METRO VANCOUVER - Unhappy with his time in Happy Valley -- the home of Penn State University -- quarterback Michael O’Connor said he relishes the idea of playing CIS football with the UBC Thunderbirds.
If that sounds like something of a major disconnect -- the T-Birds are 24-56 in their past 10 seasons -- it is. So bold, almost unprecedented, was the 19-year-old Ottawa native’s decision to pass up a promising NCAA career that O’Connor drew a thicket of curious reporters and videographers to see him work out at Thunderbird Stadium Thursday.
“To be honest, I didn’t see this many media when I signed with Penn State,” he admitted. “It surprises me a little bit. But (college) football out here is growing. Hopefully, my signing will get some attention and we can build a good program here.”
O’Connor, who describes himself as "a pro style quarterback", spent his final two high school seasons in the U.S. and was groomed in his senior year at the IMG Academy in Florida under Chris Weinke, a former Heisman Trophy winner. While there, he got to throw with NFL quarterbacks Russell Wilson and Ryan Tannehill. O'Connor was recruited by the NCAA elite -- Alabama, Michigan State, Mississippi State, Missouri among them -- along with a host of lesser powers. He chose Penn State and was expected to challenge for the starting job this season.
In December, however, he announced he was leaving the program.
Taylor Nill, the son of UBC head coach Blake Nill, took a shot in the dark and contacted O’Connor on Facebook. Thus began the process of luring O’Connor west.
“We asked him if he would send us his email address -- and that’s how it started,” explained Blake Nill, named UBC's head coach in December after seven Vanier Cup appearances with the St. Mary’s Huskies and Calgary Dinos. “I’ve never had a recruit like Michael, with a top U.S. reputation, come to Canada before. He’s coming from Happy Valley, where they play before 110,000 and college football players are treated like the most important people in the community.”
Nill is optimistic that more NCAA players from Canada, perhaps disillusioned with their circumstances, will look at O’Connor’s example and consider Point Grey as a destination.
“Michael is a very articulate young man, a very mature young man,” Nill said. “He knows what he wants.”
O’Connor said the chance to play right away at UBC (he would have to sit out a year if transferring to another NCAA school) was a major factor in his decision. But so is the chance to study at UBC’s Sauder School of Business (he made the dean’s list at Penn State) and the opportunity for an entree into Vancouver’s hot real estate industry, O’Connor’s particular area of interest.
“I’ve realized that football can be taken away from me at any time,” he explained. “Out here, I’ll have an abundance of opportunity to further my education, set myself up for the future, and play football for five years. It’s a win-win for me.”
Transfer rules prohibit him from spring practice with the T-Birds, but O'Connor is eligible to play this year.