VANCOUVER — Michael O’Connor wasn’t afraid of taking a road less traveled to achieve his dream of becoming a professional quarterback, and now more than ever, you can see the purpose in his steps.
In Thursday’s CFL draft, the same football gods who watched the UBC Thunderbirds’ humble superstar become the second-highest selected Canadian quarterback in CFL history by the Toronto Argonauts, were no doubt chuckling to themselves knowing that O’Connor was too busy to even know when and by whom he had been selected.
That’s because the Orleans, Ont., native and Penn State transfer, who was picked 20th overall by Toronto, was engrossed in other football business down in Seattle.
O’Connor had accepted an invitation to the Seattle Seahawks’ three-day rookie mini-camp which begins Friday in Renton, and as all of the first-year players had gathered Thursday to prep for the camp, had promptly shut his phone off.
“I was in meetings with all of the other rookies there, and when I got out of the meetings, that’s when I heard the news,” O’Connor said of turning his phone back on and getting flooded over with messages from well-wishers.
“I am just very excited and very grateful to get the chance to play at the next level and I’m thankful to the Argos for selecting me,” said the 6-foot-5, 235-pound O’Connor, who over his four seasons in blue and gold has passed for 9,990 yards (the second most in Canada West history) and 61 touchdowns. “I am excited to be able to start my pro career.”
O’Connor was a lot of firsts on Thursday: The first-and-only quarterback selected in the draft, the first Canada West player picked, and the first of five Thunderbirds picked on the night.
In the same third round in which he was the first pick, two UBC defensive linemen were also selected.
First, ex-W.J. Mouat Hawks high school standout Sheriden Lawley, who transferred to the ‘Birds this past season from NCAA Div. 1 Connecticut, was picked 24th overall by Hamilton.
On the very next pick, Langley Stampeders community product Connor Griffiths went 25th to Winnipeg.
Malcom Lee, the talented defensive back out of St. Thomas More who transferred to UBC from NCAA Div. 1 Nevada, went on the final pick of the fifth round, 46th overall, to Calgary.
Ex-UBC defensive end Charles Nwoye, who played junior football this past season with the Langley Rams, was picked third in the sixth round, 49th overall, by the hometown B.C. Lions.
UBC head coach Blake Nill has now had 15 players picked in the CFL Draft over his four seasons at the helm of the program.
From an historical standpoint, the only quarterback selected earlier than O’Connor was Florida’s Jesse Palmer, the Toronto native who was selected 15th overall in 2001 and played for both the New York Giants and San Francisco 49ers before finishing his pro career with the Als in 2006.
While plenty of CFL teams had expressed interest in the draft’s No. 17-ranked prospect, O’Connor did not wake up this morning thinking he would become an Argonaut.
“It was kind of out of left field,” he said.”We interviewed at the combine and that went well, but I had not heard anything from them since so I had no idea that it would happen. It was a pleasant surprise.”
Yet before he even gets the chance to throw to Toronto receivers, he will be zooming in on a cache of freshly-drafted Seahawks pass catchers, all of whom heard their names called at last weekend’s NFL draft.
Names like highly-touted D.K. Metcalf out of Ole Miss, West Virginia’s Gary Jennings and Hawaii’s John Ursua will all get a chance to get their mitts on O’Connor’s bullet deliveries.
“It’s a very exciting opportunity to show what I can do and I am grateful to be here because not a lot of people get this kind of an experience,” O’Connor said of stepping onto the field at the Virginia Mason Athletic Center to audition for a team which has made a regular habit out of unearthing players based on their own unique player identification methods. “I need to take full advantage of this.”
UBC may not have been able to repeat the incredible Vanier Cup heroics of that 2015 season in which then-first year head coach Nill arrived on campus with his new quarterback, then watched as O’Connor captained the team all the way to a U Sports’ national title.
Along the way, O’Connor not only got his degree in the classroom, but his degree on the field, showing that even on more spacious Canadian expanse that he had both the arm strength and the cerebral ability to impress anyone who might happen to be watching.
“I am feeling great, and I know that I can throw the ball right there with anybody,” O’Connor stated. “But I also think what separates the good quarterbacks from the great quarterbacks is from the neck up. I think that is one area I excel in. I am a student of the game.”
Of course, the events of Thursday brought to light the end of an era of sorts at UBC, one which will begin in the fall with a new starting quarterback.
“Spending my four years at UBC has definitely prepared me for this level,” he said. “I have worked with a bunch of great coaches and they have all helped get me ready for this moments. Of course, I have also had great teammates, without whom I wouldn’t be here. That’s what I will remember most about UBC. It will be the relationships more than the wins and the losses.”
When asked if Thursday’s events seemed almost surreal with regards to getting his name called in the CFL Draft at the very same moment he was huddled with Seahawks’ rookies preparing for the start of an NFL rookie mini-camp, O’Connor, the kid who transferred from Penn State to UBC, paused to ponder the question.
“I never really thought about it that way,” he said, “but I have to say that it’s ideal. It’s what you hope for and now it’s beginning to materialize. I am excited to have an opportunity in two leagues.”
(Stay tuned: We’ll have more on the 2019 CFL draft from a B.C. high school perspective over the coming days)
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