Toughest Carolina Panther? 15-month-old T.J. Olsen

CHARLOTTE – There is no disputing whom the tough guy is in Carolina Panthers tight end Greg Olsen's household.

That title belongs to his 15-month-old son, T.J., the heart-and-soul motivation fueling his father's career-best, 73-reception season for a team-high 816 yards and six touchdowns.

Olsen's youngest son's heart has an underdeveloped left ventricle and aorta. T.J. has undergone two open-heart surgeries to repair a rare condition known as hypoplastic left heart syndrome. His father says he draws inspiration from his son, driving Greg Olsen as he has now played in 110 consecutive games, the second-longest streak among active NFL tight ends.

"Without a doubt T.J.'s toughest in our family,'' Olsen told USA TODAY Sports on Friday. "T.J. got off to a tough start, had his struggles. Then, since his second operation in June, he's really flourished.''

On Sunday, the Panthers meet the San Francisco 49ers in an NFC divisional-round showdown. T.J. enjoys the games, Olsen said, even if he is not yet old enough to comprehend what his dad will be doing in his first playoff game since a 21-14, 2010 NFC Championship game loss to the Green Bay Packers as a member of the Chicago Bears.

But it won't be long. "My older son Tate is 2 ½ and he's all about it,'' Olsen said.

"T.J. actually has been able to come to a few games this year. And he just loves the atmosphere. I don't think he quite processes it yet. But he will one day.''

It was hard for Olsen and wife, Kara, to process the news that their newborn wouldn't be able to go home with twin sister, Talbot, following their birth in October 2012.

T.J.'s initials stand for Trent Jerry, his middle name in honor of Panthers owner Jerry Richardson, who flew the Olsens on his private jet to Boston to consult with experts following his diagnosis. Richardson underwent 2009 heart transplant surgery at the same hospital that treated Olsen's son and where Denver Broncos coach John Fox went this past season.

"We gave T.J. the middle name 'Jerry' because of the way Mr. Richardson helped us when he had no obligation,'' Olsen said. "My wife's grandmother who passed was named Jerry, too.

"We just felt too many stars align not to.''

Richardson waited those tense hours with the Olsens at The Carolinas HealthCare System's Levine Children's Hospital in Charlotte during T.J.'s surgery performed by Dr. Benjamin Peeler, chief of pediatric cardiac surgery.

"Jerry was there the whole time in the waiting room when I came to see Greg and Kara after T.J.'s surgery,'' Peeler told USA TODAY Sports.

"T.J. is doing very well. All the home nursing care for T.J. was really critical his first six months.''

Until recent developments, a mortality rate of 10-15%' existed for children with this condition between their first and second surgeries.

Olsen felt compelled by his platform as a player to approach Peeler about establishing "The HEARTest Yard Fund'' to support other families who have dealt with similar heart conditions.

"Greg and Kara and family have already raised a half a million dollars in pledges for their program,'' Peeler said. "Greg is a pretty amazing dude. He has got a ton of energy and a live brain. It not only has a lot to do with his level of play. He's extremely passionate about his program.''

Linebacker Luke Kuechly was stunned to learn what Olsen kept inside.

"When Greg was going through everything with his little one, he was here every day and you didn't even know,'' Kuechly said. "He's had a great year. He and Kara are great people.''

Hall of Fame quarterback Troy Aikman says Olsen's presence is critical to Carolina's chances Sunday, especially with receiver Steve Smith questionable with a sprained knee.

Olsen arrived in a July, 2011 trade.

"Greg played well with Chicago,'' the Fox analyst said. "But he's really found a home in Carolina.''

T.J. faces another surgery, hopefully the last one, at age 3.

"We've heard from a lot of families,'' Olsen said. "One family received the diagnosis and were contemplating not going through with having the baby. Then, they saw a story about us and realized they weren't the only ones. They ended up having the baby. He's in that three-stage surgery process -- doing well.

"That's the reason we shared our story, to show, 'This is an issue. But there are resources. You're not going through it alone.'''

Olsen looked away before adding, "Because sometimes that's how it feels.''

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