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KERRY EGGERS ON SPORTS/Tragedy doesn't sideline Blazers' reporter from dream job

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JOHN LARIVIERE - Life took a tragic turn in 2011 for budding broadcaster Brooke Olzendam, but she overcame it and has settled into a job the Trail Blazers created for her.Brooke Olzendam's career path has been full speed ahead.

Her life path? After the most unkind of detours, it has landed in the bull's eye, too.

The hole in her heart hasn't fully healed — it may never go away.

But she's a wife and a mother and employed in what she considers her "dream job" as television sideline reporter for the Trail Blazers.

"Life is rewarding me a little bit right now," she says, "for some of the pain I've gone through."

Olzendam's path started as the "tomboy" daughter of a renowned high school coach. Dave Olzendam, a member of the Washington Interscholastic Basketball Coaches Association Hall of Fame, won 430 games in 31 seasons coaching at four high schools in Washington, notably Medical Lake outside of Spokane.

"I grew up in the gym," Brooke says. "I watched his practices and his games. It was so much fun to follow his teams. I got to know the guys.

"I was very much a tomboy until about the ninth grade, and I always loved basketball. Dad and I would watch NBA games together. We bonded over the sport."

At Spokane's Shadle Park High — "alma mater of Mark Rypien," she notes — Olzendam played varsity basketball and maintained her keen interest in the sport. Girlfriends had posters of Brad Pitt and Justin Timberlake on their walls. Olzendam's were adorned with visions of David Robinson and Gary Payton and Reggie Miller.

At Washington State, where she got her degree in communications in 2003, Olzendam got the full Monty of duties at the student TV station, which helped her determine what she wanted to do with her broadcast career.

"When I did the weather? Not so much," she says. "When I produced? It was OK. When I did hard news? Too depressing for me. Sports seemed easy. It flowed."

Almost immediately, Olzendam got an entry-level job with Fox Sports Northwest in Seattle. Her first on-air assignment was the NCAA women's volleyball Final Four.

"As soon as the light went on, something clicked," she says. "It was, 'We're on. Let's do this. This is what I'm supposed to be doing.'"

Olzendam spent four years in Seattle, then moved to Los Angeles for a year to produce and host Fox Sports' "Running With The Pac" magazine show.

"I learned so much about different sports, doing human interest stories while visiting every Pac-10 school," she says.

In 2010, she returned to Seattle to work in television and also commuted to Portland often to host the "Talkin' Ball" show. By then, she was in a relationship with Andy Collins, whom she met during his year in Southern California.

Collins had spent a year as a quarterback at the University of Oregon before winding up at Occidental, where he had a record-setting career at the NCAA Division III level. At Oregon, one of Collins' best friends was ex-Duck QB Kellen Clemens. Collins was from Zillah, Washington, a town of 3,000 located in the Yakima Valley, a two-hour drive from Brooke's hometown. The high school football field at Zillah, in fact, is now named in Collins' honor.

The two were married in Seattle in July 2011, then flew to live in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where Brooke had accepted a job with CBSSports.com. Ten days after the wedding, Andy lost consciousness while running on a treadmill and died of a heart attack. He was 27 and had been seemingly a picture of health. The autopsy showed Collins had a condition in which the arteries near his heart were smaller than normal, causing him to exert much more energy than the average person.

Olzendam declined the impending job, left Florida and flew to Spokane, dazed and disbelieving.

Kristin Bredes LaFemina now serves as Olzendam's agent. In 2011, she was an executive for CBSSports.com.

"I was a big part of the decision to get her hired," Bredes LaFemina says. "They had moved up the wedding because I had positioned her to go to Fort Lauderdale for CBS Sports.

"So I went through it with her. I went to Andy's funeral — one of the saddest funerals I've been to in my life."

Olzendam's resilence impressed Bredes LaFemina, who helped her land a job as sideline reporter of the Indiana Pacers.

"I've never seen anybody bounce back like she did," Bredes LaFemina says. "I've never seen anybody dust off a tragedy and get lazed-focused like she did. I couldn't believe how strong she was. Anybody else would have crumbled and fallen apart and been in a fetal position on the couch."

Truth be told, Olzendam says, that's exactly what she did.

"I was in a fetal position on the couch in Spokane for a while," she says. "I don't remember much of what happened after Andy died. I don't remember flying home. I crawled into my mom's basement and hid. I was there for weeks — months. I was spiraling."

At some point, Olzendam came out of her funk. Bredes LaFemina lined up the opportunity with the Pacers.

Says Olzendam: "I thought, 'Andy wouldn't want me laying around in misery.' He was a huge fan of my work. He'd want me to do something that gave me purpose. Kristen called and said, 'You're ready for this. This is a great gig for you. Your first love is the NBA.' I probably wasn't emotionally ready to do anything, but I felt like it was take this job or maybe never do anything again."

Olzendam spent three years in Indianapolis, working the sidelines for the Pacers and also doing reporting for the Pac-12 Networks. While in Indiana in 2014, she received a call from a friend of her mother's who was in Nashville attending a conference. Her mother's friend had met a young man who lives there, and was impressed.

"This woman was never one to try to set me up — she's not that type," Olzendam says. "But she'd gotten this guy's email, and it was, 'Would I be interested in reaching out to him?'

"I didn't want to at first. I wasn't into that sort of thing. It's like, 'I appreciate the thought, but I always pass on those things.' But for some reason, I decided to entertain this one. Something told me to go for it."

His name was Josh Bennett. They exchanged emails, and then phone calls. Later that year, he flew to Houston to meet her when Brooke was there with the Pacers.

"The rest is history," she says. They are married and have a 17-month-old son, Theo. Bennett, who worked with Naval Intelligence in Nashville, recently completed his masters degree in international management at Portland State.

Shortly after they met, Olzendam returned to Portland to serve a two-year stint as a reporter and studio host for Comcast SportsNet Northwest. Last summer, she was hired by the Blazers to serve as sideline reporter, for home games and on the road, as well as to provide video content for the club's website.

"I'd known Brooke since before she left for Indiana, and I thought she'd be a great addition to our broadcast team," says Jeff Curtin, the Blazers' director of broadcasting. "I liked her knowledge of basketball, her personality and what she can bring to the broadcast with stories on and off the court.

"What we were lacking was the connection of the team to the community, to our fans. She is bringing us stories we've never had before — at practice, at community events or inside the huddle during games. She's doing a terrific job."

Bredes LaFemina thinks so, too.

"Brooke is made for this business," she says. "She's one of the sweetest people, and also one of the most prepared and professional individuals I've met in this industry. She's an absolute star.

"There was no sideline position open in Portland. Jeff Curtin created that spot for her. That speaks to how talented she is, and what her reputation is as a broadcaster."

Working with the Blazers, Olzendam says, "is a dream job for me."

"I love covering the players," she says. "They're all so thoughtful with the way they answer things. I have a pretty good relationship with them all. We've built a level of trust. The coaching staff has been good to me.

"And I have a good relationship with our entire staff (at Blazer Broadcasting). I feel so valued. There's something to be said for that. When you're in a position you love, and people acknowledge that you're working hard, it keeps you going. It's a perfect situation for me. I get to watch my favorite sport in the world. It doesn't get any better than that."

Olzendam may never entirely put the loss of her first husband behind her.

"You go through periods where you think about it a lot, and times when you don't as much, and you wonder why you don't," she says. "I've had a lot of therapy, a lot of counseling. The first year, I thought I could do it on my own. That was not the case, so I started to ask for help. My last two years in Indiana, I went through some intense therapy in hopes I could move on — never forget, but improve yourself and come to peace with it all.

"It's not something one ever gets over. I wouldn't wish it upon anyone. But it's helped that I have a great support system of my family and friends."

The silver lining, of course, is a husband and son.

"There was a time after Andy's death when I didn't think life would go on," Olzendam says. "I thought I would always feel the way I felt. But I met someone I love, we have this child together I adore, and you look at those things as blessings.

"I'm not sure how I got here, why I was put through what I was put through. But I kept going and looking for love and happiness. And somehow, I found them."

Good people. Good things happen.

"She deserves it," Bredes LaFemina says. "If there's anybody in this world who deserves a happy ending, it's Brooke."

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@kerryeggers

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