If Palmer once dreamed of taking the NFL by storm, now he’s among those waiting for that paradigm-shifting player to come along.
“If a Canadian were to make it in the NFL, I think it would be huge. It would be someone to relate to and cheer for whether you’re a Seattle fan or a Dallas fan. Having that one identifiable player transcends everything,” Palmer said. “A lot of people in the south see a Canadian they almost write us off. It was something I used as motivation.”
When O’Connor decided to move to the U.S. in 2012, he considered several possibilities – including California and Pennsylvania – before settling on the Baylor School in Chattanooga, Tenn.
Like Ashbury College, the posh private school he attended in Ottawa, it was a boarding school, and more importantly, it needed a quarterback.
But that’s where the parallels with home ended.
O’Connor’s coach at Ashbury was Jon Landon, a former CFLer and Grey Cup champion who doubled as a science teacher, but the coach at his new school, Phillip Massey, was a full-time football man who kept NFL hours (he was usually in his office before 5:30 a.m.) and ran pro-flavoured schemes.
After leading Baylor to the state championship playoffs in 2012, O’Connor transferred to IMG, which is based in Bradenton, Fla., and whose fledgling football program is run by former Heisman Trophy winner and NFL quarterback Chris Weinke.
“I really don’t want to make it sound like I’m ripping Canadian coaches, because I’m not, but it’s a different level in the U.S. Coaching is what puts food on the table, so it’s more competitive,” O’Connor said.
He also noticed a stronger emphasis on details such as footwork – which he used to practice on his own, but not anything like the way he has in the last year or so.
And the fact he took up residence in the heart of the Southeast Conference, amid the small army of football scouts who live there, was a factor in drawing recruiting interest from a dozen major programs and being listed in the influential ESPN and Rivals250 list of high-school prospects.
That he decided on Penn State, which was stripped of 40 scholarships and given a lengthy bowl game ban after the child sex abuse scandal that tainted the reign of late coach Joe Paterno, comes down to choosing a school with strong academics and a football program that suits his pocket passing game.
Head coach Bill O’Brien came to the school from the New England Patriots, and the cachet of having worked with NFL star quarterback Tom Brady is an unmistakable draw.
Penn State brought in an even more highly-regarded recruit than O’Connor this fall (Christian Hackenberg, rated the top quarterback prospect in the U.S. by ESPN), but that’s no disincentive as far as he’s concerned.
“I don’t mean to sound arrogant, but I’m not really scared of anyone, I’ll compete anywhere I go,” he said.
When O’Connor arrives at Penn State, he’ll have a few weeks to get acclimated to campus before spring practices, although unlike many other teens, he’s already used to living away from home. (His parents continue to live in Ottawa, where his older brother plays for the junior football Ottawa Sooners.)
“Leaving home was a really tough decision, really tough. But at the end of the day, I think it was the right thing to do for me,” said O’Connor, adding he was encouraged by his family and his high-school coaches to pursue his dream in the U.S. – which also supposes considerable financial sacrifices.
The immediate focus is on making an impression at the NCAA level, but O’Connor is mindful of the example he could set should his considerable promise translate into a shot at the football big time.
“I guess my hope is that I can have a good career at Penn State and then make the NFL,” he said, “because then other kids in Canada will see where I came from and say, ‘He did it, there’s no reason I can’t.’ That would be great.”