MISSOULA — Patrick O'Connell's journey through college football has been well-documented as taking the long road to success.
But now a senior with the Montana Grizzlies, the time has flown by for O'Connell, who just keeps getting better, and better.
"It's been a long but awesome journey, and I'm super proud to be here at Montana and playing where I am," O'Connell said. "It's super humbling to know where I came from and know where I'm at now. I love playing with all of the guys that I'm with. Got a great team, great coaches, so there's not a better place that I'd want to be personally."
O'Connell — a Kalispell native and former two-sport athlete at a NCAA Division II school in North Dakota in baseball and football — walked on at Montana, cracked the rotation in 2019, and in 2021 was a finalist for the Buck Buchanan Award as one of the top defensive players in the FCS.
The path was winding, but O'Connell made the most of it.
"I think that's what makes it so special is taking the road less traveled," O'Connell said. "I think that's why it's so special looking back at it, knowing where I came from and where I'm at now, it's just super special to me and to my family and to all of the people around me because they know what I've put in and what I've done so it's awesome."
There's been no drop-off for O'Connell in 2022.
He leads the Big Sky Conference with 7.5 sacks and 11 tackles for loss, has racked up 50 total tackles, and has grabbed his first two interceptions of his career, all stats that are on par with his numbers a year ago. Last year through six games, O'Connell had 52 total tackles, 11.5 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks as well.
Each year he's improved, but O'Connell said that growth is always the goal.
"I was trying to drown the last season because personally I want to get better every single day, and the next day I want to focus on getting better and better and better," O'Connell said. "It's cliché to say you want to get 1% better but that's what I try and focus on, and I try and get my teammates better as well. But to drown the last season and focus on each day going forward and getting better, that's the most important thing going forward, and that's all you can do."
That success also led to O'Connell being voted a team captain before the season began.
"It was an honor for me because I'm with these guys every single day and to be voted a captain means that they know all of the work that I put in and it makes me proud to be a captain on this team because of where I'm from, where I came from, specifically, and the journey that I've taken to get here," O'Connell said. "So it's pretty special to be named a captain, especially for the Montana Grizzlies because growing up this is all I wanted to do."
The road to success in sports isn't easy, or one with a universal blueprint, and O'Connell's message to those facing adversity is one of belief and hard work.
"I would just say don't put a cap on yourself," O'Connell said. "Don't let other people tell you who you are, and if they do tell you, then prove them wrong. Go out and work as hard as you can every single day, push yourself as well as pushing others too, and get better and better every single day."
But for now, his senior season will march on, with life off the field also treating O'Connell well as the Griz linebacker became engaged to his long-time girlfriend, Madison Rauthe, back in August.
O'Connell long knew he wanted to propose, but timing, was the key.
"I had the ring for quite a while, actually, and I'd bring it with me to these places so we'd go to the lake, we'd stay at the lake, and I'd be like alright I'm going to do it, and then we'd go throughout the week and I wouldn't do it because I got too scared," O'Connell said. "It just finally came to the time where I was like, 'oh my gosh, the season is starting, I have to get it done.'
"So it was the last day of fall camp, and after that we were going on a walk after dinner one night and I took her up to the top of the stadium so you could see the L and the M (on the mountains) with the river in between, and she knew I had a birthday present for her but she didn't know what it was so I was like, 'I'm just going to give you your birthday present here,' and I dropped down on a knee and I asked her so it was pretty special."
On the field as a leader on one of the best defenses in the country, O'Connell is all about enjoying the moment, and continuing to improve, as the Griz dive into the second half of the regular season.
"It's just a lot of hard work and dedication," O'Connell said. "A lot of support for sure from my family, my fiancé now, her family, the community of Missoula and Kalispell, and then just the brotherhood that we have here. Everyone's keeping me up and supporting me but I couldn't do it without the team and my coaches especially."