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Ex-UNLV star talks Greg Olsen through son’s heart transplant

During an NFL career spanning 14 seasons, Greg Olsen caught 742 passes for 8,683 yards and 60 touchdowns, played in the Super Bowl and was a three-time Pro Bowl selection. But when it was learned his 8-year-old son would require a heart transplant, all that Olsen had accomplished on the football field must have seemed irrelevant.

At that point, all you want is a comforting word. Reassurance, if you can find it, that everything is going to be all right.

The former Bears, Panthers and Seahawks tight end found it in talking to Simon Keith, the former UNLV soccer star who has undergone two heart transplants and a kidney transplant. And for whom everything has turned out all right.

“I have been coaching him through the process,” Keith, 56, said Friday when a donor heart became available and little TJ Olsen was rushed into surgery.

Keith said he and Greg Olsen have been chatting for several years. One of Olsen’s best pals on the Panthers was center Ryan Kalil, who has a lifelong interest in the film industry and co-founded a production company with NBA star Blake Griffin. One of their projects is a feature film about Keith.

Guiding light

It was a classic case of my people getting together with your people. Only the subject matter was much more serious.

“The reason Ryan introduced me to Greg is that TJ was sick, and that at some point TJ was going to need a heart transplant,” Keith said.

TJ Olsen was born with a heart defect that progressively worsened.

“They put him in the hospital and he went to the very top of the (transplant) list,” Keith said. “He was pretty sick. They figured it would be two to four months to get the call, and they got the call in seven days. He was status 1A, the most critical you can get.”

Keith’s role was pretty much the same as Greg Olsen’s during Cam Newton’s MVP season when Olsen became the go-to guy when tough yards were required. Only instead of tough yards it was tough questions. And honest answers.

“Just somebody they could bounce questions off,” Keith said of being a sounding board for Olsen and his wife, Kara. “What about this, how does this work, what do you think about this? — that kind of role. Sort of athlete to athlete. Cut all the (nonsense), what’s gonna happen, how is this going to work? That kind of conversation.”

Positive outlook

Keith said Olsen seemed surprised to learn the former soccer player had lived 32 years with his first transplanted heart. “He was blown away by that. The good news is that if you get (a heart transplant) as a young kid, they can last really long.”

By Monday morning, TJ Olsen already was sitting up in bed and sending out thank-you messages via Instagram. “Hey everybody, thank you for thinking of me. Thank you for praying with me,” he said while tapping his chest and the devices monitoring his new heart.

“TJ is going to do great,” Keith said. “He’s an athletic, energetic kid.”

Keith, a former first-round draft pick of the MISL’s Cleveland Crunch, has always been reluctant to discuss his own courage or efforts in guiding others through a difficult and life-altering process. But if poked and prodded (something to which he is accustomed), he will begrudgingly deflect praise onto his foundation and golf tournament that has raised millions to support children who have undergone organ transplants.

You don’t have to be a Pro Bowl tight end to benefit from Simon Keith’s experience and humanity.

“I talk to hundreds of families a year,” he said after a long pause. “It’s a privilege. I’m grateful to be in that position. I’ve been through (a difficult situation), so if you can share your health a little bit, it’s good.”

As it says on the heading of his foundation’s website, the beat goes on.

Contact Ron Kantowski at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352. Follow @ronkantowski on Twitter.

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