While he was only 4 years old at the time, Conner Olson continues to go back to the influence he felt during a visit to the “Body Worlds” traveling exhibit at the Science Museum of Minnesota nearly 20 year ago.
“It was something that did leave a mark with me; it was fascinating seeing that,” Olson said this month. “Did I really understand it back then? No. But as I’ve grown up, I’ve realized we are all that. It’s the human body, and the complex machinery that it is.”
A few years later, it was a physical mark left under his eye brow that became, in an unexpected way, another pull he felt toward exploring anatomy.
“It is more embarrassing than anything,” Olson began. “Well, OK, it was a PVC pipe that ‘happened’ to hit me in the face.”
Olson’s “complex machinery” had sprung a leak, but thankfully his father, Dr. Tim Olson, was there to stop his face from “bleeding pretty profusely” with stitches that saved the family a trip to the emergency room.
These two childhood anecdotes set up Olson’s path to studying medicine at the University of Minnesota. He received an undergraduate degree in human physiology, is working on a masters in public health and is in the process of applying to medical schools across the country.
Along the way, Olson has started all 51 football games the Gophers have played since the start of the 2017 season. That’s also every game P.J. Fleck has coached at Minnesota.
“It makes me feel old,” Olson, 23, joked.
Olson’s 52nd start — expected to come Saturday afternoon against Maryland at Huntington Bank Stadium — will set a new Gophers career record, eclipsing long snapper Payton Jordahl’s 51 from 2015-18 and quarterback Adam Weber’s 50 from 2007-10.
“His legacy here is he is the complete example of what a student-athlete should be,” Fleck said. “(He) takes his academics incredibly serious. He has used every resource at the University, in the community, in the Twin Cities area for his growth and (has taken it) to his advantage. He has done it with a rigorous academic schedule to be a doctor, but also fulfill a dream of his playing Big Ten football and to play as long as he can.”
Olson’s achievement is even more impressive because he’s an offensive lineman in close combat against defensive linemen on 3,439 career plays.
“There is some toughness there that is phenomenal,” Gophers offensive line coach Brian Callahan said. “He’s historically, through the years, not had to miss. To play at this level and have the success that we’ve had in the past, and hope to continue to have, that is pretty impressive that you can physically do it and secondly mentally do it.”
Olson is battling an ankle injury but it’s not expected to sideline him Saturday. The NCAA lifted eligibility rules due to the pandemic in 2020, paving the way for Olson, fellow offensive lineman Sam Schlueter and six other Gophers players to come back for their sixth or seventh seasons.
For Olson, another go-round required some added exceptions to be away from the team at times to study and take the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) during spring practices last year. Fleck said he “wouldn’t call it a negotiation,” but they had to iron out an understanding on Olson’s packed schedule.
Olson scored a 518 on the MCAT, which placed him in the 97th percentile. When Fleck brought up Olson’s achievement after a spring practice in April, teammates went wild. He has since applied to more than 25 medical schools, and the U of M is one of his top choices. This fall, he’s been given some leeway to focus on the lengthy and taxing interview process, which can sometimes stretch more than three hours per session.
Olson said he doesn’t know what specialty he wants to pursue just yet. “Something in surgery would be super interesting,” he said. “I also know that a lot of people pivot when they get to med school, so I don’t want to say that prematurely.”
Sports medicine is intriguing, too, but that has been a part of Olson’s life for more than 15 years, so he’s tempted to move on. “But at the same time,” he admitted, “adrenaline is a big part of it.”
Olson is not ready to give up football just yet. Fleck said Olson understands the difference between a job and a career: a shot at the NFL could be a short-term stint, while medicine could wait a bit with it being his plan as a long-term vocation. Olson said he will know more in December whether he will pursue the NFL or go straight to med school without seeking a deferment.
Olson’s father, Tim, is a native Minnesotan, a U of M medical school graduate (1991) and is a practicing obstetrician in OB-GYN at North Memorial in Robbinsdale.
Olson’s mother, Isabelle Schallreuter Olson grew up in East Germany. Isabelle said in 1976 she was 7 years old when she and her parents got in the trunk of a car and tried to escape to West Germany through Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin but were caught. She was taken to an orphanage, while her parents went to a political prison for nearly two years.
One of the reasons the Schallreuters were fleeing East Germany was the totalitarian regime wanted Isabelle to enroll in a sports school to become an Olympic swimmer. But the family refused, with Isabelle saying she would have been given steroids at the school.
“When I was in the orphanage, they continued to try to convince me to enter sports school,” Isabelle said. “I don’t have memory of this, but it’s from the (Stasi secret-police) file. I said, no, I wanted to stay with my original family and had no interest in going to the sport school. I was obstinate and kept in a cellar.”
Amnesty International intervened and brought the Schallreuters to West Germany, where Isabelle’s mother, Karin, went to medical school and became a dermatologist. Isabella’s parents divorced, and Karin met John Wood, the first director of the university’s Gray Freshwater Biological Institute and a tenured professor at Minnesota's biochemistry department.
At age 17, Isabelle came to Minnesota when her mother got a position at Hennepin County Medical Center. Karin went on to become a famous researcher finding the cure for Virtiligo, a skin disease that causes white patches to appear on skin.
Isabelle went to St. Olaf, Hamline law school and got a PhD at Minnesota in developmental and child psychology. She is working in custody evaluations/child advocacy and says her personal experiences as a child has helped her work. She is writing a book about her experiences in Germany.
Conner, his older brother Birk and younger sister Anna grew up on a 50-acre homestead in Monticello. With their parents’ work, they had inherit advantages, including an agreement that if they focused intently on school and sports, they didn’t have to take on a part-time job.
“That isn’t a choice many families can make,” Isabelle said. “I think (the children) were pretty grateful.”
Isabelle tried to instill a do-it-yourself approach in her three children, including handling a lot of hay for their horses and clearing downed trees into the pastures with a chainsaw.
“There is no greater joy than taking them apart,” Isabelle said. Conner added, “It involved a lot of hauling trees.”
“It makes you work hard,” Conner said about his childhood. “I’d be doing a disservice to my father if he didn’t instill those values in me, too. My mother was a lawyer by trade but a lumberjack by hobby. That rubs off on you in certain ways.”
Conner and Birk, who played linebacker at Princeton, were still losing to their mother in arm-wresting into their sophomore and junior years of high school.
Birk is a second-year med student at Rutgers. Anna is a sophomore at Vermont, where she is considering med school and was named to the preseason all-American East Conference basketball team this week.
“It’s a bit of a conveyor belt (of doctors) in the Olsons at this point,” Conner said.
Conner was recruited by former Gophers head coach Jerry Kill, signed as member of Tracy Claey’s one class at Minnesota in 2016 and redshirted his first year with Claeys. He has been with Fleck ever since.
“All great people, all people who have given me the opportunity to keep playing the game,” Olson said.
Offensive line play was “Ancient Greek” to him as a freshman, but it has become “plain English” now. Olson’s smarts and savvy have allowed him to move around. He has started 21 games at left guard, including the previous six this season, 15 games at center and 14 at right guard. If they needed him in a pinch, he could play tackle, too.
“He is super intelligent,” Callahan said. “… Sometimes it’s challenging for me because we evolve constantly as an offense, but our bones are the same. So, it’s how do I present stuff to him that keeps challenging him and keeps making him interested?”
Conner’s dad, Tim, has challenged him, too. If things don’t go well in a game and it’s clear where the issues lie on the field, Tim will say something like, “What the hell is going on with this guy or this position group?”
“He will not engage,” Tim said of Conner. “He will not say anything critical about his teammates or his team. Nothing. It’s always something that I’ve observed.”
Gophers defensive end Boye Mafe will try to get in Conner’s head, just messing around as teammates, during one-on-one drills or first-team work over the seasons. “He has that grit to him,” Mafe said.
While Olson is the most experienced offensive player, Gophers cornerback Coney Durr leads the defense with 48 total games, including 36 starts. Durr said Olson’s longevity is a commitment to taking care of your body in the training room. “As an older guy, you definitely have to do that,” Durr said.
Olson came back for another season, in part, to do it with Schlueter and roommates Ko Kieft and Calvin Swenson. Schlueter said they will be lifelong friends and those bonds have grown deeper with trips to cabins. “I think it means a lot to the team and it shows our commitment and what we want to do this year,” Schlueter said.
Quarterback Tanner Morgan, who has 35 games and 32 starts under his belt, appreciates the protection Olson has provided. Olson is Minnesota’s top-rated pass blocker this season and has allowed only two hurries and no sacks in 151 pass-blocking sets this season, according to Pro Football Focus.
“I’m grateful to be able to call him a friend and a be able to call him a teammate,” Morgan said. “Being on the field with him is a really joy and a pleasure.”