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Leg(acy) of the Kangaroo Kicker

More than a century ago, one of the earliest Badger football stars kicked his way into college sports history.

Sandra Knisely '09, MA'13
November 01, 2013

More than a century ago, one of the earliest Badger football stars kicked his way into college sports history. But the story of the “Kangaroo Kicker” is not simply about statistical achievement. It is also a tale of fame, reinvention … and Homecoming.

On November 24, 1898 — Thanksgiving Day — the Badgers trounced Northwestern 47-0, and Pat O’Dea drop-kicked a 62-yard field goal — in a snowstorm.

O’Dea is also credited with kicking some of the longest punts in football history. In a tough game against Yale in 1899, O’Dea is believed to have punted for around 117 yards, which was possible because field length at the time was 110 yards. He also set a college drop-kick record in 1899 against Illinois, when he kicked for roughly 80 yards in high winds.

Pat O’Dea circa 1898. Photo courtesy of UW-Madison Archives | 24/1/1, 1458B.

A native of Australia, O’Dea first came to Madison in 1896 to surprise his brother, Andy, who was a crew captain and assistant football coach. Andy convinced his brother to enroll at the UW rather than return to Melbourne, and according to legend, O’Dea was invited to join the football team after punting back an errant ball during practice in front of the armory (now known as the Red Gym).

Though initially he knew nothing about American football rules, O’Dea quickly became the center of the Badger offense. His freshman season was short lived after he broke an arm in practice, but the following year O’Dea developed a reputation for exciting, unpredictable moves. In an era when a field goal counted as much as a touchdown (five points), O’Dea’s kicking often resulted in decisive victories and helped Wisconsin to dominate the Western conference, forerunner to the Big Ten.

O’Dea’s abilities, both as a kicker and a runner, gained him fans and attention well beyond Wisconsin, and he became one of the earliest celebrities in a sport that evolved from a college pastime into a national obsession. After he finished his law degree in 1900, O’Dea translated his popularity on the field into short coaching stints at Notre Dame and Missouri.

Then, abruptly, O’Dea left the Midwest — and the game — entirely. His biography gets foggy after 1904, when he disappeared from public life. Rumors abounded that he had secretly joined the Australian Army, and many, including his brother, believed that he was killed in World War I.

Yet O’Dea was very much alive in California. He practiced law for a time in San Francisco before moving farther north to work as a statistician in a lumberyard. He said he lived under the name Charles J. Mitchell, his mother’s maiden name, to escape the pressures of his former fame.

His hermitry went undisturbed for almost two decades until 1932, when whispers circulated that Mitchell was not who he claimed to be. After receiving a tip from Mitchell’s employer, a sports reporter from San Francisco confronted him.

O’Dea’s return to Madison for Homecoming in 1934
O’Dea’s return to Madison for Homecoming in 1934

O’Dea initially resisted, but eventually he confessed his identity. When the news broke, most were skeptical, including Andy. Eventually O’Dea convinced the world that he was in fact the Kangaroo Kicker, and various groups in Madison reached out to invite him back to Wisconsin.

He declined them all until 1934, when he decided that UW Homecoming would be the right time. He returned in a flurry of fanfare to watch the Badgers beat Illinois.

After the event, O’Dea went back to California, but he maintained a much closer connection with the UW and the college football community. He became active in alumni relations on the West Coast, and he visited Madison several more times.

In 1962, at age 90, O’Dea was named to the National Football Foundation College Hall of Fame. He died from a long illness the next day.

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