Illinois quarterbacks have often occupied prominent rankings in the Big Ten’s football record book. Illini fans are undoubtedly familiar with Dave Wilson, Jack Trudeau, Kurt Kittner, Juice Williams and Jeff George, but have you ever heard of Tommy O’Connell?
Born on this Sunday 91 years ago, McConnell made quite a splash during the 1951 and 1952 seasons as Illinois’ signal caller.
He grew up a star athlete in Chicago’s Olympia Park area played for the city‘s prep championship for former Illini letterman Clarence Applegran at South Shore High School. The immortal Frank Leahy originally convinced O’Connell to play at Notre Dame, then O’Connell was attracted to Illinois so that he could play with former prep teammates Rex Smith and Pete Bachouros.
O’Connell waited out a two-year transfer rule before becoming eligible for the Illini varsity in 1951. He sparkled as coach Ray Eliot’s quarterback that first season, leading Illinois to the 1951 Big Ten title and a convincing victory over Stanford in the 1952 Rose Bowl. Individually, O’Connell completed 50 percent of his passes for 692 yards and six touchdowns.
Though the team stumbled to a 4-5 record in 1952, O’Connell compiled record-setting statistics, establishing 11 Big Ten marks that season. His 306 passing yards against Iowa wiped out Otto Graham’s 10-year-old conference mark and his 1,308 Big Ten passing yards were nearly 300 yards more than Wisconsin Johnny Coatta’s previous record.
O’Connell remained as Illinois’ career passing leader for 20 years and its single-season record holder for 28 years.
As an NFL rookie for the Chicago Bears in 1953, the 21-year-old played behind George Blanda for most of the year. O’Connell spent the following two years in military service, then briefly rejoined the Bears. Midway through the 1956 season, coach Paul Brown signed him to play for the Browns as a backup quarterback for Babe Parilli.
However, when Parilli suffered a shoulder separation, O’Connell was inserted into the starting lineup. He stayed as Cleveland’s starter in 1957 and he and rookie running back Jim Brown helped lead the Browns to the NFL’s Eastern Conference title. In the next to last game of the season, O’Connell fractured his fibula. Unbelievably, he played most of the first half against Detroit in the championship game.
In 1958, McConnell retired from the NFL and joined Eliot’s Illini staff. In 1959, he served as Drake University’s head coach, but the Bulldogs suffered through a 2-7 season. McConnell rejoined the NFL in 1960 and played two seasons for the Buffalo Bills.
After retiring for a second time, O’Connell became involved with establishing indoor ice rinks in Massachusetts. All five of his sons were hockey players, including Mike who was a starting defenseman for the Boston Bruins. O’Connell died in 2014 at the age of 83 in Delray Beach, Fla.
Sunday: Trent Meacham, basketball (36)
Monday: Keith Mosser, fencing (57)
Tuesday: Bob Asmussen, media (60)
Wednesday: Jason Shannon, track & field (23)
Thursday: Michael Heitz, football (30)
Friday: John Mackovic, football coach (78)
Saturday: Kevin McBride, baseball (63)
By Mike Pearson, author of Illini Legends, Lists & Lore (Third Edition now available in stores). Get more Illini birthdays, trivia and historical tidbits daily on Twitter @IlliniLegends and @Spartifacts2021. His website is www.SportsLLL.com.