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O'Dea, Patrick John (Pat) (1872–1962)

by James Griffin

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

Patrick John (Pat) O'Dea (1872-1962), footballer, was born on 16 March 1872 at Kilmore, Victoria, third of seven surviving children of Patrick Flannery O'Dea, a squatter from Ireland, and his Victorian-born wife Johanna, née Crossley. After the family moved to Melbourne, Pat attended Christian Brothers' College, St Kilda, and Xavier College, Kew (1888-89). He was awarded a bronze medallion by the Royal Humane Society of Australasia for recovering a drowned woman from the sea at Mordialloc on 3 January 1888. A lithe six-footer (183 cm) weighing about 12 stone (76 kg), O'Dea was an outstanding Australian Rules footballer, playing for Melbourne in the Victorian Football Association from 1893 to 1895 when he transferred to Essendon. He was described by the Australasian as a 'fleet' wingman; his high marking and 'prodigious dropkicks', often accurate from any angle, made him one of the 'cracks' of the competition.

Interrupting his legal studies in 1896 to visit Europe, he detoured through the United States of America to see his brother Andrew, whom he joined at the University of Wisconsin (LL.B., 1900), Madison. A casual display of his skill had led to an immediate invitation to study there and play gridiron. Americans had never seen such explosive kicking: he slammed the ball with a shoulder-high follow-through while his other foot was 6 ins (15 cm) off the ground. The 'Kicking Kangaroo's' punts and drops 'electrified the Mid-West fans' and changed the emphasis of gridiron from 'bone-crushing power plays to cleaner ball-handling and frequent kicking'. In 1898-99, mostly as full-back, he captained the Badgers and made Walter Camp's second All-American team.

His feats became legendary. With the lighter American ball, O'Dea established a punt-kicking record, with wind assistance, of 110 yards (100 m)—the next best was 91 yards (83 m). In 1899 he performed 'the most-impossible [place] kick in football history' to defeat Illinois—55 yards (50 m), half the length of a gridiron field, into a 20-mile (32 km)-an-hour crosswind. His side-stepping and victorious running goal over the head of his blocker, the great Gil Dobie, is still recalled. In only two seasons O'Dea drop-kicked 32 goals. After graduating, he coached football at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana, in 1900-01 and, later, football, rowing and athletics at Stanford University, California. By 1906 he had married and been divorced.

In 1917 this 'quiet, modest' man disappeared. A futile worldwide search, reaching to Australia, was made. His brother thought that he may have joined the Australian Imperial Force, becoming an 'unknown soldier'. Pat O'Dea later claimed that he had 'wanted to get away from . . . mere student days' as his fame had made it difficult to establish his law firm at San Francisco; however, a certain Elsie Waters complained in 1919 that he had 'embezzled $3000 and stock valued at $500' from her. By 1920 O'Dea had been naturalized, and was living in Lassen County, California, with his second wife, Emma. In 1934 he was discovered living as 'Charles J. Mitchell', a lumber company statistician at Westwood, where he was a popular secretary of the Auto Club, treasurer of the Chamber of Commerce and a director of Lassen Volcanic National Park.

Amiable and relaxed, O'Dea received a triumphal homecoming at the University of Wisconsin before he returned to San Francisco where he joined an export business. His last occupation was as office-manager with F. S. Gearhardt & Co., a clothing firm. In 1952 'America's greatest football hero', was given a testimonial banquet by Wisconsin alumni. He deplored the loss of kicking skills in contemporary gridiron: 'the boys don't follow through enough'. In his view, Australian Rules football was the better game: it 'allowed players more spectator appeal with its faster action'. On 3 April 1962 he became the only known Australian elected to the Football Hall of Fame at Rutgers, the State University, New Jersey. Survived by his daughter, O'Dea died next day, 4 April 1962, at the University of California Hospital, San Francisco.

Select Bibliography

  • Xavier College, Xaverian, 1952, 1962
  • Age (Melbourne) 4 Jan 1888
  • Argus (Melbourne), 4 Jan 1888
  • Australasian, 18 June 1892
  • San Francisco Chronicle, 6 May 1919
  • New York Times, 20, 21 Sept, 16 Nov 1934, 4, 5 Apr 1962
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 21 Sept, 16 Nov 1934
  • Herald (Melbourne), 13 Jan 1969, 2 July 1977
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 14 Sept 1977
  • Daily Mirror (Sydney), 13 Oct 1978
  • private information.

Citation details

James Griffin, 'O'Dea, Patrick John (Pat) (1872–1962)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/odea-patrick-john-pat-11285/text20137, published in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 17 April 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

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