Gael flies south

Offensive lineman Matt O’Donnell heads to Florida for the Shrine Bowl

Offensive linesmen Matt O’Donnell was selected to participate in the Shrine Bowl.
Offensive linesmen Matt O’Donnell was selected to participate in the Shrine Bowl.
Journal File Photo

This past Saturday, Gaels’ offensive lineman Matt O’Donnell got an opportunity very few CIS football players get during their university careers: an invitation to the annual East-West Shrine Game in Orlando, Florida.

The Shrine game has been running since 1925 and functions as a display of collegiate players entering the NFL draft. The event gives NFL scouts an opportunity to analyze the incoming rookie class while also raising money for the Shriners Hospitals for Children. The athlete pool at the “Shriner” overlaps heavily with the more publicized NCAA Senior Bowl where players also compete for a chance to raise their personal value entering the professional draft.

The level of play at the Shrine Bowl can be significantly higher than any CIS game. O’Donnell said the game showcases the best talent around.

“The players that are first round draft picks according to the experts played in this one. Pretty close in the talent level [to the Senior Bowl]. Some players may be sitting out, but the talent pool was about the same.”

O’Donnell said that it was a struggle to compete against such elite players.

“[It was] one of my most difficult experiences, everyone down here is top player. They are really fast. You don’t get invited here if you’re not a top athlete,” he said.

To make matters more difficult, O’Donnell had to switch from his natural left tackle position to right tackle for a majority of the game. Coping with the level of play and an unnatural position posed some problems for O’Donnell that he said could have been corrected with a little bit more time.

“I haven’t played right tackle for about three years but you never really forget. If I could’ve had a couple of more days [of training camp] I could’ve really shined there,” he said.

Despite the challenges Gaels head coach, Pat Sheahan, said O’Donnell played well.

“Obviously [this was] last time he had live action since the 30th of October. So it’s safe to say that he had a healthy lay off,” he said. “I thought he did pretty well. Monday practice was rained out [and] walk-throughs were basically in the hotel lobby so he didn’t have a lot of time to prepare for this level of competition. He didn’t look out of place and I have been getting back fairly good positive feedback about his weekend.”

Simply getting the invite is very meaningful for a CIS athlete, the field is dominated by NCAA Division I athletes. Since 2000 only 24 CIS athletes have been invited, which comes out to a little more than two athletes a year. The last time a Gael was selected for the game was in 1986 when offensive tackle, Mike Schad was selected. Sheahan said this fact alone makes the O’Donnell’s opportunity meaningful.

“It’s a tremendous accolade for him and the Queen’s program. To produce a candidate for an event like this is great. Thrill of a life time [for O’Donnell]—a thing that only happens once in a life time.”

O’Donnell is currently training in Virginia Beach to improve his talents for the CFL Evaluation camp, which will be held March 6-8 in Toronto.. He will also be entering the NFL Entry Draft, which will be held April 28-30 in New York City.

While his chances in the States may be slim, O’Donnell said he’s just hoping for someone to give him a chance. He is also ranked sixth in preliminary CFL draft rankings according to the CBC, so even if the NFL doesn’t work out, he still has a good shot in the Canadian equivalent. Sheahan said that O’Donnell’s chances at a professional career are good.

“He has a chance to shine [at the CFL evaluation camp],” he said. “Yet they are an isolated attempt to evaluate his football ability. There isn’t a lot of live preparation, [it’s a] one shot deal. He needs to look strong and look in shape.”

Although football is certainly at the forefront of O’Donnell’s thoughts at the moment, he has also prepared himself for life away from athletics if a professional career doesn’t materialize. The fourth-year health studies student said that he will make sure to finish his University studies so that he can pursue teaching and coaching later on in life.

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