Oct. 20, 2009
Mason Foster Interview (paid subscription required)
Former Husky All-America guard and longtime NFL player Benji Olson will be recognized as the "Husky Legend" after the third quarter of this Saturday's game vs. Oregon.
By Matt Winter
Benji Olson was not flashy. He did not score touchdowns, make big catches, or juke defenders out. He blocked, and blocked well. The 6-4, 320-pound offensive guard held down his post with a consistent, noquestions- asked mentality for 13 years of pro and college ball.
At South Kitsap High School in Port Orchard, Wash., Olson excelled at football, wrestling, and track. In football, he was a second team All-USA selection by USA Today as a senior, and despite having his choice of almost any school in the country, he chose Washington.
"It was always an easy decision for me," Olson explains. "I grew up a hometown guy, and at that time when you grew up around here, Washington was where you wanted to play football."
Olson redshirted his freshman year in 1994 after injuring his knee before the season, but saw time almost immediately in 1995. In the second game in the season, the No. 18 Huskies traveled to Columbus to take on the No. 10 Ohio State Buckeyes, and Olson was given the start. The Huskies lost, but Olson was happy with his play against the Buckeyes' future Pro Bowler Mike Vrabel.
Olson never looked back. He started every game at Washington from there on out, helping the Dawgs to a 7-4-1 record and a spot in the Sun Bowl against Iowa. That season, Olson helped pave the way for running back Rashaan Shehee, who ran for 995 yards and 15 touchdowns.
The following season in 1996 was a big one for the Huskies. The team was stacked with talent and Coach Jim Lambright was heading into his fourth season. Expectations were high.
"We had a great offensive line," Olson remembers of the squad that included him, Olin Kreutz, Bob Sapp, and Tony Coats. After Shehee got injured three games into the season, backup Corey Dillon started getting carries behind that talented set of blockers. Dillon would finish the year with a Husky record 1,695 yards and 24 touchdowns.
Washington finished the season 9-3, tied for the Pac-10 championship, and earned a berth against 8th-ranked Colorado in the Holiday Bowl (they lost 33- 21). Six Huskies were named first team All-Pac-10, and Olson was named a first team All-American.
It takes a certain type of person to be a good offensive lineman. With no flash, no glory, and no attention, the position is the most blue-collar on the field. Few linemen have been described as explosive, showy, or breathtaking. The qualities they possess are intelligence [the position consistently scores highest on the NFL's Wonderlic intelligence test], durability, toughness, and longevity. Olson possessed all these qualities.
"One of the most basic things to being a lineman is having good feet, footwork, and hands," he explains, "you need to have a good sense of seeing what's going on - seeing defenders, seeing blitzes, and seeing the field. Not to mention quickness.
"You've got to be able to play through pain and soreness...there's a lot of pounding, a lot of contact, and whoever can play through it is going to be successful."
And playing through pain is something Olson got very good at. Following his sophomore season, he received back surgery but didn't miss a single game. He started all 12 games for the second-straight season, leading the Dawgs to an 8-4 record and a 51-23 win over Michigan State in the Aloha Bowl. The Oline was dominant again as Shehee ran for 1,087 yards and 10 touchdowns. Seven more Huskies, including Olson, were named first team All-Pac-10. Olson also notched his second straight Associated Press first team All-America selection, making him the only player in UW football history to do so.
Olson left the UW after his junior year to enter the NFL Draft. In 35 starts from 1995-97, he helped lead the Huskies to a 24-11-1 record and three bowl games. He paved the way for two straight 1,000-yard rushers (almost three counting Shehee's 995 yards in 1995). In 1997, he allowed fewer sacks than any other lineman in the Pac-10.
The Tennessee Oilers made Olson a fifth-round selection in the 1998 draft, and he spent all 10 years of his NFL career with Tennessee. One of the reasons factoring in his decision to leave Washington early was the health of his back.
"Because of my back, I thought in my first year that I would only last a couple years in the league," Olson said. "Once you get that adrenaline going on game day, it gets easier to play through."
Durability was the name of Olson's game in the pros. After moving to right guard in 1999, he only missed two games through 2006, including an 85-game streak that ended in 2004. He started 140 of 152 games he played, which ranks him fourth with the franchise. Only Casey Wiegmann, Alan Faneca and Chris Gray played more games on the interior line between 1998 and 2007 than Olson did.
"I always took it as far as I could no matter what the cost was," Olson says of his playing style, "some people just have a drive to get things done."
After hanging it up in 2007, Olson is enjoying the retired life of hunting, fishing, and golfing. He lives with his wife Tracy, four-year-old daughter Olivia, and six-year-old son Wyatt, who just started playing flag football.
"He's eating, breathing, and living football right now," Olson laughs about Wyatt. "It's fun seeing a little bit of me in him when he's out there running around on the field."
Olson returns to Seattle on Saturday for his first game at Husky Stadium since his playing days. Still, 11 years later, that game-day feeling has never faded.
"I'll never forget coming down that tunnel, coming out and hearing that crowd go crazy. It's still one of the greatest places I've ever played football, pro or college. Hearing that siren every time you score, getting after it with my fellow Dawgs, it's awesome."