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MISSOULA — The pivotal moment that set Dante Olson on a path to becoming one of Montana’s great defenders was a disappointing freshman year in high school.

The son of a college football coach, Olson set his focus on making the Cascade Christian varsity football team as a ninth grader in Oregon. An undersized player, he didn’t get the nod out of the gate, even at a school with an enrollment of 275. But he refused to let that keep him down, just like the bullying he experienced in middle school. 

Olson instead set his sights even higher for his sophomore season, aiming to not only make varsity as a sophomore but to be a starter on defense. He did just that, starting every game in an all-state career that helped him land a scholarship to Montana, helping lead Cascade Christian to its first state title and becoming just the second football player to go to Div. I.

“My freshman year of high school was really probably the turning point for football,” Olson said ahead of his final regular-season game at Montana when the third-ranked Griz take on eighth-ranked Montana State at noon Saturday in Bozeman.

“I took that rejection personally and wanted to be the best that I could be in everything I do, no matter what I do. Just ever since then, I’ve had the mindset to be as good as I can at whatever I can.”

Olson has carried that approach of never being outworked, outprepared or outhustled by anyone else with him to Montana. He again needed time to adjust to the level of competition, but he’s thrived on the field in just two years as a starter after he got his shot as a junior.

Now a hulking linebacker roaming the field, Olson is a record holder at Montana, a multi-year All-American, a national scholar-athlete and a volunteer with underprivileged kids.

He just might be the Grizzlies’ first player in a few years to make the NFL. Before then, Montana will play its first postseason game since 2015.

It’ll be Olson’s first playoff game since his senior year of high school, when he capped one career of proving others wrong with his uncompromising work ethic.

“We had won the title the year before but lost early in the playoffs,” Cascade Christian football coach Jon Gettman recalled. “He was so emotional and saying, ‘I let the team down. I didn’t do everything I could.’

“That couldn’t be further from the case. When he left the program, he made an imprint. He showed every kid how hard you need to work. Even the coaches, when you have a kid who’s that relentless, it forces you to match his attitude and his desire.”

***

Football is in Olson’s blood, growing up around the Southern Oregon University football program while his dad, Jeff Olson, was the head coach of the NAIA team and his older brother was a wide receiver.

Olson first strapped up the football pads in second grade. He was primarily a right tackle on the offensive line and occasionally saw time at fullback.

“It’s definitely been in my family for a long time,” Olson said of football. “My parents have done a good job because no matter what I would want to do, they’re supporting me. It was my choice to get into it and ultimately pursue it as high as I could go.”

As a kid, Olson would tag along to college practices and games, learning the fundamentals of football and playing pranks on the players, like adding more ice to ice baths they were taking.

Olson also learned the importance of film study at that time.

“It was definitely very cool for me to be able to watch him and how he breaks down film and tries to make adjustments,” Olson said. “I learned a lot, whether it was defensive assignments or offensive schemes growing up watching him do that or help me.”

Film study has been a key component of Olson’s growth and emergence at Montana. It’s important for any player, but Olson makes it a priority beyond the usual.

Fellow linebacker Jace Lewis, who is having a breakout season, took notes from Olson about the necessity of studying film on an in-depth level.

“That’s one thing I learned from him the most is just film study,” Lewis said. “That’s helped me a lot this year. Just learning what he does, what he watches and the critiques he makes. It’s big for coming out for games and practices, just seeing what we need to do on film and coming out and doing it on the field.”

Olson is one to ask questions until he is firmly aware of what he needs to know. Former Montana All-American linebacker Josh Buss even dubbed him the “question queen” last year.

Olson’s desire to understand could sometimes lead to over-analyzing film, potentially leading to paralysis by analysis. But his focus shows through on the field on a regular basis.

“In any given week, if you don’t study the opponent, then you don’t play as fast,” Montana coach Bobby Hauck said. “Part of being able to play fast is knowing what the other team is doing.”

Gettman saw Olson’s inquisitive nature on the field in high school. He also taught Olson, who had a 4.0 grade-point average, in math class and had him regularly raising his hand during class to ask questions or stopping by during the lunch period or after school to ask math questions to satiate his desire to understand things with a high degree of certainty.

“He’s always asking you questions about this or that,” Gettman said of Olson, who has a 3.90 GPA at Montana. “He’s the same thing in the classroom and on the football field. I’d say he’s a perfectionist making sure he gets everything turned in and does everything correctly.”

***

Olson had other questions he couldn’t get answered in real time.

He was overweight in middle school and got bullied, resulting in a minor eating disorder that contributed to his undersized stature at 5-foot-6, 135 pounds heading into high school. Diagnosed with severe depression and anxiety and contemplating suicide, Olson found a reason to go on by recommitting himself to his faith in eighth grade.

He had another sanctuary in sports, specifically with football and in the weight room. Olson tried out basketball, baseball and tennis, the last of which he played on a doubles team and got the nickname ‘Caveman’ because he played at the net with his arms raised high to make volleys.

Olson didn’t talk much about the previous bullying during high school until his senior year. By then, he had become a standout player who was a three-time captain and helped lead Cascade Christian to a state championship.

“He talked about it more his senior year,” Gettman said. “You saw it in the way he treated the underclassmen. He was good to them, really supported them. He went out of his way to put them underneath his wing and watch out and care for them. I think his previous experience attributed to it.

“I think also is those that bullied him, he went to school with them, so you saw a change in their attitude toward him of one where they respected him. Just a lot of it had to do with him on the football field and what he did and how he carried himself. I think he garnered a lot of respect from them for what he did.”

Gettman found it powerful when Olson has shared the story of the bullying he went through as well as other life lessons he learned. After graduating, Olson even returned to Cascade Christian to talk to the football team and others in the chapel about those experiences.

“The best thing about him is as good as he was as a football player, he’s a great young man,” Gettman said. “His mentorship of other kids, he’s a great teammate. He cared about others. To me, that was even more important because of the impact he made and what he left behind.

“There are great football players that come and go, but there’s not often great football players that also care about others like he did. I think that was a big impact.”

At Montana, Olson is a mentor for underprivileged kids in northern California. He’s in his second year serving as a pen pal with a third-grade class, sharing a message of encouraging them to attend college.

Olson is also an anti-bullying advocate through Fields of Faith and helped organize the “Be the Match” bone marrow registration drive at the University of Montana.

Before feeling comfortable in his new surroundings, Olson found a kinship with former Griz Tyrone Holmes. It was someone taking him in like he had with the high school underclassmen.

“I didn’t really know him until I came here, but he’s from my same hometown, so he kind of took me under his wing,” Olson said. “He definitely kind of watched out for me. It’s definitely very influential being able to watch him and how he worked.”

Far from the previous bullying, people gravitate toward Olson now for his on-field success and off-field good deeds. The friendships he’s built in part because of that are what he counts as his favorite memory at Montana.

“A big takeaway is just the friendships and brotherly bond that I made with so many guys on the team, especially the seniors, some of my best friends I’ll have for the rest of my life,” Olson said. “A lot of different influential coaches I’ve had here, especially this last staff that we currently have.

“It’s awesome to see every Saturday just the support that Griz Nation gives us. It’s really awesome to see how much the fans really love us. Whether it’s having an interception or a sack and hearing the stadium erupt, there’s nothing like it.

“Five years ago, I made the best decision I ever made.”

***

Olson experienced the same start he had in high school when he came to Montana — he had to get more physically mature while learning a new defensive system.

Olson had grown to about 215 pounds his senior year of high school but redshirted at Montana in 2015. He primarily played on the scout team and then special teams before getting the opportunity to start on defense in 2018.

“I got to learn from some really good players here, but it was frustrating not to play at first because I’m a competitor and want to be out there trying to help the team win,” Olson said. “I wouldn’t say it was a personal mission, but my mission every day is to push myself to be the best that I can be, whether that be on scout team or special teams. It just transferred over when I finally got my chance at linebacker.”

Olson kept plugging away, driven by the desire to work hard to make sure he’s never denied an opportunity to help others.

Montana center Cy Sirmon first recalls seeing Olson at a camp before they were both Grizzlies. He’s been impressed with how Olson has grown to be a 6-foot-3, 240-pound linebacker.

“He was so small, and now he’s so huge and he’s bigger than life out there making plays,” Sirmon said. “He’s changed so much physically to meet the demands that his position requires.”

Added senior defensive tackle Jesse Sims, Olson’s roommate: “I don’t know if I know anybody who works harder than him in the classroom, on the football field and off the football field putting in the time. It’s obviously been showing up for him. He’s got a chance to play these past few years, and he’s making a huge mark. It’s awesome to be one of his teammates.”

Hauck has said on multiple occasions that he thinks Olson is probably the best player on the team, always using the qualifier “probably” to avoid any definitive statement. It’s a similar sentiment shared by Big Sky coaches, who’ve opened their evaluation of Montana’s defense the past two years by highlighting Olson and what he brings to the field.

Olson was recruited by former Griz assistant Jake Cookus, who worked on Mick Delaney’s staff and had coached under Olson’s dad at SOU. Delaney was replaced by Bob Stitt before Olson got to campus, so Olson spent three years not playing much for a coach who didn’t recruit him.

Olson soon had another head coach in Hauck in 2018, and he broke out that year, his first as a starting linebacker. He crushed Kendrick Van Ackeren’s single-season tackles record of 130 by tallying 151 on his way to earning seven All-American honors and finishing third in voting for the FCS defensive player of the award.

Olson came into 2019 on five preseason All-American teams and was the Big Sky preseason defensive MVP. He’s already up to third in UM history in career tackles despite having started only 22 games.

“He keeps learning and understanding, which allows him to play faster,” Hauck said. “He’s become a really good football player. He does everything right. He’s a good blitzer. He’s a good tackler. He’s good on and off blocks. He’s good in coverage. He just does things right.”

The success Olson has had at Montana is hardly a surprise to Gettman. He’d see Olson stay after practice to work on extra drills with his dad, then the Cascade Christian defensive coordinator, and hit the weight room at night after working out with the team in the morning.

“From day one, you could see even as a freshman he was not going to get outworked,” Gettman said. “I remember talking to my dad after his freshman year and just saying if there’s ever a kid that’s going to play college ball, he’s the kid to do it just because his work ethic was better than anyone in the program. He just played with passion and was smart.”

***

One question Olson has a hard time answering is how he’d describe himself as a linebacker.

He refrains from doing so, not wanting to boast about himself, so he breaks down the type of linebacker he aspires to be while playing for Hauck and defensive coordinator Kent Baer.

“The thing that coach Baer really wants a linebacker to embody is to be as physical as you can be,” Olson said. “A word that he uses a lot is relentless.

“You always make mistakes and mess up on a play, and how do you overcome that? Do you give in and kind of lay down, or do you make up for it during the play with effort to still make the play? It really comes down to that for me. It’s all about effort and doing your job and doing whatever I can to help the team win.”

What matters is how NFL scouts would describe Olson. They’ve made stops at the school throughout the year to check out potentially the first Grizzly to be drafted since 2015. That player, oddly enough, was Holmes, who mentored Olson when he came to Missoula.

Olson doesn’t focus on that opportunity too much with his senior season still ongoing. Gettman, though, swells with pride talking about how far Olson has come, becoming just the second player from Cascade Christian, which opened in 1977, to play Div. I football and now sitting on the doorstep of the NFL.

“He’s blazing a trail for us,” Gettman said. “I don’t think there’s any guy more deserving of the recognition. I can’t take any credit for anything that he’s done. I think he changed the program more than we changed him. You hope he stays humble and takes it in stride and doesn’t let the pressure get to him and that he just keeps playing and enjoys it.”

As the playoffs and professional football beckon, Olson still relies on the mindset he refined in high school when he was an undersized freshman challenged to earn an opportunity.

“It’s the same mindset each week it has been since I got here, since high school: study film hard, practice hard, work out hard and play hard,” Olson said. “Just do everything I can to help the team win because it’s about the team.”

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Frank Gogola covers Griz football and prep sports for the Missoulian. Follow him on Twitter @FrankGogola or email him at frank.gogola@missoulian.com.

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