By Colin MacGillivray
FEW people are aware of a link between Kilmore and the formative years of collegiate American football, also known as gridiron.
But it is precisely this link that Melbourne writer Jock O’Keefe is investigating as he attempts to unravel the mystery of the once famous and now forgotten Kilmore export Pat O’Dea, known in the United States as the ‘Kangaroo Kicker’.
O’Dea was born in Kilmore in 1872, the son of an Irish immigrant who ran the flour mill.
When O’Dea’s father died in 1880, his mother relocated the family to Melbourne, where O’Dea played Australian rules football for Xavier College and later the Melbourne and Essendon football clubs in the nascent Victorian Football Association, VFA.
Mr O’Keefe, who was commissioned by Xavier College to investigate O’Dea’s history, said O’Dea was already on a path to stardom in Australia when he took a trip to the United States that would instead make him one of the biggest names in the American game.
O’Dea’s brother Andy had been appointed a rowing coach at the University of Wisconsin, and when Pat visited him his kicking skills soon caught the attention of the university’s football team.
“A casual kick-to-kick with his newfound Yankee buddies left them gobsmacked with how far he could boot a football,” Mr O’Keefe said.
“Within no time he was playing fullback in the major league.”
O’Dea’s kicking prowess quickly became legendary, with the Australian reputed to have booted the longest ever dropkick field goal of 62 yards, wedged a ball in the rafters of the indoor Chicago Coliseum and launched a punt that, with wind assistance, sailed the entire length of the 110-yard field.
“His exploits on the paddock earned him the nickname Kangaroo Kicker,” Mr O’Keefe said.
“They even wrote a song about him. Pat was on fire and everybody wanted to have a piece of him.
“After his playing days came to an end, he coached Notre Dame University, then Missouri. He made the All-American team in 1899.”
While O’Dea had quickly become one of the biggest names in American sports, Mr O’Keefe said he shunned the spotlight.
He rejected offers of $500 – a large sum of money at the time – to coach other college football teams and then, in 1917, seemingly disappeared completely.
Mr O’Keefe said rumours swirled that O’Dea had died fighting in World War One or had moved back to Australia.
Virtually nothing was known of the ‘Kangaroo Kicker’ until he mysteriously resurfaced in 1934, living in California under the assumed name of Charles Mitchell with a wife and a law degree.
The University of Wisconsin celebrated the news that its old football hero was alive and welcomed him back.
In 1962 O’Dea was hospitalised with illness at the age of 90 and was sent a get-well message by US president John F Kennedy. On April 3 he was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. He died the next day.
Mr O’Keefe said he was fascinated by O’Dea’s story, and was attempting to fill in its many blanks.
“There are a few anomalies that are pretty hard to believe. Why the hell did he disappear?” he said.
“I thought he must have done something a bit naughty when he was at the university, but there is no record of it at all that I can find.
“Then when Kennedy gave him an accolade, I thought surely the president wouldn’t be handing out things like that without O’Dea being vetted first.”
Mr O’Keefe encouraged anyone from the Kilmore area with knowledge of O’Dea or his family to contact him.
“I haven’t been able to find any person in Australia who could add any information to his story,” he said.
“I thought in Kilmore there might be someone who wouldn’t have known Pat O’Dea but they might have known the family. If anybody knows any more about him, I’d be interested in hearing from them.”
Mr O’Keefe said Xavier College had expressed interest in adapting O’Dea’s life into a stage play.
“One of the past members of the school from about the 1960s was Peter Landy, who was a Channel 7 football broadcaster,” he said.
“He’s an Old Xaverian, and we’re hoping that if it does get to the stage of it being a play that he can be involved. That’s a long way down the track though.”
Anyone with information about Pat O’Dea wishing to contact Mr O’Keefe can email him at email@example.com.