SAN JOSE, Calif. — Greg Olsen had never felt rejected as an athlete before.
He hasn’t since.
When the Bears decided to trade him in July 2011 rather than consider extending his contract, the tight end didn’t know what to expect. The Panthers had gone 2-14 the year before, fired coach John Fox and drafted Cam Newton No. 1 overall.
But Olsen signed an extension as soon as he moved, and has been instrumental in building the Panthers’ culture to the heights of Sunday’s Super Bowl appearance against the Broncos.
“Pretty much what happens is, they say, ‘We don’t want you. We don’t feel like we have a place for you. We don’t have a need for you. We’re going to get rid of you,’” Olsen said. “Any time that happens to guys in our world who tend to have a lot of self-confidence, you take that to heart.”
He tells the story with a smile.
“Looking back,” he said, “that trade from Chicago was the best thing to ever happen to me.”
Since the Bears got a third-round pick for him — a move GM Jerry Angelo admitted was a mistake, despite the belief the tight end didn’t jibe with Mike Martz’s offense — Olsen has been one of the game’s great tight ends.
He set career highs with 123 catches and 1,104 receiving yards this year; among tight ends, only the Patriots’ Rob Gronkowski had more yards. Between Pro Bowl nominations last year and this, Olsen signed another contract extension.
None of that happens if he stays in Chicago.
“When I was there, I had some personal success, to a point,” he said. “We had a lot of changes. We had three offensive coordinators. We had a lot of ebbs and flows of our team. We had a lot of moving parts at quarterback.
“But since I’ve come here, we’ve had so much consistency. I’ve been able to grow and kinda evolve as a player and have people believe in me, to let me go out and do what you brought me here to do.
“Across the board, from the organization to the community of Charlotte, and then obviously on the field professionally, it’s been a home run.”
The Olsens embraced Charlotte, and vice versa. Their son, T.J., was born with a rare congenital heart defect three-and-a-half years ago, and the Olsens spend their free time helping families, financially and otherwise, in the same situation.
“Changing teams and everything we went through there with our family and personally with our son, this would be a great exclamation point on an interesting — and kind of up and down — few years for us,” he said. “It’s been a great year for us personally and now professionally we have a chance to make it truly special.”
The Super Bowl is dripping with Bears connections. Both teams once employed Fox. Denver has two Bears assistants from the Marc Trestman regime, while the Panthers’ Ron Rivera played for the 1985 Bears.
Panthers defensive end Jared Allen has two sacks in 12 games. Teammate Charles Tillman has a torn ACL and will not play.
Olsen, then, stands alone.
“It’s his ability to go out and compete at a high level,” Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis said, “when everybody knows that he’s the guy.”
He wouldn’t be the man without the trade.
“That was really the first time I’ve been really rejected in my sports career,” Olsen said. “But I learned a lot about, ‘Things happen for a reason.’
“I’m here at the Super Bowl five years later, playing the best ball of my career, playing on, hopefully we’ll find out, the best team in the league.”
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