Bad things happen to good people. We have all heard that phrase at one time or another. It's the title of prominent rabbi Harold Kushner's 1981 bestseller and words that have been repeated in somber conversations countless times since.
John O'Connell was one of those good people. He also happened to be a pretty good athlete. In high school "Okie," as his friends called him, was a two-sport star in baseball and basketball at North Quincy (Mass.) High. He liked football, too, but that particular game didn't really take. A hulking defensive end, Okie's career highlight on the gridiron came as a freshman when he picked a short pass out of the air and ran it back 70 yards for a touchdown. Only problem was he ran the last 60 with his pants falling down.
"He had to dive into the end zone," says longtime friend Dan Duggan. "But hey, it was our first touchdown of the season."
He fared better in other sports. As a pitcher, Okie had nasty stuff. He struck out 80 percent of the batters he faced in Little League and by the time he reached high school had established himself as a front-of-the-rotation starter. At 6-foot-2, 220 pounds Okie looked like a fireballer cut out of a Joba Chamberlain-shaped cloth. But he preferred the junk ball and had a repertoire so diverse sometimes his teammates didn't know what he was throwing. "We had to chart what pitches he threw on the bench," recalls teammate Gabe Parsons. "A lot of times we would write question marks because we couldn't figure it out."
But it was basketball that was Okie's real passion. Photos of Larry Bird covered the walls of his bedroom and on the court he played with the same fire that Bird was renowned for. An undersized center, Okie was a scrapper, winning individual battles with heart and hustle as much as talent. As a senior he helped North Quincy snap a four-year playoff drought. "He played like he was 6-9," says another friend, Rob Kenerson.
To a man, his teammates loved him. And he loved them right back. This was a kid who after snapping his wrist playing for a traveling baseball team still showed up at every game to carry the equipment and scribble numbers in the scorebook with his good hand. A kid who hours after being hospitalized with a heart condition talked his father into driving him to North Quincy's playoff game, just so he could sit in the dugout and cheer his teammates on. "If John was your teammate," says his father, Matt, "he was your teammate for life."
His actions defined who he was. He worked with mentally challenged kids after school. He sang in the choir. And this wasn't a Chris-Klein-in-American-Pie kind of deal. He joined the choir because he liked to sing. And by his senior year, most of Okie's friends were right there, singing beside him."You know what," Duggan says. "He made the choir cool."
In high school Okie took a summer job mowing lawns for the city. One afternoon, while cutting the grass at a local elementary school, Okie was approached by an elderly woman who asked if he could cut her lawn when he was finished. Okie politely told her he couldn't, that he might get in trouble if he mowed a private yard on company time. But later that day he came back, pulled the woman's mower out of her garage and went to work. The woman couldn't afford to pay him so she gave him the only thing she had: a martini glass. "Ugliest thing you have ever seen," Okie's father says. "But he kept it."
Helping people was in his blood. In college Okie dreamed of becoming a fireman and as a senior at Westfield State he enlisted in the Coast Guard, hoping a few years military experience would improve his chances. He spoke proudly about getting to serve his country in the same branch his grandfather did two generations earlier.
On October 22, 2005, everything changed. While relaxing at a bar near the Westfield State campus, Okie noticed a friend of his getting into an argument with another man, a local older than most of the college kids at the bar. When Okie pulled his friend away, he was blindsided with a punch to his jaw. The force of the blow knocked him to the ground and his skull ricocheted off the sidewalk. He was rushed to the hospital in a coma and died 24 hours later. He was 21.
His friends recall hearing the initial news of the accident and not thinking much of it. They figured Okie was doing exactly what he did: playing the role of peacemaker in one of the hundreds of alcohol infused conflicts that happen on college campuses every day. But the news of the severity of Okie's injuries spread quickly and within hours scores of his friends and family had descended on the hospital. One hospital employee remarked that he had never seen that many people crowded into the waiting area.
The aftermath of Okie's death was gut wrenching. His friends cried. They cursed. They drank. They stared at his number in their cell phones and wondered how they were ever going to be able to take it out. But they also banded together. "I don't think any of us have ever felt so loved," says Parsons. "We were all there for each other."
They were moved by how deep the love for their friend ran. North Quincy honored Okie by retiring his basketball jersey. His American Legion baseball team, Morrisette, did the same. Westfield State created the John O'Connell Award, which is given annually to "an outstanding student athlete who best reflects John's sportsmanship and athleticism." And in their grief, his friends and family found an outlet for their sadness, as well as a way to preserve Okie's memory. They created T-shirts and bumper stickers with Okie's name on it. They organized golf tournaments and fundraisers throughout the city. And they started a basketball tournament in his honor. The O'Connell-Thomson Basketball Tournament, which will take place August 15 and 16 at the Fenno Street courts in Quincy, is co-named for Okie's high school friend, Dennis Thomson, who was killed by a drunk driver in 2004. For the last three years it has attracted hundreds of ex-high school and college athletes in Eastern Massachusetts, with every cent of the proceeds going toward scholarship funds and violence prevention programs.
That's where I'll be this weekend, scraping the rust off of my jump shot and hoping some of my, er, more talented teammates can carry me. A big part of me wishes Okie was here to line up against me. From what I hear, I'd have a pretty good teammate. And a really good friend.
For more information on the tournament and how to donate, click here.