Purdue quarterback Aidan O’Connell returned home with his family following last weekend’s victory at Indiana. He still hasn’t returned to campus.
As the Boilermakers began preparing for their first Big Ten championship game, their starting quarterback and uncontested leader remained in Illinois with his family as they mourned the recent death of O’Connell’s oldest brother, Sean.
“He played his heart out for his teammates and gave us a great effort,” coach Jeff Brohm said Monday, describing O’Connell’s performance two days earlier. “Of course, he’s got things he has to deal with this week, but we’ll be there to support him and whenever we get him back to work, we look forward to that.”
O’Connell announced his brother had died in a statement posted Sunday on Twitter. The cause of death has not been revealed.
When exactly O’Connell returns to the practice field remains unclear, though Brohm said he believes the sixth-year senior will play Saturday when the Boilermakers face No. 2 Michigan (12-0, 9-0, No. 3 CFP).
Nobody in Purdue’s locker room doubts O’Connell will play or play well, regardless of how much he practices.
He went 18 of 29 with 290 yards and two touchdowns in a 30-16 West Division-clinching victory after learning of his brother’s death. Television cameras caught the emotional O’Connell crying into a towel on the sideline after Purdue (8-4, 6-3 Big Ten) sealed what he called a “dream come true” on the Boilermakers’ radio broadcast.
While the Boilermakers certainly would have understood if O’Connell missed the game, that’s not the guy they watched go from No. 8 on the depth chart to the first former walkon to start at the “Cradle of Quarterbacks.”
“He’s a special person. I feel like anyone who knows him knows you don’t get guys like that all the time,” tight end Payne Durham said. “He doesn’t identify as a football player. He’s a man of faith who wants to do things for other people.”
O’Connell didn’t just earn the trust of teammates or coaches with his personality.
They often talk about a relentless work ethic that was evident before, during and after practice when he would make extra throws just so he could compete against the higher touted recruits and the countless hours of film study. And in an era where transfers became the norm, O’Connell stuck around and fought his way up the ladder.
Eventually, his leadership skills caught up to his physical talent and he started surpassing the competitors — some of whom wound up as starting quarterbacks at other FBS schools.
Now, as the established starter, O’Connell is ascending the school’s career passing charts and is on the cusp of becoming just the third Purdue quarterback to win a Big Ten title since 1953. Mike Phipps did it in 1967 and Drew Brees in 2000.
But this week is bigger than football.
As Purdue makes its bid to upend Michigan’s national title hopes and derail the Wolverines’ quest for a second straight Big Ten championship, O’Connell is hurting. The Boilermakers are giving him space and offering help, and even two coaches who played the position, Brohm and coach Jim Harbaugh, have no advice this time.
Instead, O’Connell will likely rely on his favorite receiver and childhood teammate, Charlie Jones, to help him through this week. The two grew up just miles apart near the Northwestern campus.
And the Boilermakers know that whenever O’Connell does return to practice, he will be as focused and locked in as ever — even if his heart is broken.
“It’s a very tough time for him and his whole family,” Jones said. “I’ve told him that at the end of the day, it’s just a game and family is more important than anything. So for him to come out and play in a game and play the way he did (last week) after all of that was just amazing. We want him to know we’re here for him.”