On the morning of September 7, 1964, Head Coach, Jim O’Connor was in full preparation for the start of his fourth season at the helm of the CM Knights football team. But before he could address his team about the first game of the upcoming season against the perennial football powerhouse, Archbishop Williams, he had a few duties to attend to during the day. One of these would intersect with my own preparations as I disembarked from the Charles River bus at the corner of Baker and Gardner Streets to start my first day of high school.
Mr. O’Connor arrived at CM in the fall of 1961 when CM Athletic Director Ron Perry hired him as the high school’s first football coach. As the Talisman yearbook described it, “1961 saw the addition of many new organizations of Catholic Memorial, but perhaps the most popular and significant of these was the addition of the Varsity Football squad.”
That first year was not without its challenges for Coach O’Connor and the team, not the least of which was the lack of a home football field. All games were played at the opponent’s site, and all practices were held in the pitted and dusty field next to the Veterans Administration Hospital which the team walked to and from each day in full gear. Construction of a home, on-campus football field – Brother McKenna Athletic Field – was not completed until 1966. For the first five games of the season the team registered three losses and two ties. The games were competitive with the defense playing valiantly, but the offense struggled. Then in Game 6 everything clicked as the Talisman reported, “During the ensuing week Coach James O’Connor and his staff apparently eliminated the offensive difficulty…with a 30-6 humiliation of Don Bosco with our offense and defense moving fast and hard.” It was Jim O’Connor’s first victory at CM and only a glimpse of the many highlights that were to follow in his career. Just one year later the team would be Catholic Central League Champions and Class C State Co-Champions.
As I crossed the threshold of Donahue Hall that morning, along with two hundred and fifty other wide-eyed freshmen, I was directed to Homeroom A5 on the second floor of Donahue Hall where our homeroom and history teacher Mr. Jim O’Connor was waiting stoically.
His demeanor and presence were unlike any classroom teacher I had experienced before. After eight years of instruction by the Sisters of St. Joseph at Holy Name School, I thought the reason may have been as basic as his being a male authority figure. But in the days and weeks to follow he would reveal much more than that.
Mr. O’Connor, Mr. Perry, Br. Conway, Br. Heeran and so many others became an essential reason for why I looked forward to going to school every day. Was it their individual personalities, their humor, their quirks, their idiosyncrasies, their teaching and coaching styles? Absolutely, but the sense of community that they encouraged and fostered as a group that was shaped by their collective actions took me some time to appreciate. An early example of this was when Mr. O’Connor, who lived in West Roxbury not far from CM, one day invited our entire homeroom class over to his house for a pizza party before a Friday night CM dance. After pizza he walked us all back to CM and encouraged us all to go to the dance. The chaperones for the dance were all the teachers and Brothers that we saw in the classroom and on athletic fields all week. Selfless actions like this from Mr. O’Connor was how it all started for me at CM, and it only got better from there.
Frank Gifford, Don Meredith and Howard Cosell have their rightful place in the annals of bringing Monday Night Football to the fore. But they had a predecessor who brought freshmen history students at CM to his own version of Monday Morning Football. Each Monday in Mr. O'Connor's history class, following a weekend football game, we were captivated by a play-by-play analysis of the previous Saturday’s game. The X’s and O’s smothered the blackboard and following his animations and explanations was like having a front row seat to football nobility.
Of all the games played each year, the Thanksgiving Day game against BC High took on a heightened significance for him. He dubbed it "THE GAME." When he brought back that Pumpkin trophy to the CM trophy case in my sophomore year the feeling of pride for his team and our school put a bounce in his step for the entire next year.
Jim O’Connor grew up in a triple decker in Mission Hill and was thankful every day of his life that he had. The experiences he encountered during that time not only helped crystalize his future career path, but it also provided him a part time job in the neighborhood at Angell Memorial Hospital where he would meet Mary, his future wife of 64 years.
As a quarterback on the Mission High School football team in his senior year, O’Connor was so organized and savvy about the game that his coach let him call his own plays. Football teammate Jake Lyons who was a year ahead of Jim at Mission High called him, “The most mature person he ever knew in high school. He just knew he wanted to teach and coach.” When Lyons was later named head coach at Mission High, the first person he called to be his assistant was O’Connor, even though Jim was still a senior at Curry College. Lyons said, "It was the best coaching decision I ever made. He had outstanding organization and administrative skills at such a young age. Every minute of his practices were scripted with detailed precision. The best thing I could do was get out of his way.” As a lifelong friend and a decades long teaching colleague of O’Connor’s at CM, Lyons was in awe of O’Connor’s negotiating skills and how he used those skills to generate so many worthy causes such as the charitable Shriners Football Classic game and establishing the format that is known as today’s Massachusetts High School Super Bowl. O’Connor’s football teams appeared in the first ever Super Bowl in 1972 against Swampscott. They impressively defeated Andover the next year to secure their first Super Bowl victory and their second Super Bowl win was capped off with the benefit of a brilliant goal line stand with time expiring as they defeated Chelmsford at Nickerson Field in 1978.
Al Cadarelli, another Mission High School football teammate called O’Connor, “A classic gentleman and educator whose opportunity to teach young men in all regards was one of the greatest rewards he received in his life.”
Cadarelli said that at their 50th Mission High School Reunion they were discussing the last game they played together on Thanksgiving Day against St. Mary’s in Brookline in which O’Connor scored two touchdowns and an extra point and was named MVP of the game. He told Cadarelli, “Of all the trophies and awards I have received in my life, that MVP trophy was my most treasured.”
Anyone who has ever heard Jim tell a story, or tried to negotiate a point with him, has marveled at his abilities that were always accentuated with the perfect pitch and delivered with the captivating cadence. These qualities could transfix an audience of one or one thousand for as long as he deemed necessary to mediate even the most contentious situation. But it was his secret weapons that he could unleash at any moment that could sway a group of CM freshman football players as easily as they could win over the MIAA Board of Directors – his infectiously disarming smile and laugh. He would put his whole heart and soul into that laugh, and you could feel every strand of his incontrovertible, genuine being fill the room when that smile began to appear. This expression on his face and that sound from his core will remain with me whenever I think of Jim.
Jim O’Connor was the only person who could call Vin Catano, Tom Meagher and me, Wacky Trackies and make it sound like an endearing compliment.
Jim O’Connor was a magnificent man and when teamed with his magnanimous wife Mary their impact as a couple was renowned.
Please join me in sending an abundance of CM prayers to Jim and his entire family.
Tom Beatty '68.