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A father’s journey

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Former Forest City resident remains hopeful for son’s full recovery

Craig Olson saw the time that his mother had called on that fateful September night and knew something wasn’t right.

It wasn’t. His son, Tyler, had suffered a spinal cord injury on the first play of a game between Lake Mills and Forest City. The date was Sept. 5. The time of the phone call was 8 p.m. And life had forever changed.

Craig Olson is a 1978 Forest City High School graduate who now lives in Omaha. His son, Tyler, is a junior at Lake Mills High School.

“Because I live so far away, I usually try to go to a game a year,” he said, “but being from Forest City, I really didn’t want to attend that one, just with the rivalry and all that. It’s hard being so far away, and the game I go to I want to just focus it all on Ty, you know?”

So Craig did some work around the house, knowing he would get an update from his mother and brother, who still live in Forest City and attend a host of Tyler’s games.

“My mom would always call me at the same time – 9:30 to 10,” Craig said. “She wasn’t one of those people who called and said, ‘Ty, just made a great play’ or something like that. She’s not one of those constantly updating types.”

When he saw he had a message and he saw the time, Craig Olson immediately dialed Ellen Olson’s number in Forest City.

“The first thing I said to my mom was, ‘How bad is he and where are they taking him?’” he said. “I knew that was the only reason she’d call me during the game.”

In the week following the injury, Craig Olson wrote a heartfelt thank you to the people of Forest City for rallying around his son and his family.

“I do not know the path of Tyler’s recovery but I am prepared for the journey. I know I am. I’m from Forest City,” he wrote.

And a journey it has become, one that started as soon as he talked to his mother on the night of Sept. 5.

“My wife, Debby, said right away, ‘Someone needs to go with you,’” he said. In a matter of minutes, Olson and his best friend from Omaha were packing up the car and preparing to make the drive to Mason City, where Tyler was first taken after he was injured.

On the way to Mason City, Craig Olson learned his son had been transported to St. Marys Hospital in Rochester, Minn., where Tyler was undergoing surgery.

“I’m not going to lie to you, when you’re in a car like that and you hear they’re going to Rochester, it’s hard not to think about the worst-case scenarios,” he said.

Olson recalled the days of his youth, when a Forest City football player named Mark Willis was paralyzed because of a football injury. “I was pretty young, but Mark Willis did run through my mind a lot that night.”

Olson arrived in Rochester before his son got out of surgery. And he knew that Rochester wasn’t the end of the journey, rather it was the beginning.

Craig Olson and Medara Winter divorced when Tyler was young, and while the son lives with the mother, his father says the two have remained close even though Omaha and Lake Mills are separated by four hours of Iowa farmland.

“I was scared,” he said. “We were getting updates, but no one really knew anything and one thing we’ve learned is that doctors aren’t going to tell you a lot unless they know for sure. And they didn’t. And they still don’t.”

Still, he believes he and his ex-wife have worked hard to put Tyler first on his road to recovery.

“When it’s something like this, you realize we may not agree on everything,” he said, “but Ty comes first. And I think we’ve done that.”

But while Medara Winter has spent much of her time in Rochester since Tyler’s injury, the father has had to overcome challenges to spend as much time with his son as possible in the past couple of months.

Olson is a truck driver by trade, but he has been helped by the fact that his wife runs a company that dispatches trucks all over the country.

So Debby Olson has landed numerous jobs between Omaha and Minneapolis or Wisconsin so that her husband can make it to Rochester as often as possible. The best jobs are the ones that require a pickup on a Friday and a dropoff on Monday.

“If I can pick something up in Minneapolis on a Friday and not have to have it back to Omaha until Monday,” he said, “that’s a perfect haul. I get up there as often as possible.”

Tyler Olson has made remarkable progress, although the high school junior at times battles with a lifelong struggle with patience.

Doctors have said Tyler has an “incomplete” spinal cord injury. As Medara Winter put it, that “means nobody knows.”

A full recovery may be years in the making, but for now, Tyler says he is content with the progress.

So is his father.

“Tyler understand that when he leaves, it may take a year, it may take two years, it may take five years,” Craig Olson said. “Every day is an unknown, but I think what we hang onto is that there are more good days than there are bad days.”

Over the past two months, his father has seen his son shed a neck brace that made sleep difficult, he has seen his son to once again be able to feed himself and he has seen his son’s spirit soar.

“Oh my gosh, they don’t seem like big things,” he said. “It’s a slow process, and maybe because I’m not there every day, I see them more clearly. I keep telling him it’s amazing how far he’s gone since the first time I saw him that night. And you know what? It really is.”

But if there has been a high point so far in this father-and-son journey, at least from the dad’s perspective, it came last week when the high school junior known simply as T.O. was able to return to Lake Mills High School for a few hours.

“He’s not the kind of guy who wanted a big deal made out of it,” Craig Olson said. “He didn’t want an assembly, he just wanted to wander around.”

To see his son’s smile as he made his way to school would have been enough, but there was more.

During his short return to Lake Mills, Tyler went to the elementary school, and the love his son received from young children was almost enough to make a father weep.

“It was kind of like rending onto Caesar,” Craig Olson said. “Just to get a look at how the kids reacted to Ty. I know he probably was half-embarrassed, but he’s understanding that people have such a hope for him and that is something special. When this journey is over, the thing I’m always going to remember is that Tyler has touched so many lives.

“ He has brought the whole area together, and that support has lifted all of us.”

A day at a time means something to Tyler Olson’s father.

Craig Olson admits that he tries to focus his hopes for his son on the short term. He gets it. It’s going to take time.

But, like all those close to Tyler, Craig Olson has dreams for his son.

“My goal for him is to see him walk again, that’s what you hope and pray for,” he said. “And with the right determination and attitude, I have no reason to think that he won’t walk again.”

The phone line went quiet for a moment and one could almost imagine the small smile creeping across Craig Olson’s face.

“And if you know Ty, oh my, he’s one determined kid. I’ve always been proud of him, but to see how he’s handled this and how hard he’s worked, pride doesn’t even begin to tell you how I feel about my son.”

By Bob Fenske – Of The Summit

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