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High School Football: O’Connor is back in the saddle at Chicago Christian

By Steve Metsch
Correspondent

The new head football coach at Chicago Christian is a familiar face to Knights fans.

Tom O’Connor served the past five seasons as special teams coordinator under former coach Nick Cook. He was hired in May to succeed the coach who brought the program back to the playoffs after a nine-year drought.

Cook stepped down to take a new job in his native Ohio. He is coaching at a Christian high school in suburban Cleveland, according to O’Connor.

A retired Chicago police officer who lives in the city’s 10th Ward, O’Connor is no newcomer to the gridiron. He has more than 40 years of experience coaching football at various levels.

He was the head coach when St. Francis de Sales made its first playoff appearance in 2006. His son, Sean, started as a lineman on offense and defense that memorable season.

Now, Sean coaches the offensive and defensive linemen at Chicago Christian, where he’s been a coach for 10 years.

“As a matter of fact, he got me the job at Chicago Christian when I first came on the staff with Coach Cook,” Tom O’Connor said.

“I had retired and Sean told me, ‘I’m not going to let you sit around on the couch,’” O’Connor said. “Sure enough, I got a call from Coach Cook and he hired me.”

Being able to coach with his son can’t be beat.

“It’s outstanding,” O’Connor said. “The highlights of my coaching career have all been with my son, whether when he was a player or the last three successful seasons here.”

O’Connor expressed enthusiasm about the challenge ahead.

“Coach Cook has established enough of a foundation,” he said. “I intend to follow a lot of the things he did to get us there.”

O’Connor plans to do some tweaking. All new head coaches do.

“But the main fundamentals of what we do and how we do it, that’s going to be the same,” he added.

Cook emphasized getting players into the weight room more often, which resulted in their having an increased commitment to the program, O’Connor said. That will continue.

“That’s what got those young men better — hard work,” O’Connor said.

Looking ahead, he noted that four of the five offensive linemen from last season’s playoff team graduated. That adds to the challenge, he said.

“We’ve got to find some kids, but that’s our job,” he said. “Whoever we get, we’ll coach them up. We’ll take what we’ve got and make them better.”

Some of his best recruiters are his players.

“Our kids have gotten very good at recruiting students in the hallway,” he said with a laugh. “They see guys who should be out there with, put the arm them and, with some positive pressure, they get them out there.”

A highlight for O’Connor is being able to coach with his son.

“It’s outstanding,” he said. “The highlights of my coaching career have all been with my son whether when he was a player or the last three successful seasons here.”

Years ago, O’Connor coached football and baseball at the since-shuttered Mendel Catholic High School, where he taught science before he became a police officer. In the midst of his law enforcement career, he heard coaches were needed at de Sales. He coached there from 1993 to 2006, the last three years as head coach.

“Most of those years I worked midnights so I could coach,” he said.

Now, he is hard at work as he prepares the Knights for what he hopes is another playoff run.

One pleasant surprise this summer has been the brewing battle to see who will be the starting quarterback. Senior Luke Jelderks or junior Brian Brown will get the nod for the season opener, scheduled for Aug. 27 at home against Hansberry, O’Connor said.

“They both fit the offense we’re tweaking a little bit,” O’Connor said. “This is the kind of competition we don’t usually have at quarterback, but we’ve got two kids working at it and it’s making them both better.

“That’s one of the reasons I’m so excited. And, having the spring season we had, it was like college spring ball. Take a few months off and now we’re right back at it.”

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