BURNABY — For his entire athletic career, Devin O’Hea has had a tough time defining which version of football best fit his definition of The Beautiful Game.
That is, until this season, when one of the most rare dual-sport athletes in a half-century plus of Simon Fraser Clan athletics decided it was time to look at Terry Fox Field as a pitch, and not a gridiron.
“I think this is clear-cut now,” the 6-foot-1, 188-pound North Vancouver native explained Wednesday of making the extremely rare collegiate switch from that of heralded pure freshman wide receiver on the football team to promising striker on its nationally-ranked soccer team. “For me, just getting back onto a soccer field, I realized I have missed it so much and that it’s definitely where my heart is.”
O’Hea, 19, will be wearing that heart on his sleeve come Thursday night, as two days ahead of the football team’s opener at Portland State, he returns to his soccer roots with the No. 13 nationally-ranked Clan in its season-opener against the arch-rival, No. 2-ranked Cal Poly Pomona Bronocs, the featured 8:30 p.m. match which caps the first day of the inaugural SFU Showdown, a four-team pre-season invitational featuring some of the best NCAA Div. 2 teams from the West Region.
The SFU Showdown begins at 6 p.m. when Cal State-San Bernadino faces Montana State Billings. The invitational concludes with two more contests Saturday.
Coming out of Argyle Secondary in the spring of 2018, O’Hea’s rare combination of athletic prowess and adaptability had generated so much interest that Simon Fraser’s soccer and football programs had each offered him an athletic scholarship.
It’s a shame, he says, that the two sports overlapped during the fall season, because O’Hea says he would definitely have tried to play both if they didn’t.
In the end, however, he elected to play football, despite the fact that he’d really only played the sport serious over his Grade 11 and 12 seasons with the Pipers.
Yet last season, as a pure freshman in the Great Northwest Athletic Conference, all O’Hea did was finish third on the Clan in receiving yards, catching 36 passes for 484 yards (13.4 avg. YPC) and a touchdown.
If you’d seen O’Hea in action, it was clearly more than enough to suggest that he was moving in the direction of not only becoming a conference all-star, but a future pro.
MAKING TOUGH CHOICES
Like all young athletes, Devin O’Hea grew up embracing a sporting life which allowed he and all of his friends to play soccer, basketball and football.
He was good at all of them, yet especially so in soccer.
In fact, O’Hea very quickly pinpoints his proficiency on the pitch as the reason he felt he had to make a choice between his sports by the time his Grade 9 season (2014-15) had rolled around.
One season prior, as an eighth grader, O’Hea had earned a spot with the Whitecaps FC youth program, but in Grade 9, he made their residency team.
“That meant I had to change schools from Argyle to Burnaby Central,” says O’Hea who decided he would make the sacrifices necessary to see how far his soccer career could take him. “And I couldn’t play football or even basketball. I was missing my other sports. I was still so young, and to me, I felt isolated.”
So he quit the Whitecaps, returned to Argyle, and to start his Grade 11 year, not only played HPL soccer with Mountain United, but soccer, basketball and football with his Pipers’ high school teams.
That is a huge athletic load, but O’Hea thrived, especially on the gridiron where he was returning to a game he had not played since the seventh grade (2012-13) in the community-based Gordon Sturtridge League, known throughout the North Shore as the GSL.
“It felt amazing to start playing football again and I had coach Wayne (Theobald), who always believed in me and told me that I could go far,” says O’Hea, who in his senior season at Argyle caught 33 passes for 529 yards and a whopping 16.03 yards-per-catch average.
Signs of his natural ability on the football field were everywhere.
In his first homecoming game back in 2016, O’Hea lined up at safety and by the third snap of the game had already made an interception.
HOW RARE IT IS
Devin O’Hea isn’t a professional athlete yet, but that doesn’t mean his athletic talent isn’t rare.
In lieu of better evidence of just how elusive it is to find a notable soccer/football dual-sport athlete, Wikipedia’s list of prominent NFLers with soccer backgrounds is restricted almost exclusively to kickers and punters (Morten Andersen, Chris Bahr, Matt Bahr) with the exception of one former goalkeeper (Dwight Freeney).
O’Hea, who shared Whitecaps residency time with no less than Bayern Munich’s Alphonso Davies and current Whitecaps MLS player Theo Bair, is a striker by trade who played with the Canadian Under-17 national program and who thrived at the NCAA Div. 2 level of football with what basically amounted to two years of high school football experience.
“We would see him post-training,” SFU head soccer coach Clint Schneider remembers of last season, when he would turn his gaze to football practice for a few moments following one of his own team’s training sessions.
“When Dev puts the pads on, he looks like an American football player,” continues Schneider. “There is a reason why he is a guy who can go out and play college football, even though it was something he really didn’t pick up on until quite late. He’s just very special athletically, and that is what people will see.”
Some might say there is no harder line-up to crack in the GNAC than the Simon Fraser men’s soccer team, which has likely garnered more weeks at No. 1 nationally than any other team in any other sport in the conference over the past number of seasons.
Yet that again is what makes O’Hea so special.
“You don’t find this in Canada as much, more in the states, and usually in football and basketball,” adds Schneider who references Allen Iverson, relating the fact that NBA Hall of Famer led his high school basketball and football teams, as BOTH point guard and quarterback, to the Virginia state championships, and was picked Associated Press High School Player of the Year in both sports.
“We’re talking about a kid who was a Canadian youth international and who as a 17-year-old, was rated higher than some current professionals,” Schneider continues of O’Hea. “He’s the kind of athlete where his body will form to what (demands) he is putting on it, so if he is running more, he’ll lean out more.”
A TOUGH LINEUP TO CRACK
As part of the athletic department’s overall off-season re-branding, the Simon Fraser Clan men’s soccer team will be the first to sport to don the school’s classically-styled maple leaf icon on its game-day jersies in an official game when it opens the 2019 campaign at home Thursday to Cal Poly Pomona.
That’s in many ways fitting for the Clan program which not only carries a 32-game win streak (29-0-3) into its SFU Showdown opener, but has also earned the most sustained national recognition since SFU’s entry into the NCAA at the start of this decade.
Yet while its logo will be new, its logistics will remain true to the DNA of head coach Schneider who has guided the team to three straight GNAC titles and an overall combined record of 42-6-7 over that stretch.
In what was more like a rite of mid-summer passage last month, the Clan were once again installed as the GNAC favourites, collecting all seven first-place votes in its preseason coaches poll, coming off a 2018 campaign in which it went a stunning 17-2-0 and was ranked No. 1 nationally for much of the season.
If anything, it’s an even stronger indication of the type of team that O’Hea will be trying to garner minutes playing for.
“We don’t really talk about it to be honest with you because the expectation for the guys has always been to win,” said Schneider of the coaches poll. “It’s great to be recognized that way but it doesn’t change any of the preparation or the motivation to go out and get results.”
The 2019 Clan is filled with stars, led by the Polisi brothers, Matteo and Marcello. Connor Glennon up front and keeper Luciano Trasolini are two other galvanizing forces.
For O’Hea, the pull back to soccer pitch had begun during his freshman football season.
“During the football season I had gone to watch some of the soccer games,” says O’Hea. “I had played with a bunch of them earlier in my youth career and it hurt a bit in my heart. I was thinking ‘Dang, I miss this.’”
At about the same time, O’Hea was feeling the impact of being a fulltime tackle football player.
“So after the season, I got a check-up and I found out I had an injured back,” he says of what was diagnosed as a bulging disc resulting in nerve pain in his right leg. “When I played soccer, I never got those kinds of body hits.”
Getting back to full health and becoming a full-time soccer player for the first time since his 2015-16 Grade 10 season, O’Hea still holds on to a professional dream of playing in MLS or perhaps overseas after graduation.
Yet he harbours no regret about the path his rare talents have taken him on.
In fact his former gridiron coaches and teammates are still a part of his every day life.
“I still have such a good relationship with coach Ford and he’s been such a mentor to me,” O’Hea says. “The players, too. I appreciate everything they have done for me.
“Right now I am ecstatic,” he adds. “I can’t wait to get my foot on the ball and back into the groove. My mindset is to go out and try to help us win the whole thing… win the national championship.”
Yet the other sport called football, that other beautiful game, in many ways will continue to exist in a parallel universe.
“I live in Burnaby (off campus) in a house with five (tackle) football guys,” O’Hea laughs of the light-hearted ribbing he endures from defensive back Evan Currie, a fellow North Vancouverite from Handsworth; Robert Meadors, a former fellow freshman wideout; receiver Ethan Beselt, Alaskan DB Jacob Wade, and running back KC Kircher. “They’re always hard on me.”
The SFU Showdown wraps up play Saturday when MSU Billings plays Cal Poly Pomona at 11:30 a.m., followed by the Clan’s 7 p.m. clash with Cal State San Bernadino.
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