A Chat with the 88s
By Bobby Markos
Through his career in the spotlight, Dale Earnhardt Jr. has had the opportunity to associate with other professional athletes across a multitude of disciplines. While he pursued auto racing from an early age, his journey to the top stage mirrors the path many athletes traveled in their own respective sports. The pressures felt by young prospects is a relatable topic amongst professionals and usually leads to enlightening and insightful conversations that may better the sports world for future generations.
On this week’s episode of The Dale Jr. Download, Dale and co-host Mike Davis kick off a new partnership with Ally Financial by welcoming three-time Pro Bowl tight end Greg Olsen to the Bojangles Studio. The new alliance is set to feature a variety of guests that are connected to Dale that showcase “how everyone is better off with an ally”. Dale and Olsen met years ago through charity work and have since formed a friendship, although from vastly different backgrounds. The two created “Weekend with the 88s”, a charitable cause named after both of their professional numbers.
The conversation ventures back to Greg’s childhood, where he grew up in Wayne, New Jersey. Greg explained that he was always around football due to his father Chris being a coach. Although he never thought to pursue the path of professional play, Greg displayed natural athletic ability and hard working mentality and began receiving scholarship offers early in his high school career. In his senior year, he was a finalist for the Gatorade Player of the Year and was recognized as a first-team All-American. Greg recalled scouts from University of Miami and Notre Dame paying close attention to his high school career, even attending some of his games and calling him at home.
Greg detailed for Th Download listeners what it was like for a young prospect in the early 2000s, explaining that recruitment was based completely off high school play, while today’s world is hinged on showcase events that feature special scrimmages. He would go on to sign a letter of intent with Notre Dame, but after completing summer training camp and freshman orientation decided to make the switch to Miami, revealing that he felt the city was much more aligned with his style and that he couldn’t see himself lasting four years in Indiana. His late decision to transfer caused him to miss the first game of the season, and as a result he spent his first year on the scout team.
The life of a college footballer was described as being a year-round commitment, as Greg detailed his years as a Miami Hurricane. After classes for the semester concluded, team members would stay to train for post-season bowl games. While he was eligible to declare for the draft after his sophomore year, Olsen elected to play a third year with the Hurricanes before attending the NFL Scouting Combine. Greg provided an in depth depiction of what the showcase was like, comparing it to “speed dating” as draftees meet with representatives from professional teams in a rapid fashion during an interviewing process. This goes on for several days before players ever set foot on the field. Greg clarified that teams want to see how prospects hold up not only physically, but to the mental strain that comes with being a professional athlete.
On Draft Day, Greg disclosed that he feared he would fall out of the first round before the Chicago Bears selected him as the 31st pick. After being passed over by several teams he felt he had solid connections with at the combine, Greg said he waited for nearly six hours before Chicago called. A few days later, Olsen was on his way to the Windy City for a welcome press conference and rookie mini-camp. The rookies got used to a heightened level of scrutiny immediately, as scores of spectators attended every practice game.
Olsen also gave listeners a good idea of what life is like in an NFL locker room, and what factors are important to team environments and culture. He explained that one of the most important parts of a team’s success is keeping the locker room positive, and often players who were solid but had toxic tendencies were cut in favor of lesser players with better attitudes. After four seasons with the Bears, he was traded to the Carolina Panthers, where he would ascend to be one of the best tight ends in the league. From 2014 to '16, he was elected to the Pro Bowl three consecutive times. He spoke highly of his time with Cam Newton, as the duo led the Panthers to the Super Bowl in 2015. Olsen would remain with the team until after the 2020 season, when he was released and went on to sign with the Seattle Seahawks.
Being a veteran of 14 seasons, Olsen felt that he had a handle on an effective way of playing tight end, but explained that the coaching staff of the Seahawks attempted to micromanage him, and his techniques, in a way the veteran felt was unnecessary. This factor, combined with a number of injuries helped Olsen realize he was ready to retire from professional play. He would go on to begin working with Fox Sports as full-time broadcaster in 2021.
Today, Greg plays a big role in his children’s lives, who all actively play sports. In June of 2021, his son TJ received a heart transplant due to a rare congenital condition. The Olsen family was very transparent about TJ’s journey and documented to help give hope to others who are dealing with a similar affliction. Greg also began hosting the Emmy nominated Youth Inc podcast, which features interviews dealing with navigating the world of youth sports.
During the episode’s opening segment, Dale and Mike discuss the recent announcement of racing returning to North Wilkesboro Speedway, featuring a series of asphalt races in August followed up by dirt racing in October. Dale expressed his interest in running a Late Model Stock event at the famed oval, which hasn’t hosted racing since 2011. Listeners also sent in questions about Dale’s upcoming Fox Sports appearance at Talladega, wild observations from the Talladega infield and the time Dale drove a Petty 43 at the Nashville Fairgrounds. You can hear all of this and more on this week’s episode of The Dale Jr. Download - available on this website and all major podcast platforms.