Emotions were running high last Friday night for the Stevenson Patriots, and no one felt the effects more than defensive end Patrick O’Connell.
Stepping on to the playing field for the first time in almost a year, the junior took out frustrations of four different surgeries and setbacks in that time frame as part of a dominating defensive performance in the Patriots’ 49-3 win over rival Libertyville.
It had been 11 months and eight days since O’Connell last wore the Stevenson colors in a game. If that sounds exact, it should; O’Connell himself was the one doing the counting during his rehabilitation. On Oct. 12 of last year, O’Connell was running a drag route as a tight end when two Lake Zurich defenders went high-low at him, tearing the ACL, MCL and meniscus in his left knee. It ended his season, taking the Patriots’ leading tackler — 56 tackles through six games — out of the lineup and left a void on the defensive line.
But his misfortunes were just beginning. A few weeks after undergoing surgery on his knee, O’Connell planted his knee funny during a rehabilitation exercise and tore his quad and a piece of his patella. That required a second surgery, which he underwent three days before Christmas. Doctors performed a third surgery in March after scar tissue built up in his knee, and three months later, around the time he was preparing for summer camp to begin, he suffered a small meniscus tear in that same knee.
O’Connell never considered hanging up the cleats for good, though no one would have questioned him if he had. He admitted having the option to do a more laid back type of physical therapy that would have healed him up but not in time for the season, but that was never his thought process.
“Football’s all I’ve been doing since the last four, five years of my life. It’s been everything,” he said. “So every bit of my rehab was to get back to football. I could have done physical therapy to get to walk again and just be doing that, but I never had my goals set there. I was always trying to get back here.
“Four surgeries later I’m back. That’s all that matters.”
It’s a testament to his hard work that he made it back out on the field at all, but what matters, too, is what he’ll do for the Patriots defense. Defensive coordinator Josh Hjorth’s unit had performed well through three weeks, allowing 15.6 points, but O’Connell’s insertion to the lineup added a new dimension. Playing opposite All-Area senior Nick Dillon, O’Connell and the rest of the defense shut down a powerful Libertyville offense, which managed a third quarter field goal and nothing else.
“That kid bleeds football. He absolutely loves it. And it was tearing him apart not being able to be on the field helping his team,” head coach Bill McNamara said. “We’re starting to be very encouraged by his health, and we need him healthy for the long run.”
O’Connell has been practicing for a few weeks since going under the knife on the first day of school, and the Patriots wanted to ease him back into the mix Friday night. That meant sitting out the first series, something which he understood but only added to the anticipation of finally getting back out on the field.
But it didn’t take long for his presence to be felt. On the Wildcats’ second possession, O’Connell, donning his green No. 44 jersey, trotted on to the field and knifed his way into the backfield on his very first play, tackling the Wildcats running back for a two-yard loss.
“That first play I was doing my best to take out 11 months of frustration and anger, whoever came in my way,” O’Connell said. “It could have been 90 yards down field, and I was chasing it down.”
All that time on the sideline paid dividends for the 6-foot-3 O’Connell. Though he wasn’t able to be with his teammates on the field, he was a regular at practice and studied film daily, which allowed him to mature from his accomplishments as a sophomore — a season in which he admitted he just “flew around.”
“I think my mental side of the game improved,” he said. “But I think right now, being able to sit back and watch and be a student of the game is what they kept telling me to do, and it worked."
Adding a player who could be the Patriots’ most talented defender is only going to strengthen a Stevenson defense that has come a long way in just two short weeks since allowing 28 points to Homewood-Flossmoor.
“Our kids are flying around, they’re having a lot of fun,” Hjorth said, “and that’s the whole idea of defense: If we’re going to run to the football we’re going to start taking it away, and that’s what we’re looking to do.”
One of Hjorth’s sayings for this year’s group is to always be “tightening the wrench” as a defense. Adding a player of O’Connell’s caliber to the mix is doing just that, and with difficult matchups in Warren, Lake Forest and Lake Zurich looming that could determine the Patriots’ playoff fate, his presence will make a real difference.
“We’re so close to being a dominant defense, which is what we need to be in order to progress through the season,” O’Connell said. “Tighten the wrench, get that last bit, and I was hoping to be that last piece of the puzzle, bringing that energy and being that last bit. We’re not there yet, not the defense we want to be yet, but we definitely took a step in the right direction tonight.”