Uso Olive walked into the War Room at the Rochelle Athletics Center with a smile as wide as his 6-foot-1, 305-pound frame.
He had just finished his first practice of fall camp as a true freshman for the University of Wyoming football team. Earlier on that Monday, he had passed his physical conditioning test. Then his first college practice was about 2½ hours.
Olive thought college football would be easy since the only position he was going to play was defensive tackle. He worked both sides of the ball in high school in Federal Way, Wash.
“It was a rude awakening,” he said with a laugh when asked about his first day of camp.
But that pales in comparison to what Olive has been though before coming to UW. In fact, it is amazing he is even here.
On Feb. 4, 2011, Olive’s mother, AnnaMaria, died from complications after her fifth surgery for heart valve replacement. Olive was 7, 9, 11 and 13 years old when his mom had her previous four surgeries. He was 17 when she died.
“I’m a momma’s boy,” said Olive, who has that tattooed on his left arm.
AnnaMaria went on life support before she died, and the doctors asked her son to pull the plug when it was decided there was no hope for her recovery.
Olive said she lived five days after he followed their advice.
“That broke my heart when they asked me to do that,” he said. “She’s a fighter, and that’s her in me.”
It gives you a good idea of how tough this kid is.
“Her leaving was hard, but I woke up the next day and went to school,” he said. “I went with a smile, and it was just forward progress from there.
“People thought when she passed away I would fall off the Earth. But it actually gave me more purpose in life.
“I know that’s sad to say that my mom had to lose her life for me to turn around my life. But when there’s grief, there’s also greatness.”
After his mom died, Olive was on his own. His father was not in the picture, and he never had a male figure at home. There were some other family around, and his high school football coach — John Meagher — was a strong influence. In fact, you can say he was Olive’s mentor.
Still, the then-17-year-old had a lot of responsibility on his broad shoulders.
“He was a young man (who turned 18 on March 16), cooking his own meals, taking care of his bills, doing everything a kid that age shouldn’t have to do,” said UW assistant head coach Pete Kaligis. He is the man who recruited Olive.
“Normally in that situation you can go left or you can go right. He chose the right side of the fence.”
Football was an escape. Olive was ranked by ESPN as the 12th-best recruit in Washington as a senior. He was an all-state selection in the state’s largest high school classification, and he also was selected as a team captain as a senior.
In his career, Olive had 186 tackles, 25 sacks and 30 tackles for loss.
Olive said he had scholarship offers from Idaho and Nevada, but before his visit to UW, he had verbally committed to Football Championship Subdivision member Portland State.
But on his visit to Laramie, Olive found something he never saw at the other schools, something he was badly in need of: family.
“It was the coaching staff and the family orientation,” Olive said. “That’s why I love it here. This is my new family. These guys already look out for me.”
Olive said Kaligis was the biggest factor in him coming to UW. He liked how he and the coach connected on a personal level and how Kaligis cared about him and everything he had been though.
He also credits Kaligis for making sure he didn’t give up on UW this past summer.
Olive was on campus for about three weeks — with a lot of his true freshmen teammates — working out and taking summer school classes.
“I almost asked (head coach Dave Christensen) to pull my scholarship papers because I couldn’t live out here,” said Olive, who admitted he had never heard of UW prior to his recruitment.
“I was homesick. I wasn’t feeling it. We were taking three-hour classes and not doing anything with football.
“But with Kaligis, we have that connection. He’s the person why I stayed here.”
Olive now says he likes it here. So much so that in the corner his mom’s gravestone is a small logo of UW’s bucking horse, Steamboat.
Kaligis isn’t the only one in Olive’s corner.
“Now the next four or five years he has a family,” Kaligis said. “He has a coaching staff, the players, the training staff, the academic staff, professors on campus and meals prepared for him.
“He can go to school, play football and not worry about paying rent, cooking his own dinner, making breakfast and all that. I’d take it for all these guys here, for what they do and the sacrifices they make. In order to be great, you have to make a lot of sacrifices.”
It’s safe to say Olive has made a lot of sacrifices.
Olive has a chance to play this season. He is UW’s biggest interior defensive lineman in terms of weight, in a line that needs more depth.
But whether he plays sooner or later, Olive plans to make the most of his opportunity here.
“I’m going to give it my best because they gave me a scholarship,” he said “I’m not going to put it to waste.
“There are a lot of kids out there that wish they could be in any of our positions. I will take that out to the field and work hard, be coachable, respectful and disciplined.”
When asked if he thought his mom would be smiling if she could see him right now, Olive said: “I bet she is. Actually, I don’t bet she is. I know she is.”
You can also bet that if things get tough for Olive, he will persevere.
And do it with a big, infectious smile.
Robert Gagliardi is the senior editor of WyoSports. Call him at 633-3130 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more on Wyoming and Mountain West sports see his blog at www.wyomingcowboysblog.com, and follow him on Twitter: @rpgagliardi and @wyosports.