August 7, 2015


THE LEGEND OF PAT O'DEA : Pat O'Dea, an Australian who joined the Wisconsin football team in the 1890s, later coached Notre Dame and worked as a lawyer in San Francisco. (B. David Zarley, 8/02/15, Sports on Earth)

Thanksgiving Day 1898 was cold and clear, Lake Michigan lying flat just beyond Sheppard Field, and the promise of champagne was with Wisconsin's exotic star fullback, Pat O'Dea. An entire crate was the bounty being offered by University of Wisconsin coach Philip King to keep his Badgers hungry and focused against a lackluster Northwestern squad. But they would need to score in the first two minutes of the game to collect the prize, which was next to impossible back then.

Turn-of-the-century football was vastly different from the modern game. The nascent gridiron game looked something more like rugby, a brutal, mauling contest wherein gangs of men forced the ball carrier through the line like linens through a mangle. It would often take three tries to even get five yards, and there was no forward pass to speak of. With every play a running play, fumbles and miscues were frequent, so the punt was the most effective method of gaining yards. Rather than take any risk on your own side of the field, it was always more prudent to drop the other guy back deep, hoping your opponent would be forced to kick it again, this time getting your side close enough that to try for a dropkick goal or a touchdown would not be considered suicide.

It was fortunate, then, that the Badgers had O'Dea. An Australian expat, he was long and lean, handsome with a brushed sweep of hair, considered de rigueur in the day not only for fashion's sake, but safety's; the footballer's locks were cultivated to serve as headgear, of sorts, to help prevent concussions or riven skulls. O'Dea had an equally perfect athlete's body, shockingly tall but somewhat slight, and all leg -- in the way a model is all leg -- with perfectly developed, powerful muscles allowing him an incredible speed and the ability to blast sky-splitting punts and dropkicks that must have reminded the Midwestern boys, with their Scandinavian heritage, of Thor himself.

Wisconsin and Northwestern began the Thanksgiving game by trading punts, with the Badgers eventually getting the ball back right around midfield. A good starting place established, Wisconsin prepared the long, hard process of moving the ball upfield, getting close enough for their mighty kicker to nail the five-point dropkick goal.

That is, all the Badgers prepared for that except O'Dea. The Boomer was about a dozen yards behind center, calling for a dropkick formation. Wisconsin end Slam Anderson believed O'Dea must have made a mistake -- attempting to score a goal from 60 yards out? He figured O'Dea must have meant to punt, and so Anderson streaked downfield as a gunner, leaving the Boomer unprotected in the backfield.

O'Dea sidestepped a Purple defender, dropped the fat football to the ground and made tremendous contact, swinging those powerful legs forward -- so hard that both his feet, at the apex of the kick, left the ground -- and the ball screamed skyward, toward five points and champagne and myth.

...than their eagerness to kick the ball despite open field in front of them.
Posted by at August 7, 2015 8:14 AM

blog comments powered by Disqus