Waunakee senior offensive tackle Nathan Miller made his way through the customary handshake line after the regular-season football victory over Badger North Conference rival DeForest in September.
But this time was different, and ultimately became extremely meaningful when DeForest defensive line coach Mark Olson asked to speak with Miller after the handshakes were completed.
“I wasn’t sure what to think,” said the 6-foot-2, 263-pound Miller, the Badger North Offensive Lineman of the Year for the undefeated Warriors. “I didn’t know if I was in some sort of trouble. But he said, ‘Don’t worry, you’re not in trouble. Can you thank your mom for saving my life and getting me a kidney?’”
Olson, 50, said he first was diagnosed in 1999 that he needed a kidney transplant, which he received in April 2000. After about 15 years that kidney failed, said Olson, needing another while understanding there was a shortage of living and deceased organs, especially kidneys, for transplants. Olson went to four-hour dialysis treatments three days a week for about three years while he waited for a kidney match.
Enter Miller’s mother, Karen Miller, a kidney transplant coordinator at UW Health. She was instrumental in organizing the process and helping Olson, who received a match and had a transplant this past February at UW Hospital. Olson said his wife, Jerie Olson, donated a kidney to the paired kidney exchange program, so he could get his kidney.
Along the way, Karen Miller and Mark Olson developed a kinship over the transplant program and high school football. It began when she said she saw him wearing a DeForest shirt one day in the kidney clinic, asked what he did there, and the next thing you know Olson had pulled out his phone and showed her Hudl football highlights of her son.
Their friendly rivalry has continued, through host Waunakee’s 23-20 comeback victory over DeForest in a WIAA Division 2 second-round playoff game last Friday night.
“I told him before the game, ‘I’ll be looking for you,’ and he said, ‘I’ll understand if you don’t look for me after we win,’” Karen Miller said. “We have a very nice rapport. We hassle each other a little bit (over football). I still would have looked for him (even if Waunakee had lost), because it means more than the game.”
That real-life perspective is a quality DeForest athletic director Mike McHugh appreciates about Olson, who’s worked five years on football coach Mike Minick’s staff.
“He does a real nice job of building relationships with his players,” McHugh said. “After all that he has been through with his own health, he has a bit of a different perspective of what he wants the kids to take away from their high school football experience.”
Said Olson: “High school athletes who are 16, 17, 18 years old, think they are invincible. It is a little dose of reality for them. I’m never afraid to talk about it, if I’m asked. Before this happened, I had no clue kidneys could fail. Education to youth is important.”
Waunakee football coach Pat Rice, preparing to play undefeated Monona Grove this Friday, understands that well.
“When you are talking about that stuff, it puts rivalries to the side,” said Rice, explaining that a member of his family has had two kidney transplants. “It’s a serious situation. … You learn football is not life and death, by any stretch.”
Olson, trying to raise awareness for the kidney exchange program and the work Karen Miller and her colleagues do, encourages others to make such a donation. That also prompted his talk with Nathan Miller after the first DeForest-Waunakee game this season.
“In my eyes, I had no other way to thank her enough,” Olson said. “I thought he should know what his mom does and how important it is.”
“It caught me off-guard,” Nathan Miller said. “It was really good. Waunakee and DeForest are always rivals, so you’re supposed to hate each other. It was good to see them as individuals and see them face-to-face. That is something that is really important.”
He brought the story home to his mom, who never had mentioned her connection to Olson due to health privacy reasons.
“It was a huge surprise,” Karen Miller said. “That was pretty special. He didn’t have to do that. It’s also quite special that he is doing what he wants to do. He, obviously, loves that job.”
Olson, the gray skin tone long gone and the healthy color returned to his face, said he feels great. He works as a pre-need insurance processor, maintains regular exercise and savors coaching football.
“I feel like I’m back to normal, or as close to normal as I can be,” said Olson, the DeForest assistant who gives thanks to his Waunakee connection.