CHICAGO — Ever since Pat O'Connor got walloped on the very first play of his football career in grade school, he's been hooked on the game, his father said.
"He was a fourth-grader playing a flag football game against fifth- and sixth-graders," said dad Jim O'Connor, a Chicago firefighter and Mount Greenwood resident.
"A kid just creamed him with a tackle, and Pat came running off the field and screamed happily: 'Do you see that?!' He had snot all over his face, but he was just as happy as could be and he ran right back out there onto the field. I knew right then and there he was going to be a great football player."
Pat O'Connor has loved the game since taking that first big hit. Has passion carried him to St. Rita, where coach Todd Kuska said the defensive lineman displayed a "relentless motor." And that drive led O'Connor to Eastern Michigan University, which plays in Friday's Bahamas Bowl, and where the senior is the school's all-time sack leader (19.5) and is tied for most games played ever (49) despite missing all of last season with a shoulder injury.
"Football has developed me into both a great football player and a man," O'Connor said. "I come from a proud and hardworking neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago. This is where my father and mother taught me my characteristics that made me successful on the field: being respected, hard work ethic and being humble."
O'Connor's parents divorced in 2006 when Pat was a fifth-grader at Mount Greenwood Elementary and played football for St. Christina. His mother, Donna Craig, moved to Wisconsin near Madison, while Jim remained in Mount Greenwood. They gave Pat and his two older siblings, Megan and Nick, the choice of where to live. Nick went to Wisconsin, while Megan and Pat remained in Chicago.
Craig, who still saw Pat and Megan several times a month, said a major reason Pat stayed was because he wanted to play football at St. Rita.
"That's where he always wanted to go," she said. "Pat and I are extremely close, so it was tough, and we were on the phone constantly. Even to this day, when we say goodbye, it's still hard. But it all worked out in the end."
His career at Eastern Michigan is ending on a bright note, too. The program has gone just 14-46 since O'Connor arrived in 2012, but the Eagles have seven victories this year and are playing in their first bowl game since 1987.
"Being away from home and trying to overcome the consistent losses" at Eastern Michigan was tough, O'Connor said. "Yet in the end it all paid off. Football has given me lifelong friends, a free education and the ability and opportunity to be successful."
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