John O’Connor, a young and tired 15-year-old American boy, awoke late in the night In Zaragoza, Spain, 3,554 miles away from home. The roar from his apartment window was loud and he was confused.
“What I first thought was an earthquake, because that’s how crushing it was,” O’Connor said.
But in Spain, a goal in the 90th minute of the 1983 Copa del Rey final can have the same effect.
Marcos Alonso headed a cross at the far post just inside the six-yard line by Julio Alberto on the left wing. The ball floated over the keeper and Barcelona defeated Real Madrid 2-1.
He didn’t see it, but he felt.
“Once the game was over, the streets were just pandemonium. There weren’t too many cars, there was just people,” he said. “You see these huge flags that are Barcelona colors and Real (Madrid) colors and it was just crazy.”
It was his first encounter with this new country and its culture – and the power of soccer.
O’Connor who finished his fourth season with the Spartans will never have to worry about the haircut. Topped by head that shines he stands at average height with a stocky build and a smile that reaches each ear.
He grew up just 25 miles outside of Boston in Wayland, Massachusetts. It’s a town similar to Rutland, about 15,000 people. His father worked for a non-profit organization that designed radar systems for the U.S. Air Force, so that didn’t always mean living in the states. Before Spain, O’Connor lived in Japan in the third grade.
He picked up soccer in junior high, he says, just to play the same sports as his friends who didn’t play baseball. He ended up quitting baseball in eighth grade. The introduction of the curveball, which he “couldn’t hit worth a crap,” ended his baseball career.
But he could kick it with the best when it came to the soccer pitch.
The pursuit of his new soccer passion led him to play at the University of Maine in Bangor for four years, while also earning his bachelor’s degree in physical education.
He was then offered a job at Dartmouth College working in the residential life department. And before long, he was the men’s assistant coach as well.
At Dartmouth, under head coach Bobby Clark, O’Connor said he was given a chance. He said that Clark saw something in him that could benefit the team and also saw how passionate he was about coaching.
O’Connor went on to coach at the University of Rhode Island where he coached Stoke City F.C. defender Geoff Cameron. Cameron also plays on the U.S. men’s national team.
Clark first met O’Connor when he was working as a youth coach with Lightning Soccer Camp in the Dartmouth area. And he liked what he saw.
“He was an excellent coach and he loved his soccer,” said Clark, the current coach of the men’s team at Notre Dame. “I had a vacancy and John was someone I thought would be a terrific replacement,” he added in his thick Scottish accent.
Clark said that his kids all grew up playing soccer with O’Connor at the Lightning Soccer Camp. Since that time O’Connor has two children, Michael who’s 12 and Megan who’s 14. Clark said that watching Megan and Michael run around camp, improving their skills while also having fun, like his kids once did, was a fun experience.
For O’Connor, his personal family and his soccer family are almost one in the same.
Organizing practice plans in the morning then zipping over to his child’s game in the afternoon and back again for evening practice are routine.
All in a days work.
Game plan all day, the go catch his daughters dance recital.
All in a days work.
Hosting the whole team at his house for a cookout.
“That’s just O’C.,” said senior defender Paul Phillips.
O’Connor is known as the ‘Grill Master,’ to his team for his burgers and dogs at team outings he hosts throughout the year. But his wife Sheila and his kids brag about ‘Daddy’s potatoes.’
Regular mashed potatoes with sour cream not milk, a little white wine, and Parmesan cheese. Mix it. Butter the bottom, butter the top, sprinkle a little more cheese and bake at 400 degrees for about 30 minutes.
But that’s easy stuff. It’s his London broil ‘that takes some art to it.’
Not too long, not too early. O’Connor says his biggest secret is the marinade recipe he was given by his mother when he lived in Chicago for 11 years, coaching at the University of Chicago.
But she gave him so much more.
“She always told me when I was younger ‘Do what you want to do,’” O’Connor said.
His mother passed away in the fall of 2014 after a long battle with dementia. The disease limited her to an assisted living home in Nadic, Massachusetts.
“It made me relook at relationships and family and make sure you say the things you want to say to people,” he said.
O’Connor visited her periodically, travelling with his wife from Rhode Island during his time as head coach of URI.
“Things like that make you want to not regret that point where you could have said something to someone,” O’Connor said.
But the place he called home for seven years started to crumble.
Shelia, who had been working in the aquatics department at URI, had been laid off. Three months later, URI didn’t renew O’Connor’s contract, one day after his final game of the season.
They had two kids. He and Sheila were unemployed.
“It’s something you never really plan for and you go along in life and you think you’re in control of the situation and then something like that hits you. It’s a change you don’t choose to make, so there’s some emotion there,” Sheila said. “We had no idea six months from then how we going to pay the mortgage if we couldn’t get a job. But you don’t want the kids to know and experience that.”
But dark clouds made way for blue skis. And he found Castleton.
“It’s much more of a family atmosphere in the Castleton athletic department,” said Sheila
Leaving in the afternoon to go see his kids play soccer is not uncommon and is completely accepted at Castleton. Family and athletics are almost intertwined. Everyone understands having kids and what comes along with raising them.
The family atmosphere shines through, from the athletic director to the players on the practice field.
“Even Michael will come to some practices and shoot around while we’re practicing,” said senior forward Seth Wilmott. “Everyone’s not uptight. We’re able to relax and get loose.”
Wilmott says that having O’Connor’s children at practices adds some fun. But fun doesn’t stop O’Connor from expecting the very best from his athletes, both on and off the pitch.
“When all the guys know how much our coach cares and invests into the team, it makes us a lot more motivated,” Phillips said. “He stresses and demands the best of us when it comes to our academics and our development of character.”
Wilmott found O’Connor’s coaching style ‘refreshing.’
“He always pushes you even when you don’t realize it,” said Wilmott. “It’s only because he knows I can do better and that he expects better.”