Tuesday, February 24, 2015

My 'oldest' All-American custom: 'Kangaroo Kicker' O'Dea

The original 1955 Topps All-American college football set contained a couple of stars from the 19th Century (Heffelfinger, Stagg), but until now I'd never found the inspiration to include a player of that vintage in my '55AA customs.

That changed when I discovered the tale of Pat O'Dea.

O'Dea was an Aussie who had played Australian rules football Down Under in 1893-95.

In 1896, when he was on his way to Oxford to study law, he stopped off in Madison, Wis., to visit his brother who was crew coach at the University of Wisconsin.

The story goes that O'Dea so impressed Badgers football coach Phil King with an impromptu kick that he was convinced to matriculate and played four seasons for the Badgers, who compiled a 35-5-1 record and two Big 10 conference championships 1896-99.

O'Dea may have been the greatest punter and field goal kicker of all time. He was so proficient that he was nicknamed the "Kangaroo Kicker" and was the toast of college football at the turn of the 20th Century, in the days before the forward pass was legitimized and at a time when a field goal tallied the same five points as a touchdown.

Some details of his reported on-field performance are subject to speculation, but there's no doubt he helped revolutionize football from a game of brute force to one emphasizing speed and athletic ability.

You can read a capsule career summary on the back of my card, and there are several biographies on the 'net available for the googling. Here's two of the best: http://www.theguardian.com/sport/blog/2014/mar/08/forgotten-story-patrick-odea

O'Dea went to California to practice law after World War I and "vanished" until 1934 when he was discovered living under another name, perhaps having become involved in an embezzlement.

He was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame in 1962 . . . and died the following day.

Fortunately for me, there exists a great studio portrait of O'Dea in a drop-kicking pose that gave me the essential element for my custom.

Now that I'm in the mood to add to my All-American custom "updates," I'll probably reel off another half-dozen or so in the next six-eight weeks . . . including a couple of more Wisconsin Badgers.

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