Column: Toughest duty: O’Connell again bides his time
You hate to paint with a broad brush, but this past St. Patrick’s Day had to be especially low-key for a guy named Patrick O’Connell.
This turns out to be correct – O’Connell, a Glacier High graduate, had planned on taking in a spring training game, an NBA tilt and an NHL game while in Phoenix for spring break.
None of that happened because of the COVID-19 pandemic, which also canceled the second half of spring football at the University of Montana.
That’s not all.
“This is probably the first time I can remember not having corn beef and cabbage that night,” O’Connell said.
The 6-foot-2, 225-pounder would trade the St. Paddy’s staple for a few practice snaps inside Washington-Grizzly Stadium. Instead, he’s working out near Glacier, flipping tires and running hills.
“Flips and sprints,” said the defensive end for the Griz. “It’s just tough because we’re not lifting actual weight. To maintain your strength without actually lifting weight is the toughest part.”
O’Connell being a Griz is a bit of a surprise. A standout baseball player, he spent his summers with the American Legion Kalispell Lakers instead of haunting football camps.
When he had a breakout gridiron season for Glacier – he made 135 tackles while his team advanced to the 2016 title game – football coaches began calling.
O’Connell settled on Division II University of Mary in Bismarck, N.D., offering him a chance to play baseball and football.
He had a decent fall of 2017 with 33 tackles in 10 games, but it ended with his coach, Josh Kotelnicki, announcing to the team before the season finale that it would be his last game.
If it was meant to inspire it wasn’t enough – Minnesota-Duluth won 62-27. O’Connell managed a 39-yard fumble return for a touchdown, the final TD of a one-win season.
“It was kind of strange,” O’Connell said. “Well maybe not strange, because I’ve never been through it before. But I thought it was weird that he’d tell us before the game.”
Soon he was thinking about transferring. Baseball workouts had started, but he was granted a release by that coach (who also was dismissed, that spring) and made a call to Montana assistant coach Justin Green.
Green, left to help Montana transition from Bob Stitt back to newly-rehired Bobby Hauck, made no promises.
“He was very honest,” O’Connell said. “But he said he’d do his best to get my name out there.”
During that winter break O’Connell made the effort to visit Green at the football offices. There he ran into Hauck, who was also very honest.
“He actually said, ‘Do you know what you’re getting yourself into, how hard it is?’” O’Connell remembered. “I said, ‘Yes sir.’ That was the only contact before winter conditioning started.”
As a prep O’Connell played in five state title games – one with the Lakers, for whom he hit .484 his final year, three in football, and he managed to make 27 of 40 shots (.675) for the 2016-17 State AA basketball champion Wolfpack.
All that time he planned to play baseball in college. Then he adjusted to wanting to play both. Then, when that wasn’t working, he thought back to sitting in the north end zone stands at Washington-Grizzly Stadium, watching the Grizzlies pour out of the tunnel before games.
“No one else has something cool like that,” O’Connell said. “I was always wondering what it was like. Then this year when I did it, it was pretty amazing.”
It took a redshirt season in which he was named the Grizzlies’ scout team defensive player of the year. Last fall he was fifth on the team in tackles with 59, and first in sacks with 6.5.
That about brings us up to date: Now he’s a Griz forced into hibernation.
“I feel like we were just starting to get into the best part of spring ball,” O’Connell said. “We were expecting to come back and get right back into it. I feel like on defense especially, we were just starting to click, just starting to install stuff.
“It’s time we’ll never get back, so we’ll have to work extremely hard this summer and fall.”
O’Connell is used to that.
“He stood out,” said Hauck, remembering back to that first winter conditioning. “I remember him distinctly. Most of the new guys stand out for the wrong reason – he did a nice job of not backing down.
“He’s a tough-minded guy. I’m glad he decided to come home.”
Fritz Neighbor can be reached at (406)546-1122, or by email at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @Fritz_Neighbor.