MISSOULA — Way back in 2017, Patrick O'Connell would've been hard-pressed to imagine where he is right now.
A graduate of Kalispell Glacier High School, O'Connell played NCAA Division II football the University of Mary in North Dakota in the fall of 2017, and was also on scholarship to play baseball as well for the Marauders, which at the time was his favorite sport.
"Growing up, I always wanted to be playing in the MLB," O'Connell recalled.
But in the winter of 2018 after his first semester at Mary playing football, he took a leap of faith, and returned to Montana and walked on to the Montana Grizzlies football team.
The rest is history. Fast-forward to this Friday and O'Connell will be one of three finalists for the Buck Buchanan Award, which is given to the top defensive player in the FCS. O'Connell, along with Montana State's Troy Andersen and Florida A&M's Isaiah Land, make up the final three who the award will be decided among on Friday night.
"It kind of takes me back to when I was younger when I was playing sports as a kid," O'Connell told MTN Sports on Wednesday. "It just kind of reminded me of how this year went and how fun it was just to be out there playing in front of the best fans in the world and I was having so much fun out there with all the guys that I've gotten so close to and it's just such an honor and so humbling to even be mentioned in the top three."
O'Connell was already on many radars after a breakout 2019 season, but in 2021, the redshirt junior exceeded those expectations as he finished the year with 14 sacks which ranked among the best in the country, and added 21.5 tackles for loss. He finished with 105 total tackles on the season, four forced fumbles and had two fumble recoveries, one of which he took back for a touchdown against Northern Arizona.
Those accolades landed O'Connell as a first team All-Big Sky selection this year and he also garnered All-America honors from HERO Sports, Stats Perform and the Associated Press.
But it's his hard work, and those around him, that O'Connell credits his growth to getting to this point ever since he joined the Grizzlies and made football his new priority. Moving away to Bismarck, North Dakota and away from home wasn't easy, and coming back as a walk-on and working his way up through the scout team also had it's challenges. But the support he had helped propel him to where he is now.
"It's not easy, but the people around me that have kept me on the right path and helped me keep my nose down and keep my nose to the grindstone," O'Connell said. "So I think that's the biggest part for me is all the people around me that have truly showed me the way and showed me just how successful that I can be. The people that believe in me, I think those are the ones I (attribute) it to the most."
O'Connell, Andersen and Land will learn who is named the Buck Buchanan winner on Friday evening at the award's banquet in Frisco, Texas. He's looking to join former teammate Dante Olson who won the award in 2019, and if he does win, he'll be the fourth Grizzly to do so and join former UM standouts Tyrone Holmes (2015) and Kroy Biermann (2007).
"To have guys like that around you and surrounding yourself with successful guys and guys that have been there and paved the way for the you, is really important to be around," O'Connell said. "It's pretty rare to see a group of guys like our team bond together and just become one cohesive unit and I think that we really did that. Everyone truly did play for each other and I think that's what made it so fun because in those moments when you're running out of the tunnel, or making plays or celebrating your teammates making plays, that's what it's all about and I think that's what made it so fun. We truly cared about each other and played for each other."
It's been an unorthodox route for O'Connell to this point, but one he's thrived in, as he's developed into one of the top FCS players in the country with still one year remaining in his Grizzly career.
"This award, it's hard to explain because I haven't gone to the banquet yet but I'm just kind of at a loss of words for it as to what it means to me," O'Connell said. "It's just so humbling, that's all I can really say."