By B. David Zarley
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.
* * *
On a frigid November day, David Null's hands dance expectantly over the keyboard as he searches the University of Wisconsin-Madison archives for more information on Pat O'Dea to supplement the fat manila folder he has already pulled out. Null is the university archivist, and it is through him that much of the O'Dea legend flows.
It's difficult to find out what, exactly, is and isn't true about O'Dea. There are team portraits, false starts due to his brother's history with the university, and more than a few simple scanned pages of text with nothing more than his name. Adding to the difficulties in research are O'Dea's own slightly slippery memory, and the fact that UW yearbooks at the time tended to cover classes in an esoteric manner -- the seniors from the year before, sports teams from another, etc. It is as if time itself wishes to keep O'Dea more a figure of legend than any man who lived into the 1960s ought to be. Big Ten Network anchor Dave Revsine's book, "The Opening Kickoff," informed the anecdote about Thanksgiving 1898, and, unless otherwise noted, much of the details that follow came from his exhaustive research. (And much thanks to Null for confirming as much background as possible and helping this author fill out O'Dea's picture.)
What information we know is still pied by vagaries. Even O'Dea's date of birth, supposed to be St. Patrick's Day 1872, was revealed to be little more than myth when Michael Shutko, a freelance photojournalist from Indiana who thoroughly researched O'Dea, obtained a copy of his birth certificate and proved he had actually been born the day before.
O'Dea's seeming penchant for aggrandizement and self-mythologizing can be partly to blame as well. There's a story that involved him swimming a drowning woman to shore through shark-infested waters as a boy in his native Australia. While records show the young O'Dea did indeed tow the woman to shore, she unfortunately did not survive the incident, and there was no mention of sharks nearby.
Even the statistics, the holy metrics of sportswriting, are not as empirically sound as they seem, due both to the pulp-minded sportswriters' chameleonic memory being the primary sources and the difficulties with yard line markers relegated to fences along the side of the field, as well as the lack of dedicated stat keepers who could verify the numbers.
But what numbers they were. O'Dea is credited with nothing less than a 100-yard punt against mighty Yale. (Via newspaper play-by-plays, it actually flew a still-impressive 80 yards.) The Thanksgiving kick against Northwestern might have sailed anywhere between 70 and 80 yards by the time it hit the ground. O'Dea dazzled a young Robert Zuppke, destined for coaching greatness at the University of Illinois, when he kicked a then-record 57-yard placekick against the Illini. Then there was the game against archrival Minnesota, wherein O'Dea fielded a punt 10 yards behind midfield, sidestepped Gophers defender Gil Dobie, and, on the run and kicking across his body, ricocheted a 60-yarder off the ground and his foot.
Even taking into account the Paul Bunyanization he was destined to suffer -- so much, after all, was already hard to believe; a handsome Australian, materializing in Madison and cracking the sky with kicks -- O'Dea's turn-of-the-century sporting prowess stands as one of the most unique chapters in American sports. By the end of his career, O'Dea not only dramatically altered the record books, but also changed how the Midwest was percieved in intercollegiate athletics and, in a small but important way, by the country at large.
* * *
O'Dea put aside law school and arrived in Madison in the spring of 1896, following a short but stellar career playing Australian rules football (not, and this is important to the Australians, rugby) in Victoria for venerable sides Melbourne and Essendon. George F. Downer, writing in Wisconsin Athletic Review, noted he was an All-Australia selection at the age of 16.
The Australian game -- played on massive cricket ovals during the winter -- places a premium on kicks that are both powerful and accurate. As in other football codes, Aussie rules require a team to get the ball into their opponent's end of the field to score. Play looks similar to rugby, except the ball may be passed forward (via a punch, perhaps the most peculiar and endearing aspect of the game) and the action has a fluidity closer to soccer.
To gain ground on a massive Aussie rules pitch, the most effective measure is the mark, a catch made off any kick that travels more than 15 meters in midair. After a player takes the mark -- i.e., catches it -- the official briefly stops play and the player is allowed an uncontested free kick. A series of marks down the field resembles a West Coast offense moving at speeds that would cause Oregon envy. Once the team has entered the attacking end, scoring is achieved by kicking the ball through tall posts that serve as the goal.
As an exceptional Aussie rules player, O'Dea was intimately familiar with kicking the ball, both under duress and when the only pressure is expectations -- likely with both feet, as well. He would have also possessed extreme power, control and, most importantly, the ability to imbue a kick with both at the same time. Aussie rules players can kick balls on a curve, as well, a useful skill when the dropkick goal was the primary way to score. Even the ball he used back in Victoria set him up for success. In O'Dea's day, the fat, rugby-ish ball used in college football was similar to the one used in the Australian game.
O'Dea did not exhibit his exotic expertise upon his initial arrival at Wisconsin, however. His brother Andy was the Badgers crew coach, and so O'Dea joined the rowers first. But after a crew practice on Lake Mendota went fatally awry -- a squall ambushed the O'Dea brothers and their rowing partners, one of whom, John Day, died after slipping through Pat's grasp -- O'Dea abandoned his interest in the sport and decided to give football a shot.
Walking along the Badgers practice field the next fall, O'Dea returned an errant ball in the manner to which he was accustomed in his native country. James Griffin's Australian Dictionary of Biography entry described the moment as "a casual display of his skill," after which O'Dea was immediately mobbed with exhortations to join the side.
"Americans had never seen such explosive kicking," Griffin wrote. "He slammed the ball with a shoulder-high follow-through while his other foot was 6 inches off the ground."
O'Dea was launching punts mere days later in the opening game that year against Lake Forest. A broken arm suffered in practice prevented O'Dea from playing the entire season, but what little the fans and press had seen had caused a stir. O'Dea was healed in time for a date against the Carlisle Indian School, a Dec. 19 contest played indoors in the Chicago Coliseum and the first all-important East-West matchup of the year. In an 18-8 loss for Wisconsin, O'Dea managed to garner some press when one of his punts got wedged in the roof girders, essentially pausing the game until some poor soul could clamber up and jab it free.
The Badgers were by and large an afterthought heading into the 1897 season, even after thoroughly dominating little Lake Forest again. An Oct. 30 matchup with powerful Minnesota in Minneapolis put the western world on notice. Behind the brilliant play of O'Dea, who out-kicked his Gopher complement and also had the two longest runs of the day, the Badgers decimated their hated rivals, 39-0. A 23-8 win over the Chicago Maroons in front of 10,000 of their fans that November proved to be the turning point in O'Dea's career. Until then a parochial sensation, he was now the subject of a profile in the Milwaukee Journal. Wisconsin closed out the season with a muddy victory over Northwestern and bragging rights as the champions of the West.
That "champagne kick" against Northwestern in 1898 finally put O'Dea on the radar across the country, and he became the first-ever western selection to Walter Camp's All-America team. A year later, the Badgers traveled to Yale and played in front of college football's eastern establishment for the first time. Playing into a stiff wind in the first half, Wisconsin president Charles Kendall Adams sent O'Dea a halftime telegram.
"P. O'Dea: Every one glories in your success in the first half. With the wind we hope you will score."
Although Yale beat Wisconsin that day, the game's closeness and competitive nature proved far more important than the final score, 6-0 in favor of old Eli.
"[His impact was] absolutely enormous," Revsine says. "Of course our country, in some ways, was even more regional then it is today, and the Midwest was looked down upon, not just in terms of its football ability, but I mean they were looked down upon as people. There was a game in 1894 between Harvard and Michigan, and the Boston Globe referred to the Michigan players as 'crude blacksmiths, miners and backwoodsmen.' There was this sense that these were lesser human beings who were kind of coming out to play Harvard, and so O'Dea really helped."
The Aussie's fame assuredly helped the University of Wisconsin grow as well. Who knows how many untold numbers of young men found themselves in Madison due to the Kicking Kangaroo's exploits? After his playing days, O'Dea took to the sidelines, amassing rather unimpressive coaching stints at Notre Dame and Missouri, the former of which might be most notable for O'Dea's use of a live kangaroo as a mascot, which used to "bound along the sidelines," according to Shutko. O'Dea did manage to raise the standards at lowly Notre Dame, including coaching their first All-America selection, Louis "Red" Salmon, as well as leading the 1901 squad to becoming "Indiana Champions."
O'Dea's time prowling the South Bend sidelines ended with a 22-6 Notre Dame victory in the team's 1901 season finale over his own pro team called the Studebakers -- which O'Dea suited up for that day. Yes, that's correct: O'Dea was coaching Notre Dame and playing for the opposite side. The embarrassing result for Studebakers ended in a brawl between the Australian and his pro teammates, who figured he'd have known how to beat his own wards. The Golden Dome tarnished by the coach's unbecoming antics, Notre Dame fired O'Dea.
Adding injury to insult, O'Dea suffered a broken shoulder later that year in a professional game, then proceeded to be knocked unconscious and robbed in downtown Chicago a few weeks after that. He also managed to severely scald himself in a bathtub shortly after the New Year.
In March 1902, O'Dea put his calamitous winter behind him and signed on to coach the University of Missouri, a post he held for only one year. His final coaching position was with the American School of Osteopathy, for one season in 1905.
With his rather ignominious coaching career finished -- he amassed, according to the College Football Data Warehouse, a 19-7-2 record -- O'Dea bounced around the West Coast. Landing in San Francisco, he weathered the 1906 earthquake and another mugging in 1908, umpired and coached high school football (Lowell High), played a bit of rugby, and eventually, in 1913, began practicing law and coaching crew at Stanford.
Then, by 1919, he had disappeared.
* * *
It was assumed that, with World War I raging and a naval vessel docked in San Francisco around the time he vanished, O'Dea had joined up with the Australian army and was dead on some unnamed battlefield. So certain was this assumption that periodicals of the day, including the popular Literary Digest, outright wrote of him as an unknown soldier, staking his fate on the beliefs of none other than O'Dea's brother. That article, along with the announcement of a memorial plaque in Madison that was to mention his falsely assumed death, might have been the reason O'Dea finally came out of hiding in 1934.
The details of O'Dea's life between 1917 and 1934 are hazy. He was indicted for embezzlement by a San Francisco jury in 1919, though he never arrived. His wife, Emma, won a divorce by virtue of abandonment. At roughly the same time, Charles and Emma Mitchell moved to Westwood, Calif., a factory town home to the Red River Lumber Company (and the origin of Paul Bunyan). Red River's Westwood boss, Willis Walker, offered O'Dea a chance to escape his rapidly disintegrating life and shirk his legal woes: He would work undercover for the company, keeping tabs on organization efforts and other potential labor unrests. Armed with a new identity and life, O'Dea remained in Westwood until emerging from the shadows in 1934.
It was Bill Leiser of the San Francisco Chronicle who heralded the Boomer's return. His story, which recapped O'Dea's legendary career, also put forth O'Dea's chosen reason for absence, namely that the great fame of his playing days had simply become too much to bear.
This claim seems to have gone predominantly unchallenged in the newspapers of the day; Shutko and Revsine now account for most of the bizarre details that surround -- and add context to -- O'Dea's disappearance. Though, again, it's difficult to know exactly what happened during those lost years.
What is certain is that O'Dea had returned to an adoring public, a legend suddenly and explosively made flesh. At Homecoming in 1934, on an overcast day and with a home team as dreary as the weather, 30,000 Badgers faithful packed into Camp Randall to see the Kicking Kangaroo once more.
* * *
It is by no fault of his own that O'Dea has slowly dissolved from our collective memory. A bevy of rule changes, not the least among them the introduction of the forward pass and the subsequent sharpening of the football, has greatly reduced the impact of leg work on the gridiron. Whereas once the New York Times would proclaim, "the kicker is now king and the people bow down to him," we only now recognize punters and place-kickers when they fail spectacularly.
"Today, we talk about special teams as being a third of the game," says Revsine. "You could argue that in those days, it was special teams and it was, to a certain extent, your offense also. So you could argue it was two-thirds of the game then, and I just think with the way the game is now, I don't see how a kicker could impact it in that way."
In a cruel twist for a man who had, despite his well-documented excuse for disappearing, seemed rather fond of the limelight -- remember those sharks? -- the present incarnation of the game is warping our perception of its past. Without the crucial kicker blazing across our TV sets each Saturday (and Thursday and Friday and Wednesday), the exploits of one of the game's finest become abstractions with no analogue, a man dominating a primitive game by even more atavistic means.
As books like Revsine's and articles like this one put O'Dea and the origins of college football back into the national consciousness, precious little concrete proof of the Australian's impact on our most important game can be found. There is, however, one monument, a quiet memorial for a boastful man.
Standing proudly between the facade of the mighty stadium O'Dea and his reputation helped build and the rolling hill of a Civil War training ground Camp Randall, there is a wall of plaques, the University of Wisconsin Athletic Hall of Fame. On a cold afternoon in November, mere days from Thanksgiving, with Lake Mendota swelling gently, a sliver of precious Midwestern sunlight strikes a plaque that reads "Patrick John O'Dea."
* * *
B. David Zarley is a freelance journalist, essayist, and book/music/art critic based in Chicago. His work can be seen on Sports on Earth, VICE, VICE Sports, The Classical, Paste Magazine and New American Paintings, among numerous other places. You can find him on Twitter, @BDavidZarley, or at bdavidzarley.com.