Born in 1872, O’Dea first came to public attention at the age of 15 when he rescued a woman from a 12 foot great white shark at a beach in his native country of Australia. Hearing the woman scream, Patrick charged into the surf carrying a wooden boat paddle and grabbed the victim by her leg with one hand while beating the shark with the other until it released her shoulder and swam away. This act of heroism made news all over the country.
O’Dea’s kicking style was an unusual one. When he made contact with the ball, he did so with both feet off of the ground — appearing almost to jump at the pigskin. He did this on both punts and dropkicks, a now-obsolete form of kicking in which a player would bounce the ball off the grass and kick it on its way back up.
After college, O’Dea moved to San Francisco to practice law. He remained there until disappearing without trace in 1917. Even his brother could shed no light on Pat’s whereabouts. The popular belief was that he had joined an Australian army unit passing through San Francisco on its way to the Great War, and had been killed in Europe.
It wasn’t until 1934 that the mystery was solved. A journalist with the San Francisco Chronicle was tipped off that a respected businessman from an isolated Californian timber town named Charles Mitchell was actually the great O’Dea. Once tracked down, he was more than happy to admit who he was, claiming that he had simply wanted to start a new life where he wasn’t so well known.
Soon after his disappearance there had been a suggestion by an Elsie Waters that he had stolen money from her during his days practicing law, but when he returned to a hero’s welcome after 17 years, Waters’s allegations had been long forgotten.
O’Dea claimed he had eventually grown tired of the charade, saying: “I often found it rather unpleasant to not be the man I actually am. So I am going to be Pat O’Dea for the rest of my life. Perhaps I should never have been anything else.”
On his return to the University of Wisconsin in 1934 he was pictured on the front cover of the match program with the headline “Wisconsin’s Greatest Homecoming”, and he continued to make trips to see them play for the rest of his life. The last time he visited Madison was in 1959, when Stanford invited the 87-year-old to fly east as a guest with their football team.
Having never returned to Australia, O’Dea spent the last months of his life in a hospital in San Francisco. Having shunned publicity for such a large part of his life, his last few months were full of accolades. President Kennedy sent him well wishes, and he was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame a day before his death in April 1962.
We may never know the true story behind the disappearance of Pat O’Dea. He stuck to his story until the end, and though no further allegations of shady business practices cropped up, he never sat down to definitively tell his own tale.
This card was issued by Monarch Corona