Greg Olsen vividly remembers the first time he saw Kara, now his wife.
She was 17, he was 18, and they were both freshman at the University of Miami, when Kara walked into the dorm cafeteria with friends.
“She had short shorts on,” recalls the Carolina Panthers Pro-Bowl tight end. “They said ‘CANES’ across the butt. …I remember them. I remember you in them,” he says, turning to Kara, who lounges, relaxed, on the plush, off-white sectional couch in their SouthPark living room.
Kara laughs. She doesn’t remember that day at all.
“I made a lasting impression, huh?” Greg asks her, grinning. “I thought she was always going to wear those shorts. This is not what I signed up for.”
There’s a lot of back and forth between these two, now both 32. They finish each other’s sentences and clearly enjoy just being together. Simply put, they’re adorable and easily one of the city’s most beloved couples. No matter how the Carolina Panthers are faring—whether they’re wading through crippling injuries or making a deep playoff run—few players and their families maintain the kind of community cachet that Greg, Kara and their three children (Tate, 6, and twins, Talbot and T.J., 5) have.
And in the fast-paced world of sports, of press conferences and screaming fans, it’s refreshing to see a couple that not only has stuck together for 15 years, but one that’s not addicted to the spotlight, a couple that is most at home when they’re out of the fray—be they corralling their hoops-loving kids for basketball practice or playing with their golden lab and German shepherd in the backyard.
But that’s not the narrative they tell.
“We’re kind of boring,” Kara says. “I don’t know how exciting our love story is.”
PF Chang’s and ‘Mean Girls’
Their love story actually started as a friendship. Greg, a native of Wayne, N.J., was on a football scholarship to the University of Miami, and Kara, an Orlando native and a fellow UM student, was a budding real estate agent. The two would hang out with friends in Kara’s dorm room, watching “The Bachelor” and MTV’s “Newlyweds.”
They were just friends—best friends—until one night near the end of their freshman year when Kara went on a date with someone else.
“I remember he sat outside the dorms and watched as I left and asked me what time I was going to be back,” says Kara. “He was jealous!”
Not long after that, they went on their first date. Dinner and a movie: PF Chang’s and “Mean Girls.”
“Early in the week, I would get my scholarship check, so we could go on nice dates,” says Greg. “But by the end of week, it was Wendy’s or McDonald’s dollar menu.”
Neither dated anyone else after that, and they married in 2009. Kara was just 23, and Greg was 24.
“I look back and I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh, we were so young,’” Kara says.
“It’s kind of cool that we grew up into adulthood together,” says Greg.
Together, they navigated the move when Greg was drafted in the first round by the Chicago Bears in 2007, and again, in 2011, when he was traded to Carolina Panthers.
Their first child, Tate, was just an infant when they arrived in the Queen City.
“I’d been driving for two days with his mom, the dog, and Tate,” says Kara. “We pull up to the rental house, and Greg tells me to get ready, that we’re going to dinner with one of his teammates and his wife and child.”
That teammate was Ryan Kalil, a fellow Pro-Bowler. The couples are still close to this day. Their kids all go to the same school and the families even vacation together.
‘It kind of tests you’
The Olsens weren’t in Charlotte long when Kara’s second pregnancy made national news: the couple learned one of the twins Kara was carrying had a rare and potentially life-threatening congenital heart defect. T.J. needed three heart surgeries. T.J. was born with Hypoplastic Left Heart Syndrome, meaning his left ventricle was underdeveloped and couldn’t pump enough blood. He needed three open-heart surgeries—the first when he was just two days old.
T.J. spent the first 36 days of his life in the hospital. The Olsens became regulars at Levine Children’s Hospital.
“We had our moments in the midst of all that chaos, where it kind of tests you,” says Greg. “But I think because we had a pretty solid foundation and we knew so much about each other that it helped us prepare to go through all of that together.”
The roller coaster medical journey with T.J.—who is now a healthy, rambunctious 5-year-old with a mop of blond hair—prompted his parents to start their own foundation, The Heartest Yard, to help families facing similar circumstances. The nonprofit provides in-home health care for those families.
And last fall, the couple expanded their efforts, donating their own money and teaming with Levine Children’s Hospital to launch a one-stop-shop medical facility for kids with heart problems. The two run the Heartest Yard foundation themselves. Greg answers every email.
His work with the foundation has made him a finalist for the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award for the second year in a row. The award is given out the night before the Super Bowl each year to the player who has the biggest impact in their community.
Greg says he can do it all because Kara keeps the house and the family running.
“She cooks, she’s a great mom, she’s always taking care of the kids,” says Greg. “She’s in the backyard with the dog. She never sits, never naps, never even watches TV. I don’t know how she does it.”
Greg does the dishes and takes out the trash, and Kara says her husband has also been a hands-on dad from the beginning, when he would change diapers and push the stroller.
“I’ve always been a stroller guy,” he says. “I love pushing them. I even love buying new strollers—I must have had 10 strollers between the three kids.”
Yoga and carpool
The Olsen’s 7,000-square-foot custom Kingswood home was built with the children (and Greg’s 6-foot-5-inch stature) in mind. The horseshoe-shaped Craftsman- style house has vaulted ceilings, walls of windows, and the open feel of a ranch. The master bedroom and children’s bedrooms are all on the ground floor. An interior courtyard faces a pool and hot tub out back—icy prospects in January that a grinning Tate loves to pretend he’s going to dive into.
When he’s not practicing, you’ll often find Greg driving carpool and coaching his sons’ baseball teams. But his favorite sight is seeing the kids on the field before every Panthers game.
“One of my favorite parts of every game day is running out, knowing they’re going to be there, seeing them, and taking pictures with them,” he says.
It’s something he’s wanted for a long time, Kara says. They discussed it even before they were engaged: “I remember Greg always saying, ‘I hope one day I have kids that can watch me play and that I can play long enough that they can appreciate it.’”
As for the kids—well, they appreciate it, but they don’t necessarily get it. At a recent parent-teacher conference, the Olsens learned what 5-year-old twins T.J. and Talbot think their dad does most days:
“They said, ‘My daddy likes to sit on the couch,’” says Greg. “Which isn’t wrong, but it’s not all I do.”
After all, in the off-season he also goes to yoga with his wife. “I don’t mind being with a bunch of chicks,” says Greg. “I’m around boys non-stop. I’m totally cool having a break from dudes.” And he says he loves the quality time with Kara.
“Greg and I have always found a good balance,” she says. “In his moments of weakness, I try to step in. In my moments of weakness, he’s always done a good job of stepping in. When we see older couples we joke about what we’ll do once the kids are out of the house and we both retire from whatever we do after football. We want to travel. We like to eat. We have a long bucket list of things we want to do together.”
Greg adds: “We are very lucky. But there’s no perfect story. This is not a movie.”
Maybe not, but it is a pretty great love story.
Joseph Bradley Photography
Wardrobe styling by Stacee Michelle
Hair and makeup by Adrienne McCann
Photo assistance by Summer ODell