EAGAN, Minn. – Matt Olson has always loved being outdoors.
The 23-year-old native of Isanti, Minnesota, enjoys hunting and outdoor hockey rinks and wooded trails. He's nearing a degree in environmental science, his eyes set on a career in the elements — and away from a desk.
But these days, getting around outside – specifically in the ups and downs of Minnesota weather – is incredibly challenging.
Six years ago, Olson's life changed forever while playing in a junior hockey game in Chicago. The former defenseman crashed into the boards face-first, leaving him paralyzed from the chest down.
Olson lost movement in his legs – and in a majority of his upper body – that day, but he didn't lose his spirit.
"My family has been a big support through everything. That's been really important to me," Olson said. "And growing up playing sports, especially hockey, learning the life lessons of the ups and downs of playing sports, it's really helped me through my whole situation.
"I just try to keep a positive attitude with everything and keep moving forward," he added.
That positive attitude has impacted Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins, who first met Olson at a team walk-through session in 2019.
Cousins and Olson bonded that day over their shared faith, love of athletics and competition, and Midwest roots.
"I noticed right away how down-to-earth he is," Olson said of the QB. "He's just like everyone else, and he doesn't let his job status or what he is as an NFL player get in the way of how nice he is. I love watching him play."
When Cousins heard that typical wheelchairs like Olson's can be extremely limited by terrain, he was moved to make a difference.
Cousins invited Olson back to Twin Cities Orthopedics Performance Center for the Vikings Saturday-morning walk-through last weekend. Olson was introduced by Head Coach Kevin O'Connell, greeted warmly by the team and given the honors of breaking down the post-practice huddle.
But Cousins had much more in mind.
View photos as Vikings QB Kirk Cousins surprises Matt Olson with a brand-new, all-terrain Action Trackchair.
After Olson finished snapping photos with players, Cousins motioned for him to follow the quarterback toward the end of the Indoor Practice Facility. There, he pulled away a white photo backdrop to reveal a brand-new, all-terrain Action Trackchair.
Olson smiled in disbelief at the specially designed chair painted in Vikings purple and gold. Not to mention, a Cousins autograph on the seatback.
"I was just expecting to come out and watch practice a bit, maybe meet a couple of the guys again, but nothing like this," Olson said. "I was absolutely shocked. I had no idea whatsoever. It was just crazy to see that – when he pulled it back and I saw a chair there.
"A few weeks ago, I went down and saw how they make these chairs and everything, and I always thought that was, you know, a long-time-down-the-pipeline dream," Olson added. "But seeing that was just pure shock and joy."
It's possible Cousins' smile was even bigger than Olson's.
"You see [these injuries happen], and you understand how much it can impact life moving forward, and Matt has so much life ahead of him," Cousins said. "When we heard [about his] passion for the outdoors, and the wheelchair can limit that, but that there is an answer and there's equipment that can allow you to be outside and be active and get over different terrain – especially in our climate here in Minnesota – it just seemed like a no-brainer to help him. And not put a ceiling on what he could do and maybe the career he could pursue."
Logan Stelter, lead welder and fabricator at Action Manufacturing, was on-site to witness the surprise and show Olson the ropes of his new chair.
"First off, it starts with everybody down in the back of the shop – it starts with the laser, goes through the bender, goes through the fabrication team – the painting, the assembly – to get this awesome piece of equipment out to someone [with a disability] like Matt's, Stelter said. "It's going to enable him to go anywhere he wants to – sand, sleet, snow, rain, mud – anything. That chair can handle it. And for his outdoorsy background, it's going to help him a lot."
Olson has managed to go bow hunting during deer season the past few years, he noted, but hasn't been able to make it very far off-road. With this new wheelchair, he'll be able to accompany the rest of his hunting party through the woods.
"Then down the line when I have a job, environmental science related, [I'll be able to get] out in the field — able to be out there to do what I really want to do," Olson said.
Cousins plans to stay in contact with Olson and his family, and he continues to be inspired by their story.
"Perspective is so important, and seeing somebody like Matt gives you perspective. It allows you to be very grateful for what you have and what God's given you," he said. "You know, he and his family have a very gracious, humble perspective, and I think that's contagious. I think they're representative of a consistency I see when I'm around people here in the state of Minnesota. People are hardworking and humble, and they just want to be good people and do things the right way.
"It's truly more blessed to give than to receive, so it's fun to hopefully bless him, his family and his future," Cousins said. "It's one of those gifts that keeps on giving, that he can enjoy for a long time, hopefully. Down the road, I'm not sure what challenges he'll face, but we'd love to be there for him and help him when they come."