INDIANAPOLIS — Not everything changes. Friday night, for one. Friday night doesn’t change. Roncalli’s football team storming ominously out of the woods in those red jerseys with royal blue trim. Students cheering in red. Bernie O’Connor high up in the crowd, watching the Rebels with his wife, Jody.
So, about Bernie …
First time he saw Jody Richardson, Bernie O’Connor was a freshman at Sacred Heart High School. Man she’s good looking, is what he was thinking. But old man Springer, he had this rule for his football players: no talking with girls in the hallway. This was the early 1960s, and Bob Springer knew what he knew. He won state titles his way. Made it into the Indiana Football Hall of Fame. No talking to girls in the hall.
It wasn’t until two years later, after Springer left for Washington High School, that Jody Richardson said hello to Bernie O’Connor. They’ve been married 50 years.
Bernie played quarterback for Sacred Heart, which is one thing you need to know. He was the second-youngest of eight kids on the south side, his father Francis a mechanic on those old electric streetcars that once connected Indianapolis to the Midwest. Francis O’Connor was working overtime one night, tinkering under a streetcar, when another mechanic came into the garage. That employee didn’t know anyone was under the streetcar.
He threw the switch.
Electrocuted at 39, Francis O’Connor left behind a housewife and eight kids ranging from 4 to 16. Mary Jane O’Connor found a job with Fred Beck’s liquor distributorship, made dinner every night, couldn’t afford much else. The kids ate mustard sandwiches for lunch. They joked about a rare treat, a jam sandwich.
“Two pieces of bread,” Bernie O’Connor remembers, “jammed together.”
Mary Jane worked hard. She wanted to pay the rent. They moved 11 times, sometimes late at night, always to another place within walking distance of Sacred Heart. A Catholic family on the south side, the O’Connor kids were going to a Catholic school on the south side. That’s just the way it was. And that brings up one more thing you need to know: Sacred Heart changed its name to Kennedy Memorial in 1966, then joined with Bishop Chartrand in 1969 to form Roncalli.
This is important, because Bernie O’Connor was a starting quarterback and co-captain at Roncalli’s predecessor, Sacred Heart, in 1960 and ‘61. His son B.J. was the Roncalli quarterback and co-captain in 1990. And so is B.J.’s son, Derek. That’s Bernie’s grandson. Derek is the quarterback and co-captain of the 2016 Roncalli football team that is 5-0 and ranked No. 1 in Class 4A. Three generations of Roncalli. Three generations of O’Connor men. All co-captains. All quarterbacks.
It’s like I said: Not everything changes. Not here on the south side.
* * *
They sit high above the 15-yard line at Roncalli Stadium, and they don’t make a scene when Derek O’Connor does something special. Maybe because Derek is always doing something special. Maybe because the O’Connors are so humble, so south side, they don’t want to be seen as gloating.
So B.J. O’Connor is sitting mostly quiet as Derek is shredding Scecina’s defense. Scecina comes into this Sept. 16 game undefeated and ranked third in Class 2A, but isn’t big enough to handle Roncalli in the trenches. And if you give Derek O’Connor time to throw, he’s not missing. He is completing 69.9 percent for 579 yards, six touchdowns and no interceptions. He has run for 113 yards and a touchdown. He even caught a pass, a 4-yard gadget play for the go-ahead touchdown against Bishop Chatard.
On this night, Derek completes eight of his first nine passes. Three are touchdowns. B.J. O’Connor is clapping politely. Derek O’Connor’s dad stands and yells just one time in this 31-6 victory, when Roncalli senior Patrick Sandler drills a 44-yard field goal.
“Get in there …. Yeah!!!” B.J. is yelling, then sits and tells me why. “Patrick works so hard. So happy for that kid.”
Bernie has been listening from the row behind us. Now he tells me about another grandchild, Daniel, a seventh-grader at St. Barnabas. Daniel plays football, a fullback-linebacker, and basketball. Bernie couldn’t make it to a basketball game last year, so he called Daniel.
“Did you win?” Bernie asked his grandson.
“Did you score?”
“About how many points?”
I don’t know, Grandpaw. A few.
Now Bernie is smiling and telling me the punch line, something he didn’t know until B.J. got on the phone that night.
St. Barnabas scored 25 points in the game. Daniel O’Connor had 23.
* * *
“On the south side, everything ties together,” Bernie O’Connor says, then tells me about the Gillum family.
When Bernie was playing quarterback for old man Springer in 1961 and Bob Wilbur in ’62, his running back was a kid named Kenny Gillum. Kenny had three sons – Kenny Jr., Joe and Mike – and all three played tailback for Roncalli. All three won team MVP.
“A Gillum ran the ball for Roncalli through the 1980s,” B.J. says, smiling from the row below.
Bernie has more to say about Kenny Gillum, about the south side, about how it all ties together. The scene is a CYO game six years ago. Derek would have been a sixth-grader. Before kickoff, referee Jeff Henninger – his son Mark was Roncalli’s captain in 1991 and coached Marian to the 2015 NAIA national title – approached the crowd and asked for a volunteer to run the chain crew. Bernie rose, went down to the field.
“Who’s holding the downs marker but Kenny Gillum, my running back!” Bernie says. “The game starts, and we’re talking. The referee blows his whistle, comes over and says: ‘I know you two have known each other for years, but when the play’s over, one of you two has to move.’ ”
On the field below us, Roncalli is driving for a touchdown. Derek O’Connor hands it off at the Scecina 17, and a Roncalli running back wearing No. 28 bursts through the line of scrimmage, absorbs one hit, spins off another hit and trots into the end zone. I look at my program. I need to know about that kid. Program says he’s a senior. Stands 6-1, weighs 195 pounds.
No. 28 is Kenny Gillum III.
* * *
Not everything stays the same.
Used to be, acres of trees separated Roncalli’s modest grounds from I-65. Elm, hickory, ash, you name it. Over the years the school added wings for fine arts, an auditorium, more classrooms. Roncalli carved several rows into the trees for baseball and softball fields, and a tennis complex. It got rid of the mushy pulp that passed for grass on the football field – the Rebels’ ground game churned the playing surface into something kids called the “The Swamp” – and replaced it with a state-of-the-art field turf.
In 1991 B.J. O’Connor graduated with a class of about 140. Derek will graduate with at least twice that many.
“I feel like I’m walking onto a campus,” B.J. says.
Now B.J. is watching as his son, a lefty like Grandpaw, rolls right. Derek O’Connor moves away from the Scecina pass rush and throws across his body to Luke Smock for 15 yards.
Derek was a tight end through seventh grade. Pitches on the baseball team, has a strong arm, but he always loved catching passes. Loved blocking, too.
“Derek is just like his dad,” says Rebels coach Bruce Scifres, who has won six state titles at Roncalli and whose first team started a quarterback named B.J. O’Connor in 1990. “They just compete like crazy. Derek would be extremely happy if we would let him carry the ball 25 times a game. He’s not one of those quarterbacks who’s going to slide to avoid contact.”
As a sophomore Derek was behind senior Casey Gore and junior Robbie Strader. Sitting for two years? No thank you. First day of summer practice, when Scifres told his players to gather by position, Derek jogged toward the quarterbacks and kept going, all the way to the tight ends.
“That lasted five minutes,” Derek says.
No fewer than three coaches sent him over to the quarterbacks, where Scifres said he understood Derek’s desire to play right away, but added: “I think you need to stay over here with us for now.”
In his first varsity start Aug. 19 against Southport, O’Connor scrambled left, then right before finding Nick Fischer for the winning 80-yard touchdown in the final minute. A few weeks later he caught a late 4-yard TD from backup quarterback Conner Gore to beat Bishop Chatard.
Conner Gore will be the Rebels’ quarterback in 2017, three years after his aforementioned older brother had the job. That’s how it is at Roncalli. Like Bernie O’Connor was saying, on the south side, everything ties together.
Roncalli has an O’Connor and a Gore at quarterback, a Gillum at tailback and two Kuntz kids on roster. Roncalli won the Class 3A title in 1986 with Bill Kuntz coaching his brother, Joe, at quarterback. Joe’s boys, Alex and Connor, play this year. Senior lineman Will English is the fifth of five brothers to play for Roncalli. Twin receivers Gabe and Michael Otley are the fourth and fifth boys from their family.
It will continue. The Scecina game was CYO Night at Roncalli, and at halftime future Rebels blanketed the field in their various football uniforms. Kids in blue and gold from Holy Name, St. Roch and Central Catholic. Nativity kids in red and white. Our Lady of Greenwood in green and yellow. The blue and gray of Saints Francis & Clare. The red and yellow of St. Jude. Black and yellow from St. Mark.
St. Barnabas in the maroon and gold. And here comes No. 31 for St. Barnabas, Daniel O’Connor, running onto the field and now to the Roncalli sideline. He’s looking for his brother. He finds him. Derek offers a fist, and Daniel pounds it with his own.
High above the 15-yard line, Kelley O’Connor is watching. Bernie is her father-in-law. B.J. is her husband. Those are her boys on the field, Derek and Daniel. She sees them touch fists. She is smiling.
Here on the south side, she is smiling.