Leominster star to leave lasting legacy

LEOMINSTER, Mass. -– When Neil O’Connor first discovered that he was going to be named Gatorade Player of the Year, he happened to be in between classes at Leominster High. His football coach, Dave Palazzi, called O’Connor into his office.

“Have you heard of this Gatorade Player of the Year thing at all Neil? It’s pretty cool,” Palazzi asked, summoning his star quarterback over to his computer to look through the list of winners of the award.

O’Connor scrolled down the page and eventually got down to Massachusetts, shooting his coach a smirk when he found his name on the list of 2013 winners.

“Oh wow, well thanks coach,” O’Connor said, reaching out to shake Palazzi’s hand.

And then O’Connor walked out of the room, back to class next door, as if nothing had happened.

“I was like ‘don’t thank me, you did everything!’ Neil just shook my hand and that was it. He didn’t even tell anybody, he just went back to class,” recalls Palazzi, himself one of the city’s all-time greats, and a former UMass quarterback. “I peeked in the other room and he was just with his friends working on a project. He didn’t tell anyone. It was unbelievable.”

Jarell Addo, a UMass football signee and an exceptional athlete in his own right, has been one of O’Connor’s best friends since the two first started going to Leominster High football games together in the fourth grade. The day O’Connor won the Gatorade Player of the Year award, Addo had no idea until he heard about it from others.

“He didn’t even tell me, people kept coming up to him at school and asking him about it,” Addo said. “He was so humble that he didn’t even want to mention it to me and I hang out with him every day.”

Blue Blood

O’Connor is a three-sport captain and star in Leominster, the most well-known athlete in a sports-crazy town that prides itself partly on athletic programs that have been among the best in Massachusetts for well over a half a century. It’s a regular occurrence to see four or five thousand screaming fans at Doyle Field on Friday night for a Leominster football game, making it one of the few towns in Massachusetts that has that authentic feel so often romanticized in pop culture.

“It’s like the picture-perfect movie, like Friday Night Lights,” O’Connor said. “On Friday night, everyone stops what they’re doing and goes to the games. It’s a great feeling to play for your whole town – some of that community used to play football here or used to play baseball here. They’re done playing, they don’t get anything out of it, so it’s awesome knowing that they still care about it enough to come support us.”

Addo added: “Walking down that tunnel at Doyle and hearing all the fans screaming for you is just a great thing to have. In the back of your mind when things are going bad, you know all these people are here rooting for you. It’s very special.”

A member of the varsity baseball team since he was a freshman, a do-it-all utility man on the football field, and the ultimate glue guy on the basketball court, O’Connor is a rare breed in an age where most young athletes are encouraged to focus on just one sport.

The 6-foot senior won the Massachusetts Gatorade Player of the Year in football, passing for 2,132 yards and 24 touchdowns while rushing for 673 yards and 11 touchdowns. On defense, the hard-hitting safety led the team with 120 tackles and five interceptions, including two interceptions returned for a touchdown. He’s also been quite a role model for younger student-athletes in Leominster to look up to, sporting a 3.4 GPA in the classroom.

Even at 6-foot with high tops on, O’Connor led the basketball team in rebounding and embraced a role as Coach Steve Dubzkinski’s go-to defensive stopper on a team that went 17-5 and fell to eventual state champion Putnam in the Western Mass. semis.

Most recently, he has anchored the baseball team’s run to the Division 1 state championship game with a .468 batting average and 8-1 record on the pitcher’s mound. He’s proven to be the most comfortable in uncomfortable situations. His coaches, as well as Addo, admitted that about the only time O’Connor gets uncomfortable is when he has to talk about himself.

“The only time Neil is uncomfortable is when you compliment him,” said Leominster baseball coach Rich Barnaby. “Literally, he’s probably the most modest kid you’ll ever meet. The most uncomfortable he gets is when you compliment him or tell him how good he is.”

O’Connor remains mum on receiving the Gatorade award. An award that specifically celebrates the individual, he didn’t address it with many people because he knew it wasn’t something he accomplished alone.

“It was a great accomplishment, it’s a great award and I was so honored to receive it,” he said. “That being said, it wasn’t just an award I won single-handedly –- I won it with my brothers, my family, the whole school -– everyone contributed to it. I wouldn’t have been able to do anything without all the people around us. Our coaches, our players -– everyone. It was great to have, but I wanted everyone to know that they played a part in it.”

Steve Dubzinski, Leominster’s varsity basketball coach who also grew up in the town, spares no words in describing O’Connor’s legacy at Leominster. He recalled a conversation he recently had about O’Connor with his uncle John Dubzinski, who won 181 games and five super bowls in his time as Leominster’s football coach preceding Palazzi.

“I talked to my uncle the other day and I said Neil’s the best athlete to ever come out of Leominster in the last 60 or 70 years,” Dubzkinski said. “So I asked my uncle -- my uncle came here in 1970, so he was here over 40 years -- and he said hands down Neil O’Connor is the best all-around athlete to come out of Leominster in the last 42 years.”

Palazzi added: “It’s one of those things where you go into that game and you have the cannon and the other guy has a squirt gun, so to speak, that’s how you feel when Neil’s on your team. And it’s not just his talent, it’s the things he can do in pressure situations.”

Family Ties

In order to understand O’Connor’s accomplishments on the athletic field, one must first look at his bloodlines.

Many in the town call Neil’s success destiny. His oldest brother Patrick was a three-sport athlete at Leominster before playing Division 1 football at Wagner College. His middle brother Kevin, who is two years Neil’s senior and also played three sports for the Blue Devils, plays football and baseball at Assumption College.

Neil’s father, Oscar, is the president of the Leominster Blue Devils Football Club. Meanwhile, his mother Ann could often be seen glancing back and forth at her cell phone during Neil’s games so that she could support two sons at the same time -– watching streams of Kevin’s football and baseball games online:

“She never had a smartphone, she had no idea how to work it,” O’Connor says with a laugh. “She would be at Doyle Field watching my game while watching Kevin’s game on a little iPhone. She’s always been our biggest supporter, our biggest fan.”

Neil learned much about defense and the safety position from his brother, and he remembers his touchdown pass to Kevin at Gillette Stadium two years ago as one of the proudest moments of his life. Only weeks earlier, Neil had broken his right collarbone, and it was feared that he wouldn’t be able to play for the rest of the season.

He even tried to take matters into his own hands, showing up to football practice with a catcher’s protector on his right shoulder in order to prove to Palazzi he could play. After he saw a doctor and was ruled out for the Blue Devils’ Thanksgiving Day game against Fitchburg, he was cleared to play in their final game of the season – where they took on heated rival St. John’s for the Central Mass. Division 1 Super Bowl.

“The team knew about it. That just gave us even more fire coming out against St. John’s knowing that Neil was playing with that hurt shoulder. He was going to do whatever it took to win,” said Addo, who spent the last two years playing at safety alongside O’Connor.

The Blue Devils upended St. John’s for the 21-6 Super Bowl victory, but the first touchdown of the game is one the O’Connors will never forget. On a halfback option pass from junior quarterback Garrett DelleChiaie, Neil caught the ball and hurled a perfect spiral 44 yards downfield to Kevin to give Leominster the early lead.

At that point, his right collarbone was of course still broken, but he had confirmed with a doctor that the injury wouldn’t be aggravated by continuing to play. Immense pain and all, there was but one choice.

“I was so down, I wanted to play on Thanksgiving because it’s a huge family tradition – so that really hurt,” O’Connor recalled. “It really meant a lot to play one last game with my brother, someone who I’ve looked up to my whole life. But that touchdown was one of the best parts of my sports career, and it was at Gillette. That moment, I’ll always cherish that.”

“He grew up in a town where his brothers competed at a high level, meanwhile he’s there the whole time listening in on it,” Palazzi said. “Just the upbringing by his parents: teaching him what’s right about the game and how to act, what to say, how to be to your teammates. That whole package of support got him to where he is today, no question about that.”

Thrown in the fire

The first impression O’Connor made at Leominster High was as a skinny freshman, where he practiced with the varsity baseball team but only played in JV games during the regular season. Emile Johnson, Leominster’s longtime baseball coach who retired last year after 725 victories, went to O’Connor for two key relief appearances in the Central Mass. tournament -– including once against top-seeded Milford, where O’Connor picked up the victory. O’Connor has been a starter for the baseball team ever since.

“He was on the JV team, but he practiced with us. So we brought him up, we played Milford in the quarterfinals, and Neil came in to shut the door against the number-one team – you knew the kid had poise under the pressure,” Barnaby said. “It’s tough to be a freshman and move all the way up to the varsity, but just being the youngest brother you knew he was going to be gifted. He tried out with us and we saw that we had to give him some playing time. It’s very rare for a freshman to play at the varsity level.”

The pitching appearances against Milford and Quabbin came as a complete surprise to O’Connor, who expected to spend the tournament on the bench considering that the Blue Devils had a senior-laden team.

“I figured I would just play a role on the bench, like get foul balls and stuff like that,” he said. “Coach Johnson told me I had nothing to lose, to go out there and do my best, that if we win I’m the hero and if we lose then it doesn’t matter. He pretty much told me to go out there and give it my best shot.”

Leominster faced St. John’s in the semifinal -– which would become a recurring theme over the course of O’Connor’s career –- and fell 5-4.

"The color red, we just don’t like it"

The Blue Devils’ rivalry with St. John’s of Shrewsbury has been long and storied, but has been especially fierce during O’Connor’s tenure at Leominster. Any time the two schools meet – especially in football, basketball, baseball – extra-aggressive play and plenty of trash talk is sure to follow suit.

“Everybody gets fired up no matter what the event, whether it’s basketball or football or baseball. It’s the color red, we just don’t like it,” Addo said, referring to the Pioneers’ colors.

Leominster faced the Pioneers in all four years of O’Connor’s career in the MIAA baseball tournament, and went 2-1 on the mound in three postseason starts against them.

His best work though, was the show he put on at Tivnan Field in this year’s semifinal. O’Connor pitched a complete game, giving up just one run on four hits to one of the state’s deepest lineups. Once again, he had decided to take things into his own hands.

Down 1-0 in the sixth inning, O’Connor came to the plate and ripped the first pitch he saw to left field for a two-run home run; he later called the home run the farthest ball he’s ever hit. Minutes later, he retired the side on the mound to send his archrival home packing for the second straight year, 2-1. The win was vengeance, in a way, after Leominster’s year ended at the hands of the Pioneers during football.

After seeing O’Connor jump on home plate and embrace his teammates with celebratory shouts and high-fives, his coaches agreed unanimously that the emotion from him after he hit the home run was more emotion than they’d ever seen him display on a playing field.

The untold story was the challenge that Barnaby issued to O’Connor before the game, and his star senior rose to the challenge in a way that the coach never thought possible.

“I said ‘You know what Neil? People that don’t know anything about sports will say you had some good regular season games but you couldn’t come through in the playoffs…I know better than that, but that’s what they’ll say about you. You can’t win the big one’,” Barnaby recalled.

“The thing about that challenge, and the fact that St. John’s was the one who took the football title away from him; there was obviously some bad blood from the fans and from players on the other team too. That made it extra special.”

The challenge forced O’Connor to do some thinking before the game, coming to the quick conclusion that he had to do anything in his power to make sure his team had the chance to achieve their goal of playing for a state championship – a goal Barnaby and the team set for themselves last summer.

“That game felt like a football game,” said O’Connor. “Just the emotion, that was the closest thing I’ve ever had to a football game. We lost to them in football at the end of the year and I really just didn’t want to go down in my last game of my high school career losing to St. John’s. Before the game I was just thinking about how I couldn’t let that happen.”

With an equally deep talent pool in football, the Central Mass. championship the last few years have often come down to Leominster and St. John’s. The Blue Devils got the best of the rivalry in O’Connor’s sophomore and junior years, winning two Super Bowls in Palazzi’s first two years as coach, but could only watch as the Pioneers’ high-powered offense, led by All-State quarterback Drew Smiley, ran away with a 51-42 victory this year –- knocking Leominster out of the playoffs.

“That loss to St. John’s [in football] really left a fire in his stomach,” Addo said. “You see him now performing on the baseball field: hitting home runs and closing teams out, you can just see that he wants to end it on a good note. I think the home run probably gave him closure on the rivalry. He doesn’t want his team to be one win away or a couple wins away, he wants to take it all down.”

Palazzi seconded Addo’s opinion: “You’ve got to understand that Neil doesn’t say a whole lot, he internalizes it. But I think a lot of that came out when he hit the home run against St. John’s. It doesn’t compare necessarily to a football game, but to him I think it does. He carries those things with him.”

Leaving a legacy

Saturday’s Division 1 state championship game against Norwood will be an opportunity that Leominster’s seniors have dreamt up since they first played Little League together: having their own state championship banner at school.

The Blue Devils’ have been a team on a mission since early in the season, winning 16 of their last 17 games dating back to April. Led by a strong senior class anchored by O’Connor, pitcher Tanner Jakola, and power-hitting first baseman Brennan Cuddahy, Leominster goes into Saturday’s Division 1 state championship with a chance to bring home a source of pride for their team, their school, and the sports-obsessed community:

“We know it’s our last game playing together for Leominster. We’ve been playing sports together our whole lives, the last four years at Leominster for me has been the time of my life,” O’Connor reflects, “We looked back on how much fun it was and realized how quickly it’s coming to an end. It kind of stinks that it’s our last game ever, but the one positive of it is that we can win our last game ever. Not a lot of teams can do that, not a lot of players can do that.”

Before this year, the Blue Devils hadn’t won a district championship in baseball since 1996, when Barnaby was a third baseman on a squad that won the Division 1 state championship. O’Connor deflects any opportunity to talk about his individual legacy, but many in the community consider the Blue Devils’ state championship run to be one last chapter in the story of “OC”.

Whether it was O’Connor’s Gillette Stadium touchdown pass with a broken collarbone to his brother; being forced out of a Pop Warner game when he was 10, because his hard hits were hurting opposing players; the home run that sent his most hated rival home; or the time Palazzi was so frustrated with the kicking game, that O’Connor went home and taught himself how to kick by practicing field goals in the street with Kevin; it’s a story that often seems more full of tall tales and folk lore than real life.

For Dubzinski, it’s a story that the people of Leominster will never forget.

“Neil’s just a gifted kid because he’s not only a fierce a competitor as you’re ever going to find, he’s talented and he’s a play ahead of everyone on the court or the field,” he said. “He just has a gift...You can’t quantify it, it just happens.

“I just hope people appreciate what we’ve witnessed over the last four years, because you get a kid like that maybe once in a lifetime. I’m 43 years old and I will never see another kid like Neil O’Connor.”