Purdue football: Aidan O'Connell somehow endures despite deeply personal tragedy
As a Purdue quarterback, Aidan O’Connell has shown an uncanny ability to stay focused on his task, putting all the other outside factors aside as he tries to win games for the Boilermakers.
One might have to possess such a trait to be able to go from 8th-string, as he was when he arrived on campus as a walk-on in 2017, to one of the best QBs in the Big Ten. That focus is one of the reasons why O’Connell has guided the Boilermakers to a school-record 5 4th-quarter come-from-behind victories and back-to-back 8-win regular seasons. But shaking off an interception to make a game-deciding play, which he has a knack for doing, pales in comparison to the great personal tragedy O’Connell persevered through this past week.
A few days ago, O’Connell lost his older brother, Sean, to an unexpected death, a personal tragedy few people have to deal with at such a young age. Sunday, a day after he led the Boilermakers to a 30-16 win at Indiana to give the Boilermakers the Big Ten West title and a trip to Indianapolis for the championship game, O’Connell announced the death on Purdue football’s Twitter account. He said, in part: “Sean was not only one of Purdue Football’s biggest fans, but he was a better son, brother and friend. He lit up any room he walked in, and all that knew him testify to his contagious joy.”
It’s an almost unthinkable loss for O’Connell and his family. And the pain, although most didn’t know the reason why then, was evident on his face after Saturday’s win. As the seconds ticked down on the Boilermakers’ historic win, O’Connell gathered on the sideline with Purdue team chaplain Marty Dittmar, teammate Charlie Jones and later his dad. Tears streamed down his face. At the time, it was easy to think it was the emotion of the moment, with Purdue winning a chance to take on Michigan in Indy. But it was something very different, and much more poignant and difficult.
O’Connell didn’t have to play Saturday. No one would have blamed him. Purdue could have inserted Austin Burton into the lineup and tried to win with the backup. It might have won the game. It might not have. But everyone, at least every rational one, would have understood.
But that wouldn’t have been the Aidan O’Connell Way. The veteran likely wanted to honor his brother in the best way he knew how, while also being there for his teammates. But what a challenge it had to be, trying to study film and go to practice late in the week, then head to Bloomington for a high-stakes rivalry game. O’Connell deeply holds his faith, and that likely has helped him through these dark, difficult hours.
His Purdue family probably did, too. After the game, the usually stoic Jeff Brohm was forced to hold back tears when asked about O’Connell’s rise from walk-on to likely member of Purdue’s coveted “Cradle of Quarterbacks.” He struggled through an answer, knowing what O’Connell had been through the last few days but not yet at liberty to reveal it.
“Aidan, he has a lot going on right now,” Brohm said, fighting through tears.”I’m not going to say anything about it right now. So he’s emotional for a lot of reasons. But he played really hard. He stepped up to the plate when his teammates needed him. he gave us great effort all year long. It doesn’t matter what’s going on, he gives us great effort. I just think it’s a great story (his rise from a walk-on). I’m really proud of him.”
Around Purdue, quarterbacks are held in high regard. There’s been a bunch of them, from Bob Griese and Mike Phipps and others generations ago, to Drew Brees and Kyle Orton. Aidan O’Connell is beloved by many Purdue fans because of his story, rising from the bottom and showing class while being humble and winning games. The community will hurt with him.
But O’Connell will endure, because that’s what he does.