'We're all here for him': Purdue QB playing on days after brother's death
Aidan O'Connell comes from a big family.
And then there's his second family, the much-larger Purdue football family, which the sixth-year quarterback continues to lean on in the wake of tragedy ahead of Saturday night's Big Ten football championship game.
O'Connell played in last Saturday's Big Ten West-clinching victory over Indiana, throwing for 290 yards and two touchdowns — all while his team knew the heartbreak he was going through, while the rest of college football did not. O'Connell's older brother, Sean, died suddenly last week.
He is away from the team, and with his family, as Purdue prepares to play Michigan in the championship game at 8 p.m. Saturday at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. O'Connell is expected to play in the game.
"It's a very tough time for him and his whole family," said Charlie Jones, a sixth-year receiver who, like O'Connell, is an Illinois native — the two grew up 10 minutes away in the Chicago suburbs. "I couldn't be more proud of him, you know. I try to tell him that at the end of the day, it's just a game, and family's more important than anything. For him to come out and play in a game like that and play the way he did is just amazing, and we're all super proud of him.
"We're all here for him, here for his family, and just reinforcing that if he needs anything, we're here for him.
"I just want him and his family to know that everyone has their back."
O'Connell is receiving support from Michigan, too.
"I shot him a DM earlier this week week," Michigan quarterback J.J. McCarthy told beat writers Tuesday night. "I mean, that's bigger than football stuff. It really is."
Sean O'Connell was one of Aidan's five siblings, and he died last week, Aidan confirmed in a statement posted to Twitter on Sunday afternoon.
Aidan O'Connell was seen crying into a towel on the sidelines during the victory over Indiana. He didn't attend the postgame press conference, and head coach Jeff Brohm became emotional talking to reporters afterward.
The next day, O'Connell announced his brother's death. No cause of death has been announced; NBC 5 in Chicago said an autopsy was performed Monday, and points to likely natural causes and cardiac issues.
"Sean was not only one of Purdue football's biggest fans, but he was a better son, brother and friend," Aidan O'Connell wrote on Twitter. "He lit up any room he walked in, and all that knew testify to his contagious joy.
"We trust the lord to provide strength and hope, and we appreciate your thoughts and prayers during this time. We say with Job: 'the Lord give and the Lord takes away; blessed be the name of the Lord.'"
More than a football player, O'Connell is a man of faith, his teammates have said.
Perhaps that explains his rise at Purdue. When he arrived in 2017 as a walk-on, he was No. 8 on the depth chart at quarterback, at a school that has churned out star quarterbacks over the years. He didn't play in 2017 or 2018, before making three starts in 2019 — the first walk-on ever to start at quarterback for Purdue.
In the COVID-shortened 2020 season, he started the first three games before injury ended his season.
He played 12 games in 2021, including nine starts, finishing with 3,712 yards passing and 28 touchdowns. Over the final five games, he threw for 2,161 yards and 19 touchdowns and had a 72.5% completion percentage, including a 534-yard performance in a Music City Bowl win over Tennessee. He was second-team all-Big Ten.
This season, O'Connell has thrown for 3,124 yards and 22 touchdowns, with 11 interceptions, as Purdue (8-4, 6-3) rallied from a 1-2 start to the season to make its first Big Ten championship game.
"Aidan's a special person," said Payne Durham, a redshirt senior tight end and teammate of O'Connell's for five seasons. "I feel like anyone that knows him or that has talked to him or has a relationship with him knows that you don't get guys like Aidan all the time.
"He's just truly a special person. ... He's a man of faith, someone who just wants the best for people."
O'Connell, 24, with weapons around him like Jones, Payne and redshirt freshman running back Devin Mockobee, has guided the Boilermakers to one of the top offenses in the Big Ten. In total yards, Purdue ranks fourth, behind Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State — three teams that are ranked in the top 11 of the College Football Playoff standings. (Purdue has played one of those three, falling to Penn State, 35-31, in the season opener.) In Big Ten scoring, Purdue is fifth.
But it's not just the arm and the talent that stand out with O'Connell, at least not to his teammates.
It's the progression as a leader over all these years — he only started one season in high school — perhaps a testament to all that faith. O'Connell is a four-time academic all-Big Ten honoree. He received his master's degree in May. He got engaged in January, married in July.
"It's interesting. Like, obviously, he's gotten better at football," said linebacker Kieren Douglas, who, like O'Connell, has been at Purdue for six years. "But in the role of like a leader and how he's become respected and viewed by the people on the team, it's really been a transformation. People really look to Aidan as a source of inspiration. His story is inspirational."
And it doesn't get more inspirational than last Saturday's performance.
After Iowa dropped the regular-season finale to Nebraska, that left the door open for Purdue to get to Indianapolis. O'Connell was up for the challenge, finishing 18-for-29 passing, and posting a 168.8 passer rating, his second-best effort of the season behind a near-flawless performance against Indiana State in the second week of the regular season.
The win closed the book on Iowa and Illinois, and made Purdue the fourth Big Ten West team to make the championship game, with Wisconsin (four times), Iowa (two) and Northwestern (two). Now, Purdue will try to become the first Big Ten West team to win the championship game. It's a mighty tall feat against a Michigan team (12-0, 9-0) that just badly beat down rival Ohio State in Columbus, and is a 16.5-point favorite.
The task is daunting for Purdue, and O'Connell. But in the end, it's just a football game.
There are more important things, like family — and O'Connell's extended family.
"I think being around his teammates, I think, did slightly help," Brohm, Purdue's sixth-year head coach, said of last Saturday's game, which O'Connell decided to play after giving it serious consideration. "Then, of course, he had to manage all the emotions and the things he was going through, which I can't imagine how hard it would be. Without question, I give Aidan a lot of credit. He did what he thought was best. He played his heart out for his teammates, and gave us a great effort.
"Of course, he's got things he has to deal with this week as well, but I think we'll be there to support him, and whenever we can get him back here to get back to work, we look forward to that."
Angelique S. Chengelis contributed