By Brandon HENSLEY
Here was Sean O’Connor, driving through Gallup, New Mexico at 4 a.m. in the middle of March, just hours after competing in a soccer match at the Home Depot Center in Carson. The conditions were not suitable for native La Crescentan O’Connor; it was snowing and he was behind the wheel of a little Acura.
His destination was North Carolina, as he had just recently become the newest member of the Carolina Railhawks, a USSF Division II professional soccer team. He had flown out to North Carolina earlier for the team’s open tryout, and he nailed it. It was a day O’Connor thought might not come, having squeezed every ounce out of the whole “struggling athlete still keeping his dream alive” thing.
“I thought this will probably be my last chance to play professionally,” O’Connor recalled. “I tried so many times to get in, and it never worked out. I was never what [teams were] looking for. I had a really good feeling about this tryout, and I knew if I didn’t make it I would be devastated.”
Traveling with his cousin’s friend whom he would drop off in Arkansas (if they survived), O’Connor saw an overturned semi on the I-40. The culprit was black ice, and it was about to get O’Connor. The Acura lost control and started sliding in the direction of the semi. There was another truck just behind O’Connor in the next lane. O’Connor hit the brakes and braced for impact.
At the last second, the Acura gained traction and swerved into the right lane, just in
front of the truck behind it,
and temporarily went off the road. The truck narrowly avoided O’Connor and the overturned semi.
Crazy, right? “Next time,
I’ll ship my car,” he said.
The obstacles in the road that morning were an all too obvious metaphor for the ups and downs the 25-year-old O’Connor has had to go through both in his personal life and his journey for soccer stardom. Every prerequisite needed for a story like his, O’Connor has experienced.
Discovered at an early age by a now famous goalkeeper? Check. Childhood heartbreak? Check. High school and college phenom? Oh yeah. Toiled in several leagues while looking for that one big break?
Of course, for that’s how it
O’Connor had been playing soccer as a child when, at a clinic put on by the UCLA men’s team, Bruins goalie Brad Friedel observed his talent for stopping the ball, and gave the 8-year-old some advice. “He said he thought I had a talent and that I should definitely look into playing goalkeeper in the long run,” O’Connor said.
Considering the success Friedel has had – he has been the goalie for the U.S. national team and currently plays in Europe – it seemed like some pretty good advice.
So O’Connor became a goalie, and a good one at that. But before he could really get going, tragedy would strike. When O’Connor was 9, his mother Coral, who had been fighting breast cancer for over four years, finally lost her battle.
O’Connor and his father, Brian, were left to carry on. But how exactly does a child overcome something like that? Brian said he fears where his son might have gone emotionally without soccer. For a devastated O’Connor, the game at least reached out and grabbed him, held him back from God knows what. On the pitch, O’Connor could keep his sanity,
and use the game as a coping mechanism, as so many
“I used to go out and dedicate games to her all the time, and see how well I could play,” he said. “Even at that age. My dad inspired me to do that and turn to soccer and focus on doing something good and just think that my mom would want me to be happy doing something I love.”
“I think that if he didn’t have soccer to focus,” said Brian, “he would have had even more pain and more difficulty and I think after that experience he kind of looked at [soccer]
as a special place and thing for him to do.”
From then, O’Connor’s competitive spirit took over. Maybe he got that from his dad. Brian is a renown French Horn player, having taught at UCLA and having credit in over 2,000 film scores. Competing to be the best is in O’Connor’s blood, which after a tough loss, can drive him, well, crazy.
When he was 10, O’Connor’s All-Star Glendale team lost in the championship game. The outcome came down to penalty kicks, and O’Connor let in the winning goal when he tried to deflect the ball past his net instead of simply grabbing it. O’Connor later cried his eyes out. “It took a long time to get him chilled out about that one,” Brian said.
O’Connor found redemption in high school, when his St. Francis Golden Knights won the 2001 CIF title, including a thrilling semifinal comeback win over Notre Dame. St. Francis trailed 2-0 with less than 13 minutes to go, but rallied for a 3-2 victory. “I’ll never, ever forget that game,” O’Connor said.
After graduating in 2002, O’Connor went on to Belmont-Abbey College in North Carolina. He was twice named All Conference and led his team to the Conference Carolinas championship in 2005.
After college O’Connor came back to his native La Crescenta, his reasoning being there might be more opportunities at becoming a pro back in L.A. He was wrong.
He latched on with the San Fernando Valley Quakes in the USL Premier Development League, but he saw limited action and, in turn, no future there.
But there’s always been coaching. O’Connor has coached at St. Francis and the Crescenta Valley Soccer Club, a premier organization dedicated to bettering young players in the area. While he was there, “The kids really looked up to Sean as a role model, as a coach,” said Reggie Rivas, founder of the club and former CV High girls soccer coach.
But O’Connor wasn’t done playing. He competed in a tournament this year with his high school teammate Daniel Paladini, and after O’Connor was named MVP, Paladini suggested he try out with
the Railhawks, Paladini’s current team.
After O’Connor made the team, Rivas said he wasn’t surprised. “You know, I’m happy for him, and I told him once he gets done with his career, playing, he always has a career here coaching.”
And now, here is O’Connor, far away from that day, because he wouldn’t let the end come early. He struck a sponsorship with Reusch apparel, and this summer will have a chance to play in Scandinavia, and who knows what could happen then?
First things first, though. O’Connor still has to get into a Railhawks game. When that happens, he’ll dedicate the game to Coral, because, “It’s going to be the most important game of my life.”
A walking study in perseverance. Not crazy at all,