough,” he said. “You’re sad that you lose, you’re sad that the season is over, you think back over all the fun things we got to do with the kids and all the families, knowing that it’s over …

“We probably accomplished way more than we imagined at the beginning of the season.”

Now Olsen hopes to do the same with the Panthers.