Illinois quarterbacks have often held prominent ranks in the Big Ten football record books. Illini fans undoubtedly know Dave Wilson, Jack Trudeau, Kurt Kittner, Juice Williams and Jeff George, but have you ever heard of Tommy O’Connell?
Born that Sunday 91 years ago, McConnell caused a stir during the 1951 and 1952 seasons as an Illinois flagman.
He grew up as a star athlete in the Olympia Park area of Chicago and played for the city prep championship for former letterer Illini Clarence Applegran at South Shore High School. Immortal Frank Leahy first convinced O’Connell to play Notre Dame, then O’Connell was drawn to Illinois so he could play with his former prep teammates Rex Smith and Pete Bachouros.
O’Connell waited for a two-year transfer rule before becoming eligible for Illini University in 1951. He shone as coach Ray Eliot’s quarterback that first season, leading Illinois to the Big Title. Ten of 1951 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.
Although the team stumbled to a 4-5 record in 1952, O’Connell compiled record stats, setting 11 Big Ten marks this season. His 306 passing yards against Iowa erased Otto Graham’s 10-year conference mark and his 1,308 passing yards were nearly 300 yards longer than Wisconsin’s previous record Johnny Coatta.
O’Connell remained Illinois’ career point guard for 20 years and their 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 next two years in military service, then briefly joined the Bears. In the middle of the 1956 season, coach Paul Brown hired 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 remained the Cleveland starter in 1957 and he and rookie running back Jim Brown helped the Browns win the NFL Eastern Conference title. In the penultimate game of the season, O’Connell fractured his fibula. Incredibly, 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 was head coach of Drake University, but the Bulldogs suffered from a 2-7 season. McConnell joined the NFL in 1960 and played two seasons for the Buffalo Bills.
After retiring for the second time, O’Connell became involved in establishing indoor rinks in Massachusetts. His five sons were all hockey players, including Mike who was a starting Boston Bruins defenseman. O’Connell died in 2014 at the age of 83 in Delray Beach, Florida.
Sunday: Trent Meacham, basketball (36)
Monday: Keith Mosser, fencing (57)
Tuesday: Bob Asmussen, media (60)
Wednesday: Jason Shannon, athletics (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 information daily on Twitter @IlliniLegends and @ Spartifacts2021. Its website is www.SportsLLL.com.