Footystats Diary, footy's best kept secret, Patrick O'Dea

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Footy's best kept secret ...

Patrick O'Dea


The following has been adapted from an uncredited article which appeared in The Herald, the Melbourne evening daily on January 13, 1979.

Corrections to text have been made possible by the work of US writer Michael D Shutko who researched the life of Patrick O’Dea for more than 20 years. Shutko has possession of a copy of O’Dea’s birth certificate showing he was born at Kilmore in Victoria on March 16, 1872, and not on St Patrick’s Day as was often claimed.


Pat kicks off a new era

One day in 1896, an Australian at the University of Wisconsin, stood on the institution's sports arena discussing tactics with the senior gridiron coach.

He saw a figure approaching in the distance. It seemed familiar, but the thought was ridiculous and he turned back to continue his conversation with the coach.

Then he heard a voice shouting: "Andy! How are you? It's me."

In that instance Andrew O'Dea realised his original notion about the figure's identity was not so ridiculous after all.

It was his younger brother Pat, who was enroute to further his law studies at Oxford University, via Canada. Andy who is credited with developing the “Yarra-Yarra” stroke by the banks of the river than runs through Melbourne, had left Australia years earlier in the retinue of Aussie boxer Paddy Slavin and was at the time coaching the rowing crew at Wisconsin U.

After emotional greetings, Pat, a former Melbourne Football Club and Essendon player, picked up a gridiron ball lying nearby and gave it a mighty boot.

The university's coach had never seen such a punt and never had he seen such clean handling as the 24-year-old Pat O'Dea, assisted by his brother, sprinting up and down the field kicking and taking high marks in the style typical of Australian Football.

The O’Dea’s did not know it and neither did the coach but that demonstration represented the start of a new era in gridiron football.

Immediately falling in love with the beautiful campus at Madison, Pat O'Dea agreed to complete his education there and where with his incredible kicking and handling skills, he became a gridiron legend.

His impact on the game was so phenomenal that not even the mighty Indian athlete, Jim Thorpe, could match his brilliance. This was before professionalism entered the American game and the major competition then included the American Universities.

It was the Australian's awesome kicking ability—he once punted a ball 100 metres—that caused opposing teams to dramatically alter play tactics.

Patrick John O’Dea was born at Kilmore, Victoria, on March 16, 1872. He was educated at Kew College, which later became Xavier College in the Melbourne suburb of Kew, where he was regarded as one of the finest footballers to represent his school.

He first won headlines when, as a 15-year-old, he pitted himself against a shark at Mordialloc.

He was about 30m from the shore when he heard a woman scream. Sighting a shark's fin cleaving the water young O'Dea, splashing the water for all he was worth, swam between the shark and the terrified woman.

He got the woman back to the beach but there her heart gave out. For his courage Pat O'Dea was awarded a Royal Humane Society medal.

The reunion with Andy in Wisconsin brought Pat's introduction to gridiron.

In Melbourne Pat O'Dea was an outstanding kick. By gridiron standards where kicking was not an important part of the game, his ability was amazing.

Andy O'Dea had, for some time, had been promoting the use of kicking in gridiron but the attitude was that the ball in the hand was better than one in the air.

But then Pat O'Dea appeared on the scene and the distance and accuracy of his kicking opened the eyes of many gridiron players. Anyone who kicked like that obviously would be a scoring machine.

By the late 1890s Pat O'Dea, now dubbed the Kicking Kangaroo was a gridiron legend in the Mid-West. Fans saw some of his kicking feats as Wisconsin's quarter-back but still could not believe them.

In his football prime O'Dea stood more than 180cm tall but weighed not much more than 76kg. But he could run like the wind.

His tactic was to run as far as possible with the ball and then, with a tackle looming, punt or drop-kick the ball while in full stride.

This sort of play was revolutionary in gridiron. In fact there were times when opposition players, seeing Pat kick the ball rather than fall on it, would halt, stunned by the Australian's audacity.

The Americans had never seen a player kicking so far and accurately while running at full speed. O'Dea, time and again, and kicking either from the midfield or the sidelines, sent the ball soaring over the crossbars.

Perhaps the greatest kick in O'Dea's gridiron career was executed on November 15, 1898, when his university lined up against Northwestern University. A blizzard was raging.

O'Dea and his fellow players took the field with a chip on their shoulders. This was caused by the title conferred on the youthful team — the "Kangaroo Mob".

After two plays Pat O'Dea fell back with the ball. He took two steps and from a range of 57m dropkicked between the posts. The ball hit a fence on the full 18m behind the goal line.

As it turned out, the kindergarten mob won the game 48-0, thanks mainly to the Australian and his magic boot.

In 1899 in a game against Illinois University, O'Dea executed what U.S. gridiron historians call "the most impossible kick in football history."

A 30 kmh win was blowing when the Australian indicated to the referee he intended taking a place kick from more than 50m out — over half the field's length.

The referee nodded and said "you're crazy."

O'Dea pointed the ball at the field's right hand corner and with a mighty kick sent it on its way. In mid-flight the wind caught it, deflected it and then guided it between the posts.

It was not long after the "impossible kick" that O'Dea, for the first time, took the field against one of gridiron's all-time greats — Gil Dobie, then playing for the University of Minnesota.

Dobie was out to subdue O'Dea and in quick time trapped him on the sideline. The Australian simply sidestepped and dropkicked the ball through the posts from a range of 50m.

In the following seasons O'Dea’s match-winning punts, dropkicks and place-kicks from once impossible distances became commonplace. Others tried to emulate him but could not match his range or accuracy. During the period 1896-1900, he was both the first non-Ivy League, and first foreign player to be named an “All-American”, twice.

Walter Camp who founded the “All-American” honours in the 1880s said, “Pat O’Dea put the ‘foot’ in football!”

By now he saw his future in America and decided to stay on there with his older brother. O'Dea graduated from university in 1900 with a law degree but only practiced his profession sporadically.

He coached the University of Notre Dame's gridiron team for a while and then took over the same post at Stanford University in California. He also took over the coaching of the athletic team and the rowing eight.

His daily mail invariably included an offer from other universities or even sporting classes to join them as coach.

Then suddenly in 1917 the famous college football figure disappeared. The most persistent explanation for his disappearance was that he had joined the AIF, certain sections of which passed through San Francisco in 1917 on their way to the Western Front.

Andy O'Dea, as well as the missing man's personal friends and local colleagues, did all in their power to track him down but got nowhere. In the end the search was abandoned and Pat O'Dea was forgotten.

Then came 1934 when the sporting editor of the San Francisco Chronicle William Leisler, received an anonymous tip that if he wanted the story of the decade he should interview a man named Charles J. Mitchell.

Mitchell he was told, worked for a timber company and was living at Westwood, a small town about 240km north-west of San Francisco.

Leisler found Mitchell, discovered he was the long-missing Pat O'Dea and persuaded him to throw aside his anonymity and reveal himself as one of the nation's great sporting figures of pre-war years.

O'Dea, in explanation of his disappearance, said: "It just seemed a good to go away and leave the old life behind. Now it seems like a good idea to come back."

"Probably I was wrong to disappear but I wanted to get away from the mere student days of the past.

"As Pat O'Dea I seemed just an ex-Wisconsin football player and I decided to make a new life for myself under a new name."

He had married under the name of Mitchell. In Westwood, using this name he had become treasurer of the Chamber of Commerce, secretary of the Auto Club and one of the town's best known businessmen.

When Leisler's story about the missing man first appeared, many would not believe the claim. For a time even Andy was one of this group.

But the sceptics quickly changed their attitude when the legendary footballer attended a "home-coming" celebration arranged by the University of Wisconsin.

In between functions organised to honor him, O'Dea settled in San Francisco and became a member of an export firm.

Speaking about football to friends, O'Dea said he preferred the Australian game of football to gridiron because it allowed players to combine running with kicking and, because it moved faster, had more spectator appeal.

In 1951, a little more than half a century after Pat O'Dea ended his football days with the University of Wisconsin, the institution's California Alumni organised a dinner as a tribute to the "greatest of all American athletes."

At the end of the speeches by executive members of the alumni, the Australian-born gridiron footballer, already an immortal U.S. sporting figure, rose to reply.

He spent the entire speech trying to minimise his still-incredible feats. But, when he finished, the thunderous applause showed his listeners did not accept a word of what he had said.

Patrick John O'Dea, still the holder of several gridiron kicking records, died on April 4, 1962, at the age of 90.

Just one day earlier this amazing sportsman became the last of his era and the only Australian elected into the “College Football Hall of Fame”.


<> The drop kick of Pat O’Dea is still a valid play in both the collegiate and the National Football League American game – however the art of the “drop kick” has been both forgotten, and nearly lost, as it has been from Australian Football.

<> The “College Football Hall of Fame” began around the time O’Dea was born, originally at Rutgers University in New Jersey; over more than 130 years it’s location has changed numerous times, at present the collection is located in downtown South Bend, Indiana, home of the University of Notre Dame.