Husky Hero Chris O'Connor

The first college game that I witnessed was in 1982. My dad brought me to the south side of Husky stadium to watch the Washington Huskies face a tough team of Southern California. The Trojans were shut out for the first time since 1968 that day as a fifth year senior from across the lake led the number one defense in the nation.

The name repeatedly called was a defensive back named Chris O'Connor.

O'Connor developed into one of the toughest huskies ever over a five-year period which brought the program to the top of the college football world. The inspirational safety was at the heart of the teams that went to the Sun Bowl and a Rose Bowl after the 1981 season.

Local kid makes good.

This story began in 1978 the Washington Huskies signed the local star from Bellvue's Interlake high to a full football scholarship. O'Connor spent little time reviewing other schools before committing to the dawgs.

"It was a pretty easy choice to pick Washington. At that time they were just coming off their first Rose Bowl in a long time (1978 vs. Michigan). There was a lot of hype associated with the program, which made it a very easy choice. I had two guys from High school that I had played with at Interlake that were starters on the Rose Bowl team so that made it easy as well," said O'Connor.
,br> Jim Mora, the current head coach for the Indianapolis Colts was the Defensive Coordinator at the time and was the primary member of the staff recruiting the young defensive back. His son, now the defensive coordinator for the San Francisco 49ers was also a teammate of Chris' at Interlake which made the decision all more logical until a unforeseen twist of fate. "Jim Mora was at our awards banquet at school when he offered me a scholarship with the Huskies but a week later Chuck Knox offered him the defensive Coordinator job with the Seahawks. He jumped ship and left me wondering what to do until Jim Lambright took over at Defensive Coordinator," recalled O'Connor.

"Lambright picked up right where Mora left off. Everything fell into place."

Things didn't get off to the rosiest of starts for O'Connor, who took a while to get his feet wet in the world of big time college football. The redshirt concept was brand new to him and he wasn't sure that he was capable of playing at that level of competition. "It was a big-time question in the back of my mind. I had a real mediocre freshman year. It was the first year that freshman could redshirt and not burn a year of eligibility," said O'Connor.

Twenty of the Twenty-two freshmen played scout team while redshirting. It would be the last year Don James would not go to a bowl game for a decade, but he used the 1978 season to bring his freshmen along slowly. The results were undisputed. The 1978 group of redshirts would win two Pac-10 championships and by 1982 place Washington atop the AP poll for the first time in school history.

"My redshirt freshman year I began to play special teams. I got a little taste of it and realized that I could play at that level. It took me a couple years to crack the starting lineup." After that no-bowl season of '79 Mr. O'Connor and teammates beat a solid Texas team in the Sun bowl while posting a 10 win season.

It was the start of something big.

"The next two years we went to Back to Back Rose Bowls and the program got going."

Chris' senior campaign was one that he will certainly never forget. "We went seven weeks in a row ranked number one in the nation. Then we went down to Stanford to play against Elway, one of his last games there. They were terrible that year but they beat us. It was like he knew what plays we were running," recalls O'Connor of the day that Elway and wide receiver Kenny Margerum lit up the Husky secondary.

"We came back to win a real tough game at ASU then took care of UCLA at home only to lose at Pullman.

The loss to WSU on the road in 1982 is still considered one of the biggest and most painful losses by the Huskies in the history of the series between those two schools.

"That was a disaster, it cost us our third straight trip to the Rose Bowl. We never sat back and figured out what we had on the line - three straight Rose Bowls. We let the Cougars stick around in that game so they kept playing hard. That was the highlight of their season. I don't think that it really hit us until a couple weeks later. That Aloha Bowl was a good backdrop to go to and we beat Boomer Esiason and that Maryland team but it still would have been nice to go to three straight Rose Bowls."

Tim Cowan out-dueled Marlyland's Boomer Esiansan in the first annual Aloha bowl, culminating Chris' career with one of the more memorable bowl wins in Husky history. Cowan found Anthony Allen in the corner of the endzone with 6 seconds remaining to win it at the tape.

Although Mr. O'Connor played in four big bowl games it was a regular season game late in 1980 that he remembers as the biggest.

"It was late in my sophomore year and we had beat USC to get back to the Rose Bowl. It was a big-time game in Husky stadium. For the next two and a half years we were always ranked in the top ten in the country."

The Huskies pinned a 20-10 loss on the Trojans in Los Angeles and followed that up with a 22-16 road win at WSU to clinch the Rose Bowl berth.

O'Connor wound up being on three 10 win teams from 1979 to 1982. One of the most inspirational Dawgs of all-time, the 6-0 185-pound strong safety helped put Washington back on the map as Don James began to turn the program into a national power.

When pondering the competition during his years at Montlake a couple players instantly come to mind. "John Elway and Marcus Allen seemed to always have huge games against us. They were so hard to defend. The finest player that I had an opportunity to play with is probably Ray Horton. He was one of the best athletes as well as one of the smartest athletes that I have ever seen. He never screwed up," recalls O'Connor of Horton.

Horton's all-American career at Washington was followed by 8 years in the NFL.

Although Chris' teams were as good as any in Washington history he definitely notices a difference in college football today when comparing his teammates against the 2001 huskies.

"You can't compare the '82 team with today's. I was a 6-0 185-pound strong safety who ran a 4.5 forty on my absolute best day. That same athlete today is 6-2 210-pounds and runs a 4.4. Everything is stepped up a notch and teams today would kill us just like we would have killed teams ten years before us," said O'Connor.

He still keeps in contact with former teammates and holds his season tickets in high regard. "I see Tim Cowan all the time, and I talk to Mark Stewart a lot too. I play in Chuck Nelson's golf tourney each year so I keep in touch with him too."

Chris has just received his boat pass which allows him to dock next to the crew house on sunny Saturday's this fall. He looks forward to the 2001 season. "It's going to be interesting. Everybody's so hyped-up for this season it's going to be fun. Two tough teams right out of the blocks and an inexperienced quarterback there is a chance they may not do that well. I think that they will do well though and even win 10 this year. I go to a lot of practices and like what Cody Pickett is doing. They are so deep at running back. They had a lot of holes last year and all of a sudden you see guys ready to step up and fill them. The wide receiver position looks good. The defense is so strong I think that they will surprise some people," said O'Connor.

"It was a big surprise to see some people picking them fifth or sixth in the Pac-ten."

About four years ago Chris began his own commercial real estate firm. His family lives on the banks of Lake Washington and he was starring at the Neuheisel estate from his deck when we spoke.

"Rick tows his young boys around the lake in this boat with a big purple top. You could not miss it in a million years!"

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