(Over the course of the summer we will be unveiling the 50 Greatest Badgers of All-Time every Monday – Friday)
No. 46 — Pat O’Dea, Football
If you’re a fan of history, let alone football history Pat O’Dea should be a name you know. Should you not know his name…well, shame on you. Not only is O’Dea one of the craziest figures of the early college football game, but he was one of the best players at his position too.
What position did O’Dea play? Not quarterback, running back, end or even a defensive position. Instead, O’Dea earned his stripes (and perhaps a bit of money too) as perhaps the best punter in the entire country (oh and also as a great fullback).
He was a two-time All-American at fullback and punter from 1896 to 1899 for the Badgers and was a 1962 inductee in to the National Football Foundation College Football Hall of Fame. It’s an honor that isn’t easy to make happen, yet it did for a guy who was as mysterious off the field as he was graceful on it.
O’Dea was a first in American football, bringing the Aussie Rules style of kicking to the game and it was a massive hit. He still holds the NCAA record with a 65-yard drop kick field goal (worth four points and still legal in the game today…for those who don’t know that), single-handily led the effort to save the football team back in 1898 and also kicked a 110-yard punt in a 1897 game against Minnesota (suck it Goofs).
However, Wisconsin football would not have Pat O’Dea if it weren’t for a little sport called rowing. That’s because O’Dea’s brother Andy was the rowing coach at Wisconsin, and the younger O’Dea came by for a visit that changed Wisconsin’s athletic department forever.
Only, this is where legend takes over for reality, because, as the story goes, O’Dea just so happened to drop by the fields where his brother was..picked up a football and belted a drop-kick of all drop-kicks right in front of the football coach. Legend has it, that was the kick that got O’Dea a place on the football team.
Take that story with a grain of salt, but also remember that the legend happened for a reason — O’Dea was one of the best athletes of his era.
In case you think O’Dea was just a fullback with a great kicking leg, O’Dea was Jim Thorpe, Jesse Owens or Bruce Jenner before those people even existed. He may have been the first multi-sport and multi-national stars of sport actually.
O’Dea just so happened to be one of the best of the best in the precursor to the Australian Football League. He also was a star on the Wisconsin track team, running as a hurdler and recording a time that was just one-fifth of a second out of the world record at the time.
The list of insane accomplishments on the field and on the track are just part of the story though. A read of BTN’s own Dave Revsine’s book, titled The Opening Kickoff: The Tumultuous Birth of a Football Nation tells his story in great detail.
Sadly, O’Dea’s life has a massive hole in it…that’s because after he moved to San Francisco following stints as a head coach at Notre Dame and the University of Missouri, O’Dea disappeared from the world. Not just the sporting world, but the world period. Even so much so that his family had no idea where he was, what he was doing…and many thought he was killed in World War I.
Instead, the ever cleaver O’Dea had just simply changed his name and become a businessman in a small California timber town. Can you imagine a character like that in today’s college football world? Just wow.
Full 50 Greatest Badgers List: