Pickering’s O’Donnell making the most of his opportunities

The images evoked when America is referred to as the land of opportunity run the gamut of extremities.

At one extreme there’s someone like Chicago’s Chris Gardner who took the opportunities afforded him and went from being homeless in the 1980s to CEO of his own stockbrokerage firm in his hometown and a self-made millionaire.

At the other extreme, there’s someone like Riverside Military Academy quarterback Alex O’Donnell, who left his native Toronto, Canada in search of a different kind of opportunity: the kind that would afford him the chance to play collegiate football.

“They don’t give many scholarships in Canada,” O’Donnell said, “and I’ve always had a dream to play college football so I figured (coming to Riverside) was the best for me.”

O’Donnell, a senior, spent three years at St. Mary Catholic Secondary School in Toronto before making the move to Riverside this summer.

“What’s happening in Canada is that football is starting to die off,” said first-year Riverside coach Scot Sloan. “Hockey is the sport up there and with budget cuts and things like that, a lot of high schools are actually opting to discontinue football.

“So when you’ve got kids who are serious about football, that want a serious football experience, they start looking for that opportunity — and when a kid from Canada starts looking, they have to find a boarding school and that’s where we come in.”

O’Donnell echoed his coach’s comments when describing why the notion to leave Canada came about in the first place.

“(Football) wasn’t competitive,” said O’Donnell who cites Tim Tebow as the football player he most looks up to. “People didn’t take it seriously enough and I wasn’t getting the coaching I needed to take my game to the next level, so I figured (moving) was best for me in every aspect.”

While playing high school football in America was enough for O’Donnell, the academic reputation of Riverside along with the fact that the school no longer played in the Georgia Independent Schools Association, but rather the Georgia High School Sports Association, was a draw as well.

“I thought it would be even more exposure because we’re playing against the type of competition we are,” O’Donnell said. “They’re not going to undermine my talents by saying, ‘Oh, they’re just playing in GISA, he isn’t playing against real competition.’”

The adjustments have been plentiful for the 6-foot-4 O’Donnell, including but not limited to the speed of the game.
“It’s a lot faster, I mean, some of the top quality high school football in the nation is played around here,” O’Donnell said.

That difference was clear in his first game, a 40-6 loss to Elbert County, when the quarterback was, according to his coach, “shellshocked.”

“(O’Donnell) is a very serious, straight-forward kid,” Sloan said. “Probably as squared away a kid as you’ll ever meet.

“We have to try to get him to loosen up before games instead of having to try and get him dialed in because in his mind he wants to be flawless.”

It was evident that their efforts haven’t been for naught when, in leading his team to a 23-12 win against Banks County, O’Donnell had a breakout performance.

The Canadian transplant finished 9-of-17 passing for 169 yards and two touchdowns, one to senior tight end Brandon McKinney and a 9-yard keeper with four minutes left to clinch the victory. The quarterback also ran the option on the final drive, rushing nine times for 58 yards and had a critical 30-yard completion to McKinney to set up the final touchdown.

“I was uptight this week too,” O’Donnell said. “But my coaches calmed me down and said to think of it like playing catch in the backyard — it’s just football, so go play football.”

And making it even more special was the fact that O’Donnell’s parents had flown in from Canada to watch their son’s first home game.

“When I left my mom cried a lot,” O’Donnell said. “But they’ve always been supportive and wanted me to chase my dream. I talk to them everyday and them being at the game was a great inspiration to me.

“I wanted to show my parents that this was the right decision and I wanted to play well for them.”

As far as his future is concerned, Sloan thinks his quarterback has what it takes to play at the next level and he doesn’t mean physicality alone.

“From a mental aspect he’s got what it takes,” Sloan said. “He’s going to study the game, he’ll make the offseason commitments and he’ll handle his business in the classroom.

“He’s got what they’re looking for.”


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