DAVIS, Calif. — “Can you sign my forehead?” came a voice from a crowd of kids on Saturday after Montana’s win over UC Davis.
“No,” Griz linebacker Dante Olson said with a smile while shaking his head and holding a sharpie.
What’s important is what Olson has helped put into the head of that kid and the many other students in attendance over the past two years. They’re the grade school kids who Olson has been pen pals with for the past two school years.
The students from Gerber, California, finally got to see their mentor play for the first time and met up with him afterward. Olson took pictures and selfies with them, autographed items for them and caught up with them about how they’re doing.
“It was awesome,” Olson said after taking a group photo with the kids, who were wearing No. 37 shirts and had temporary Griz tattoos. “It’s good to see them. Glad I could. Glad that they could make it up. It’s really awesome to see how well they’re doing. It was awesome to see them.”
With the kids in attendance on Saturday, the 6-foot-3, 240-pounder from Medford, Oregon, even came up with a leaping interception in a 45-20 upset win over No. 4 UC Davis.
“They’re both special in their own way,” Olson said of getting the win and meeting the kids. “But it definitely adds to the win also. It’s good to see the Griz win and good to see the class.”
The students who came out to see Olson are from Gerber Elementary School in an underprivileged area in rural Northern California.
The school is part of the “No Excuses University” program, which means it partners with a university to promote the idea that anyone can make it to college.
“Everything is geared for them to go to college so they can grow up, get a high school diploma and continue on (with their) education,” Olson said of his message to them. “It’s something to never give up, keep working hard and academics is super important because whether you play sports or not, it’s what’s going to carry you in life.”
Olson has been pen pals with teacher Keri Spengler’s third-grade class since taking over for former Grizzly Cooper Sprunk when Sprunk graduated. He visited the students in the summer of 2018, and he later exchanged letters with them and talked with them over Skype.
To see Olson this past weekend, Spengler’s class used GoFundMe to raise $4,050 in donations, exceeding their goal of $2,490. She had taken her class to see Sprunk play at Portland State in 2017.
Olson’s impact on the kids isn’t lost on Spengler.
“It’s hard to describe,” she said. “It’s been a really great thing for all of us. He means a lot to these guys. Just watching them understand there’s more to life.
“A couple of them today said, ‘I want to go to the University of Montana’ or ‘When do we get to go down there to see Dante?’ It gives them something to look forward to. It’s been incredible. They feel like they’re really lucky.”
When Olson took over for Sprunk, he was a relative unknown in the Griz defense.
It’d be several months until he blossomed into one of the top linebackers in the FCS and an NFL prospect. He finished third in voting for the Buck Buchanan award, given to the top FCS defensive player, and broke Montana’s single-season tackles record last year. He was named the Big Sky Conference preseason defensive MVP this year.
Olson was one of 22 players named to American Football Coaches Association Good Works Team earlier this month for his leadership in the community. He was also named a semifinalist for the Campbell Trophy, referred to as the Academic Heisman and given to a player who combines “academic success, football performance and exemplary community leadership."
Ever the humble person, Olson has become a star but hasn’t abandoned the kids, saying that having the relationship with them “means a lot.”
“It’s really cool to do something bigger than yourself,” Olson said. “Just trying to help other people pursue their dreams.”