MISSOULA — Pat O’Connell found himself in an unusual place as winter approached in 2017.
He had been a two-sport athlete playing football and baseball at NCAA Division II University of Mary in North Dakota. He decided to leave after that first semester to focus on football as his late-blooming love of the sport grew. He also wanted to be closer to his family in Kalispell.
He temporarily had no place to call home. It was an odd feeling to not be part of a team and to not be enrolled in a university. There was no guarantee he’d one day be playing linebacker for the Montana Grizzlies.
“I was basically taking a shot in the dark,” he said ahead of the second-ranked Grizzlies’ Big Sky opener against Portland State at 2 p.m. Saturday at Washington-Grizzly Stadium.
“It was one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever had to make, to give up baseball, because growing up, that was my No. 1 sport. If you look at every dream I ever had, every goal I ever had, it was to play in the MLB. But now I’m chasing something else.”
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O’Connell reached out to Montana recruiting coordinator Justin Green after he left UMary. The Griz were in a coaching transition from Bob Stitt to Bobby Hauck, so he was left in limbo.
He wasn’t worried or scared that he effectively ended his football career by giving up his athletic scholarship. He believed that he would eventually land somewhere because of what he showed over 10 games at UMary. He just didn’t know where that would be.
“That belief mostly came from my family and from my friends who believed in me,” he said. “We grew up with a pretty deep faith, so it was pretty easy to rely on God and rely on my family because I knew that whatever happened would be the right decision. That’s what made it so easy for me.”
O’Connell eventually received an opportunity to try out for the Grizzlies by going through Hauck’s infamous winter conditioning. He showed up in street clothes and street shoes with his now-gone long hair while everyone else was in Griz gear.
O’Connell quickly caught Hauck’s eye in winter conditioning and was later given a walk-on spot at UM. He’s turned that shot into a career as an All-American and a Buck Buchanan Award finalist who will finish near the top of multiple statistical categories in school history.
“He’s tough, he plays hard, he’s good with his hands. It goes back to his good athletic ability and speed. He’s a pretty instinctive guy,” Hauck said. “Off the field, he’s a really easy guy to get along with. He’s a guy with really strong faith, which I admire in him. I think he’s a well-rounded, good dude.”
‘No quit ever’
O’Connell had previously thought about quitting football altogether.
Baseball had long been his first love, and he had been traveling around to showcase events with his eyes on the diamond, where he would later earn all-state honors twice. He then had a talk with Shannon Smith, the defensive coordinator and linebackers coach at Kalispell Glacier, when he was a sophomore.
“I still remember it,” he said. “It was in the front entrance of Glacier High School. It still sticks with me to this day. He brought me to my senses, made me realize how good I could potentially be. Without him, I wouldn’t even be playing football.”
O’Connell also credits Glacier head coach Grady Bennett, a former Montana Grizzlies quarterback, with bringing him back to football. Bennett was thrilled to get just one of the four O’Connell brothers to join the team.
Pat is the fourth of five children and the third of four brothers in a family of athletes. His sister, Meghan, was an All-American soccer player at Carroll College, while his older brothers Michael and Sean and younger brother Thomas played baseball at Miles Community College.
Pat went on to be an all-state player on both sides of the ball his senior season, when Glacier lost in the State AA championship game. His instincts and understanding of angles, on top of hard work and dedication, made him unlike most other players Bennett has coached.
“I knew he could play at the Big Sky level, but what he’s accomplished is even beyond what I dreamed he could do,” Bennett said. “The thing about Patrick is his relentless and incredible motor. He just has no quit ever.
“That’s what we started to see that senior year: that he was such a competitor and just that relentless, competitive effort to never stop. You just watch him out there and he’s a guy who makes a difference and won’t stop until he finds a way to win.”
By his senior year, O’Connell was a full-time starting power forward for the basketball team. He wasn’t flashy, but his physicality and toughness shined through as a backside rebounder in the Wolfpack’s 2-3 zone defense.
Glacier basketball coach Mark Harkins was particularly impressed by how O’Connell worked on his free throws throughout the season so he wasn’t a liability late in games. The Wolfpack went on to win the State AA basketball championship.
“We had a lot of amazing kids, but if we don’t have Pat, we don’t win that state championship,” Harkins said. “He wasn’t a scorer, but defensively and rebounding, he brought that toughness and competitiveness. He was a difference maker.
“Those intangibles you have to have for every team, Pat was that intangible. He was amazing. He was a dawg. He was just a ferocious competitor and a great teammate and would do anything for the team to be successful.”
O’Connell knew he wasn’t ready for football to be over yet this past January.
He was sitting in Frisco, Texas, when his name wasn’t called during the announcement of the Buck Buchanan Award winner. He finished third in voting for the annual award that’s presented to the defensive player of the year in the FCS.
O’Connell set his sights that day on a return to Frisco this season, which is his sixth year in college because of the extra year of eligibility stemming from the pandemic. He doesn’t want to make a solo trip this time; he’d like for his whole team to be there with him in the city of the FCS championship game.
“It would be the ultimate goal to be down in Frisco as a team playing for a national championship,” he said. “I don’t want to be there alone, if I am so lucky to be there this year. I want to be down there with the team and hopefully playing for a national championship. That’s the most important thing to me and most important goal that I have right now.”
O’Connell doesn’t like to put limits on what he thinks is possible. He always wants to aim for more, wants to be better.
His success at Montana started when he was named the defensive scout team player of the year in 2018 while he redshirted because the one-time transfer rule wasn’t a thing at the time. He earned a starting spot midway through his first season in 2019 and became a first-team All-American in the next full season in the fall of 2021.
“He’s an awesome teammate,” Griz linebacker Tyler Flink said. “He’s obviously a great leader too. He always pushes us to be the best. During the summertime, he’s always down to do extra work. He always sends a text out like, ‘Do you guys want to meet up on the field and do some extra stuff?’ He’s always there for you if you need him if you have a bad day.”
O’Connell was named one of four team captains this year, which demonstrated the respect his teammates have for him. He’s strived to be a leader by example, whether that’s on the practice field, in the weight room or in the film room.
He’s already put together a standout career, ranking in the top nine for career tackles for loss and sacks, making him one of only seven players in school history to achieve that feat. He’s done that while wearing the No. 58 jersey he randomly received when he was trying out for the team after he took that plunge into the unknown.
“Freaky athlete,” Griz D-lineman Kale Edwards said. “He’s a great kid. He brings energy every day. He lifts hard. He calls all of us to bring energy every day in practice. He does everything with his full heart.”
Frank Gogola is the Senior Sports Reporter at the Missoulian. Follow him on Twitter @FrankGogola or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.