In the state championship against rival Brookwood High during his senior season, Olson destroyed a baseball that flew over the right-field fence, over the batting cages and into the softball field. The ball was spotted at the softball field’s outfield wall, so it is believed to have landed, at the very least, on the softball infield – a home run that traveled an estimated 450-500 feet.
Talk to anyone who knows Olson, and among his many jaw-dropping moments, this one is brought up most often.
To David Reynolds, Brown’s assistant coach at Parkview, this homer is the one “that still hasn’t landed.”
“The Brookwood one is still in orbit,” said Rob Youngblood, one of Olson’s best friends.
“He just cranked it,” said Allen Tokarz, the Brookwood pitcher who served up Olson’s most iconic high school homer.
On his journey to becoming baseball’s home run king, and someone who has set Braves records in only his second season in Atlanta, Olson left people speechless so many times. Few hitters pulverize baseballs like him. And of those can, few play defense as smoothly as Olson, an All-Star first baseman with two Gold Glove Awards.
In two decades as Parkview’s coach, Brown has seen 15 of his former players selected in the Major League Baseball Draft. Not all of them return as Olson, now 29, does. He visits the school at least a couple times every offseason.
In these moments, Brown and others are reminded of Olson’s best quality: Despite his success and newfound stardom, he’s unchanged.
“When he comes back, it’s awesome because he’s just one of us, to be honest with you,” Brown said. “He’s so humble.”
‘THANK YOU Matt Olson’
Upon entering Parkview’s batting cages, a large picture of Olson sits on the wall. It shows him barreling up a baseball. (He’s wearing an Oakland Athletics jersey, as Brown had this put up right before the Braves acquired Olson.) On the same banner with the picture of Olson, there is an appreciative message.
“THANK YOU Matt Olson for years of support to the Parkview Baseball Program!” it reads.
Before the renovation, Parkview’s cages were old. They needed updating. Olson quietly donated money to the program. Now, the space is exquisitely outfitted with updated turf and equipment.
When Olson was in high school, Jeff Francoeur – a Parkview alum and former Braves player who is now an analyst for Braves broadcasts on Bally Sports – always returned to visit the program. It uplifted the high school kids, like Olson, who had so much to learn. Francoeur also helped however he could.
“He bought us new lockers when we were there and we thought it was, like, the coolest thing ever,” Olson said. “KInd of did up the locker room a little bit.”
Nowadays, Olson will return to the school and mingle with the players. Last offseason, the kids lobbed different questions toward Olson – about his thoughts on the pitch clock, the most difficult pitcher he’s ever faced and more. To Olson, this is the least he can do for a program he feels helped him so much.
“I think it’s important to give insight,” said Olson, who was once one of those curious kids. “The best thing you can have is experience and knowledge, and if I can give anything from playing 10 years of pro ball at all, it’s only helpful to those guys.”
Parkview has benefited from Francoeur and Olson. “What you see is what you get out of those two,” Brown said. At Parkview, Brown teaches his players that being a great person, student and teammate is more important than their on-field abilities. You can see this in Olson’s humility, which has provided an example for the school’s current ballplayers.
“More than even baseball,” Brown said, “I think our kids around here have just seen the person Matt is.”
For years, Francoeur was the most prominent Parkview alum, someone who ruled Lilburn. Recently, Olson – who grew up a Braves fan rooting for Chipper Jones, Andruw Jones and others – has also made a name for himself.
In the entryway to Parkview baseball’s locker room, a black “21″ jersey is framed. On the right-center field wall, “21″ sits among the school’s retired numbers. Olson will forever be part of the program’s lore.
And nowadays, Brown said, you’ll see tons of kids wearing Olson jerseys in the area’s elementary schools.
‘At least I can say he’s just a stud’
These days, Tokarz is a firefighter in Forsyth County. And soon after the Braves traded for Olson, the video of Olson’s homer off Tokarz circulated around the fire station.
“Once the fire department saw it, it was game over,” Tokarz said over the phone. “I was roasted for a good month about it at work.
“At least I can say he’s just a stud.”
Indeed, there’s no shame in giving up a homer to Olson, who has since claimed many other victims. But on a sunny day in May of 2012, Tokarz was determined to lead Brookwood to a Class 5A championship. Parkview had won the first game of the doubleheader, which meant Tokarz was fighting to save his team’s season.
Tokarz had pitched well through six innings. In a tie game, he quickly retired the first two batters of the seventh inning in the seven-inning game.
“Oh, I’m rolling,” Tokarz thought to himself.
Now, he says: “Maybe a little too cocky in the state championship.”
Especially because Olson was due up next.
On the first pitch, Tokarz tried to throw Olson a two-seam fastball that would run toward the outer half of the plate. But the pitch started inside, then went into Olson’s barrel.
“Didn’t miss it at all,” Tokarz said.
If you go back and watch the video, you’ll notice how a kid named Cedric Mullins – now the Orioles’ center fielder – never even moves. He simply watches the ball fly over the batting cages beyond the right field wall as Parkview took the lead.
“It was just so deflating on our end,” Tokarz said. “We lost the first one and we were like, ‘Ah crap, it’s too late in the game against the caliber of baseball that Parkview plays.’ It was really, really defeating to go out like that.”
Olson and Tokarz knew one another because they were part of the same offseason workout group. Parkview and Brookwood kids would work out together, and shared a mutual respect in the rivalry.
To this day, Tokarz can still remember a moment that stood out to him: When he got back on the bus after Parkview defeated Brookwood to win the state title, he saw a text on his phone.
It was from Olson.
It read like this: “Hey man, I’m sorry for pimping that home run off of you. I apologize.”
This spoke volumes to Tokarz, who didn’t blame Olson. And for what it’s worth, Olson simply dropped the bat after crushing the ball, then walked a few steps as he admired it. It wasn’t too flashy.
“Super humble guy,” Tokarz said. “For him to text me after that, in the moment still, that’s a pretty big deal.”
‘It’s your dream student as a teacher’
Karen Francoeur, Jeff’s mother, taught Olson’s math class at Trickum Middle School. This was not just math – this was advanced math.
“The thing about Matt was he was like the model student that every teacher loves to have,” Karen said.
The years have passed. The specific stories can be difficult to recall. But Karen instantly remembers two of Olson’s best traits: his maturity and leadership. Even in middle school, he displayed those qualities.
“If you were trying to do a group project, you could depend on Matt to take a group that might have conflict in it, and he’ll take care of that conflict,” she said. “He will take care of that problem. You just didn’t have trouble with the group, because Matt was there, and he was kind of the even-keel. And he always had a heart for the underdog, or the kid who needed help.”
Karen remembers Olson as a student who was always prepared and always had everything done. “It’s your dream student as a teacher,” she said. She never had to speak with the Olsons about their son. It probably helped Olson that his mother, Lee, teaches at Camp Creek Elementary.
Trickum Middle had a math league, which was a competition. Despite the challenging problems, which were more difficult than ones he did in class, Olson excelled. “He was a good problem-solver,” Karen said. “Very good problem-solver.”
Olson was always smart. His friends remember him as having straight-As and taking Advanced Placement classes in high school. His older brother, Zack, pitched at Harvard.
As a high schooler, Matt committed to play baseball at Vanderbilt. “He was going to Vanderbilt for not just baseball,” Mac Marshall, one of Olson’s best friends, said. Vanderbilt was also the correct academic situation for Olson.
‘He’s an insane athlete’
When Matt and Zack were kids, their father, Scott Olson, would take them to Mountain Park Park (this is the actual name). Scott would take them to the batting cages. They would also go to one of the baseball fields, where he would set up a couple trash cans at home plate and send his kids to the outfield. Zack and Matt had to throw baseballs and hit the trash cans for a reward – one day, it might be bubble gum, and the next it might be a slushie from the local gas station.
“A lot of the times, I wanted to stay home and play video games or whatever, and my dad and my brother were like, ‘No, come on, we’re going,’” Matt recalled.
“We’d just go up there for a few hours and have fun doing it and working,” he added.
These were some of Matt’s formative baseball days. They were the beginning of something special.
This season, Matt set Braves franchise records with 54 home runs and 139 RBI, and led the majors in both categories. In some seasons, he might be the National League MVP for this effort. But this is for certain: He’s one of the sport’s top players. None of this comes as a surprise to those who have long known him.
Marshall, one Olson’s best friends, put it like this: “The way I describe it to people is, if somebody came into our locker room in high school and was like, ‘Hey, this kid Matt Olson is gonna play for the Atlanta Braves and make X of money and set the single-season franchise record in home runs,’ every single one of us would’ve believed you. It wasn’t crazy to think that he could do something like that. He just did stuff that you just don’t see every day, and he would do it every single day.”
“You could definitely see the flashes at a young age,” said Jack Esmonde, another member of the friend group.
And Rob Youngblood, the other one of Olson’s best friends, added: “Yeah, he was just a freak athlete. And it’s not just baseball.”
Olson, Esmonde, Marshall and Youngblood were a core group of four best friends. Growing up, they spent their days – well, at least the ones when they weren’t playing baseball for Parkview – playing pickup basketball and football. They competed against one another for hours upon hours.
One of them seemed destined for the pros.
“He just kind of always had that natural God-given talent to just be 10 times better than anybody else,” Youngblood said.
“He’s an insane athlete,” Marshall said. “He won everything. There’s no telling what he could’ve done as a tight end, or if he would’ve played basketball. He was just an incredible athlete.”
In football, Olson’s soft hands allowed him to snag jump balls with one hand, like the famous Odell Beckham Jr. catch. On the court, he could ball. Before they were friends, Olson and Esmonde played one another in elementary school basketball.
“I hated him at that point, if we’re being honest,” Esmonde said. “My team always lost to him.”
Esmonde’s scouting report from that time: “Back then, he was pretty tall for our age. A little bit wider. He kind of filled out as he got older. He actually had a pretty good jumper. I called him, ‘Big Smooth.’”
Olson could’ve been a terrific tight end, but his mother didn’t want him playing football. It probably worked out for the best, he joked, because he might’ve ended up as a left tackle because he was hefty at the time.
Instead, he’s a star first baseman for his hometown team.
‘Why not us?’
In the decisive third game of the 2011 state championship series, Parkview trailed by two runs and was down to its final three outs. Before the final inning, Olson gathered his teammates in the dugout for what became a legendary speech.
As Youngblood recalled, it went something like this:
“Why not us? We’ve fought all this way. We’ve literally grinded through hell for the last four months. Let’s not come up short here. Put a barrel on a ball and play baseball.”
In that seventh inning, Parkview scored 13 runs – 13! “And (Olson) hit an absolute nuke in that inning,” Youngblood said. Parkview won the state title. Olson’s speech was as memorable as the three-run bomb he blasted to give Parkview the lead in that last inning.
“He was just a guy that, the bigger the moment, the bigger he came through for us,” Brown, his coach, said.
And during his junior and senior seasons, Olson developed into a leader. If something needed to be done, he did it. When he spoke, people listened.
Plus, he always displayed his kind heart.
When Youngblood was a sophomore, “I was kind of a nobody,” he said. He hadn’t yet made an impact for the varsity team. But Olson, a junior at the time, always supported Youngblood as if he were a starter.
Marshall, another Parkview teammate, was two years behind Olson. Still, Olson took Marshall under his wing and taught him about the program’s standards.
To this day, Olson and his high school buddies are still close. Now that he plays for the hometown team, they see him more than they did when he was in Oakland – though the major-league life is quite busy. And if Olson’s friends send him a text, they always expect a reply.
He hasn’t outgrown them.
Through his journey to major-league stardom, he’s always remembered where he came from.
“Everybody that knows him or doesn’t know him, it’s extremely hard to root against him,” Marshall said. “He simply does the right thing, on and off the field. He works extremely hard, on and off the field.
“He’s earned what he’s gotten.”