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Out of Nowhere

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By Arash Markazi

Ben Olson
At 6'5" and 235 pounds with a cannon of a left arm, Olson certainly looks like a player out of central casting.
Lee Celano

Ben Olson is sitting at a small table in the food court on the second floor of UCLA's Ackerman Union. While students pass by carrying trays of fish tacos and orange chicken, Olson keeps his head down, sketching arrows going in different directions in the corner of his playbook. He finally looks up and lets out a sigh as he shakes his head.

"It's so frustrating," says the redheaded 6'5", 235-pound quarterback. "I've never played in anything like the West Coast offense before. I have to think about things now I used to do instinctively."

This spring Olson has been doing more than just learning UCLA's complicated system. After returning in November from a two-year Mormon mission in Canada, Olson, the most touted high school quarterback from California since John Elway, is learning how to play football again. While his left arm still zings passes to receivers with the velocity and accuracy that made him the nation's top recruit in 2002, he hasn't played a single down of football since then.

"The whole process is like riding a bike," says Olson, who redshirted his first season at BYU before going on his mission. "I'm trying to get the training wheels off and get back on the two-wheeler again."

Olson didn't have much time to train or practice football while he was in Canada. His days began around 6:30 a.m. and ended at 9:30 p.m. In that time he would knock on doors and talk to people in the streets about his faith. On a good day, he estimates, he might be asked into one out of every 50 homes he approached.

When Olson returned from his mission, plenty of coaches began knocking on his door, trying to lure him to their programs. For college coaches, Olson is the equivalent of a Peyton Manning, a can't-miss quarterback with excellent leadership skills. Even after committing to UCLA in December to be closer to his Thousand Oaks, Calif., home, Olson got a phone call from newly hired Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis, who attempted to persuade Olson to come to South Bend.

Aside from reacquainting himself with football, Olson -- who during his mission was allowed to call home only on Mother's Day and Christmas and had no access to television, newspapers or the Internet -- also required a crash course in pop culture. "During one of my recruiting trips when I got back, one guy asked me what I thought of Paris Hilton, and I had no idea who she was," Olson says. "It still happens today. If a song comes on that came out after I left, I'll ask if it's new, and everyone will look at me like I'm joking."

Despite his penchant for mistaking played-out tunes like OutKast's Hey Ya as new releases and asking who Lindsay Lohan is, Olson has made a fairly smooth transition back into college life. He is taking three classes this semester and participated in the Bruins' winter conditioning program before the start of spring drills.

Sitting in the back of a large lecture hall on an early March morning, Olson perches his black shoes on the empty seat in front of him. He is wearing a black Quiksilver hat and shirt and a pair of blue jeans. He pulls a notebook and pencil from his backpack and gabs with classmates before the Atmospheric Environment class begins. As the lights are dimmed, the professor turns on an overhead projector to reveal the subject of today's lecture: "Pressures and Heights." This could just as easily be the title of Olson's autobiography.

"It's going to take time," Olson says later. "I'm confident that I'll be better than I've ever been, but it's not going to come overnight."

With his first class out of the way, Olson walks across campus to his American Folklore lecture. "I'm probably going to leave early since I have to get taped up and ready for practice," he says as he takes a seat beside tailback Maurice Drew and five other teammates.

Because he has been up since 5 a.m. to make it to the Bruins' morning workout, Olson comes close to fitting in an unscheduled mid-afternoon nap during a video presentation on window screen paintings. He thinks better of it, however, grabs his backpack and politely bails out the back door before it's too late.

Next stop: the Acosta Sports Training Center, next to Pauley Pavilion, to get ready for practice. Sitting in front of his locker, he pulls out his playbook and opens it. "What I'm doing right now is tougher than any class I've ever taken," he says. "It's not even close."

Immersed in his football studies, Olson blocks out the teammates who are teasing him for having a reporter and a photographer following him around. Before he heads into his quarterbacks meeting, where all five Bruins signal-callers analyze game film with assistant coach Jim Svoboda, he shakes his head and smiles again. "This is hard."

During the session, which takes place in a small, classroomlike setting next to the team's locker room, Olson is as interested yet as perplexed as he's been in any class all day. Throughout the meeting Svoboda calls on his quarterbacks to name plays and go up to the grease board and draw up formations.

"Three Set Zebra Hank," Svoboda says, sitting in the back of the room. Olson, standing in front of the class with a marker in hand, looks at the blank grease board and smiles. "Gosh, um," he says. He begins to draw up the play, cringing and wondering if he has the correct one. When he finishes, he looks at Svoboda and asks, "Is this right? Is it wrong?" Svoboda looks at the play, nods in approval and moves on to the next quarterback.

Following the meeting Olson goes back to the locker room, puts on his pads and his red number 3 jersey and walks to nearby Spaulding Field for practice. With last year's starter, senior Drew Olson (no relation, although Ben introduces him as his cousin), still recovering from the torn left ACL he suffered during the Las Vegas Bowl, Ben splits snaps with the three other QBs. All the anxiety and uneasiness he showed earlier in the day melt away during the two-hour practice as he completes pass after pass, zipping the football to the outstretched arms of his receivers.

"I'm getting there," Olson says as he walks off the field. "I think I'm the best quarterback on this team. I have to keep that mind-set and know it's going to come together."

Issue date: March 31, 2005

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