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This Saints acts the part off the gridiron

Posted Tuesday, August 31, 2010 by Coach Ladyga
 MONTVILLE —

It’s fitting that St. Bernard’s nickname is the Saints because to hear some people describe Zach O’Friel, you’d think he could be one.

Football coach Sean Ladyga characterizes the senior lineman as “the face of our football program,” and says that he is “exactly what St. Bernard (High School) is.” He wins award after award with names like “academic,” “presidential” and “excellence” in them from numerous groups. His teammates affectionately call him “Big Daddy.”

Yet, he still admits he sometimes procrastinates on his homework — like every normal high school student.

O’Friel’s resume is littered with various awards for his academic achievements, and his schedule is full of commitments to his volunteer work with Special Olympics, the Haitian Health Foundation and Norwich Human Services.

But that didn’t stop him from making room for a time-consuming sport like football, and the choice has benefited both player and team in extraordinary ways since last season.

He wanted to play football at the youth level, but was always over the weight limit and turned to basketball. After the Saints lost a wealth of seniors entering last season, O’Friel came out for the team and suited up for the first time in his life as a junior.

“He’ll be the first one to tell you that he regrets not playing his first two years in high school,” Ladyga said. “He loves the game of football. He chose not to play basketball in the winter because he wanted to work harder in the weight room and get himself in condition to be in shape this year. That’s a commitment on his part, with everything else that he does.”

Said co-captain Ryan Doherty: “He’s a leader. He’s ... a good role model to the younger kids. He’s not a loud leader, but he’ll lead by example. And they’ll follow.”

As with most first-year players, there were growing pains. His first start at offensive tackle came in the second game of the season against East Lyme. It was the first of nine consecutive starts for O’Friel, and against a Vikings team that later reached a state championship game, he experienced some rookie moments.

“I was getting blown up,” O’Friel said. “I was getting knocked on my butt on the offensive line. But I feel if that didn’t happen, I wouldn’t have the motivation and the drive. ... It built up over time, and I adjusted.”

O’Friel’s love for the sport grew exponentially and despite his short time on the team, he was commanding the respect of the underclassmen on and off the field.

“He is the guy, in the weight room, who will work with the younger kids, show them the proper technique and make sure they’re doing the right things,” Ladyga said. “On the practice field, it’s the same thing. He’s a teacher. He’s a leader. He knows what he’s doing, and he’s going to spread his knowledge and he does it voluntarily, not by being asked.”

That kind of leadership was born from his family persevering through its own hardships. O’Friel’s brother, Mark — who is three years younger — has Down syndrome. He is the reason Zach O’Friel volunteers his time for the Special Olympics, which he has been involved in since freshman year.

His father has also been through an ordeal that Zach O’Friel called “like something you see in a movie.” He’s had a cancerous kidney removed when he was 3 years old, two major back surgeries and later, a tumor removed from his other kidney in a life-saving procedure.

Through it all, Zach O’Friel stays focused and maintain his reputation as an honor roll student.

“Freshman year, I was an academic kid,” O’Friel said. “I had a strong focus on academics, and now ... I make time, I compartmentalize everything. I go home, I do my homework, and push everything else aside.”

He doesn’t even have to directly influence someone to get a point across. All his teammates have to do is just observe his love for his brother at football games and they know not to be “as scared or awkward around people with special needs,” Zach O’Friel said.

He said he plans to continue volunteering for the Special Olympics and keep it in his life as he pursues his studies in business and communications in college.

“(I believe in) the whole thing: Don’t judge people. You’ve got to get to know people no matter who they are, even special needs people. They’re still people, too,” he said.

Ladyga or his coaching staff didn’t realize the scope of O’Friel’s community involvement until recently. Now that he knows more about him, football is one of the last things on Ladyga’s mind when talking about him.

“I recently found out what Zach O’Friel is really about,” Ladyga said. “He is the epitome of what (the school administrators) want everyone to be.”

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