Terps' O'Donnell gets kick out of his dream come true

September 23, 1995|By Ken Rosenthal

COLLEGE PARK -- The night before a game, no matter where Maryland is playing, junior kicker Joe O'Donnell calls his parents.

"They give me my pre-game speech," he says.

"We don't feel right if we don't say, 'Stay focused, keep your head down,' " his mother, Jeanne, adds.

Joe smiles, Jeanne chuckles.

Who can believe this?

Not Joe, who transferred last year from Division I-AA Tennessee-Martin, won the starting job as a walk-on and earned a scholarship in Maryland's resurgent program.

Not his mother, who laughed when Joe, a gifted soccer player, told her that he wanted to try football in his junior year of high school.

And not his father, Joe Sr., who risked financial hardship to allow his son to pursue his Division I-A dream closer to home in Rural Ridge, Pa., a suburb of Pittsburgh.

Joe Jr. wanted to play big-time college football, but it wasn't just that. Tennessee-Martin was a 12-hour drive from home, and a 2 1/2 -hour drive from the nearest airport in Memphis or Nashville.

His father was fighting leukemia.

His grandmother was dying of cancer.

He wanted to be near his family.

"It really troubled him that he was so far away and all these things were happening, especially with me," says Joe Sr., who has been cancer-free since November 1993.

Or as Joe Jr. recalls, "The second day of camp, I was wondering, 'What am I doing in Tennessee?' "

The answer was simple: Money was tight, and Tennessee-Martin was the only school to offer him a scholarship.

His father is a federal mine inspector. His mother works in data entry. And he has two younger sisters -- Jana, 18, and Karly, 14 -- who plan to attend college.

Still, the thought occurred to him almost immediately:

Transfer.

"It was hard for him to tell me he wanted to leave," Joe Sr. says. "He knew everything was paid for. But he'd tell me, 'I'm watching football on Saturday, I-A football. I can do just as good, or better.'

"We all look back and say, 'What if I had done this? Should I have done that?' I couldn't take that from him. I said, 'Do it. We'll find a way.' I couldn't tell him no."

At Thanksgiving, O'Donnell related his plans to Joe Naunchik, his coach at Fox Chapel High School. Naunchik had a tight end the major colleges wanted. Every time a coach came by, he'd ask, "Looking for a kicker?"

Maryland offensive coordinator Dan Dorazio, the Terps' recruiter western Pennsylvania, replied, "We sure are."

Indeed, the Maryland kicking game was so bad two years ago, coach Mark Duffner held an open audition for members of the university soccer team the week before the season opener.

Two walk-ons proceeded to go 1-for-8 in field-goal attempts, and Duffner didn't try another field goal after late October.

"We didn't have a kicker to kick the ball far enough for our coverage to cover," special teams coach Dave Ungerer recalls. "It was a joke."

Naunchik showed Dorazio a film of O'Donnell, Dorazio relayed what he saw to Ungerer, and Maryland grew interested.

"He kind of fell into our laps," Ungerer says."

The problem was, Maryland already had committed a scholarship to Brad Rhodes, a kicker from Biloxi, Miss. They weren't about to offer one to O'Donnell.

So, the coaches made O'Donnell a two-part promise. He could compete with Rhodes as a walk-on. And if he won the job, they'd put him on scholarship.

It was a huge risk for O'Donnell.

But no school made a better offer.

That summer, O'Donnell was kicking not just for a job, but for his education. He transferred too late to receive financial aid in XTC 1994-95. He and his parents took out loans. But they might not have been able to afford two more years at Maryland if he did not earn a scholarship.

"It would have been difficult," Joe Sr. says. "But we would do whatever we could to keep our kids in school. If it means selling my house for my three kids to get through college, I'd do it."

No one wanted it to come to that, least of all O'Donnell.

"He was a nervous wreck," Jeanne says. "He called us every single day, just to talk."

Recalls O'Donnell: "It was a lot of pressure. That was my one shot."

He beat out Rhodes in a competition Ungerer described as "fierce." He made nine of 10 field goals and 33 of 34 extra points. And Maryland kept its promise, putting him on scholarship in January.

This season, O'Donnell is kicking even better -- he made a career-best 45-yard field goal against North Carolina, then topped that with a 47-yarder against West Virginia.

Hard to believe he didn't kick until his junior year of high school.

"He had never touched a football," Jeanne recalls. "I said, 'There's no way he can do it.' He came in and asked if we had a football. We didn't. We had to borrow one from a neighbor."

He practiced once, kicking balls over the shed.

"We went out on the asphalt, got real close to the shed," Joe Sr. says. "I said, 'You've got to get it up, and get it straight.' He kicked about five balls, and the next day he was kicking 40-yarders."

And now here he is, kicking at Maryland. He was so excited to be in College Park last season, he took pictures of Byrd Stadium and the Maryland locker room. He plans to take more pictures this weekend. His parents are bringing his camera.

Jeanne and Joe Sr. come to all of Maryland's home games. O'Donnell's only wish is that his grandmother, Louise, could have seen him play. She died in the summer of '94.

He came to Maryland to be closer to her, closer to his father, closer to everyone. He came to Maryland to prove he could kick in Division I-A, and the way he is going, he might develop into an NFL prospect.

"He said to me the other night that he can't believe he's gotten where he is," Jeanne says. "It seems like a dream to him."

"A dream come true," O'Donnell says. "I don't think I could be happier at any school."

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