Connor O’Chuida waited outside the bus that would take Patterson Mill High School’s football team back home, following a mid-October victory in Perryville. Though the Huskies had won, O’Chuida, a senior, noticed the team was looking “flat." He had something to say to the coach, and after they spoke, he became the outfit’s new motivational speaker, tasked with keeping spirits high and players motivated.
The job was right at the intersection of his interest in sports and communications. It was in line with what he wanted in the future — to be a sports broadcaster for the Philadelphia Eagles or Phillies — and the perfect way to help his high school’s team. O’Chuida could not play the sport himself because he has cerebral palsy.
With a strong crop of seniors, and buoyed by O’Chuida’s kind words and high-fives, the team made it to the playoffs that year, something it hadn’t done since 2011 he said. The year before, it had gone 0-9. Now that O’Chuida is graduating, the memory is one he will take forward into the next step of his life, he said.
"That was one of the best experiences of my life,” he said. “To be part of something like that is a moment I will never forget.”
O’Chuida, 17, is from Philadelphia, explaining his abiding love of Philly teams, but left in the middle of fifth grade to move to New Jersey, he said. In the Garden State, he attended a special-needs school before moving to Maryland to be with his mother in his senior year.
O’Chuida was apprehensive, transferring schools in the final year of his high school education. The academics were tougher at Patterson Mill, he admits. The faces were new and daunting. But it was a small enough school that many got to know him quickly; by the time he became the football team’s motivational speaker, coach Steve Lurz said, most of the players knew him. He went to almost every one of their games before getting involved with the team and had classes with several of its members.
“He is just motivating to the guys, gives them some high fives, extra support on the sideline,” Lurz said. “Kind of wish he was not a senior, but I got 20 other ones that I wish were not seniors.”
The only stipulation for being part of the team: O’Chuida had to wear a jersey. On the sidelines, only coaches are exempt from that.
"I was like, ‘Shoot, I’ll wear a jersey. Let’s go,'” he said.
He found a good stable of friends in school and had been planning on going to senior week in Ocean City before the coronavirus derailed that idea. It was a shortchanging, O’Chuida said, but safety is more important than a week at the beach. And challenges exist beyond the difficulty of his studies or missing senior week.
O’Chuida is open about his cerebral palsy, but he does not confront it in terms of its limitations on him. Though the wheelchair, braces and other specialized equipment cannot be forgotten, the obstacles do not faze him; they can, assuredly, be overcome with hard work and determination — the same way he won recognition from the National Society of High School Scholars. That self-possession, O’Chuida explained, is an embrace of the word “yet,” and a quiet belief in a future full of possibilities.
“If you do not feel like you can do something, just say, ‘alright, I cannot do that yet but I will be able to,’” he said. "If you believe in yourself, that is half the battle.”
Cerebral palsy is one of the most common movement disorders in childhood, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, commonly caused by “abnormal brain development or damage to the developing brain.” O’Chuida’s case was brought on by a brain-bleed when he was days old and causes stiff muscles and, at points, intense pain. It gets bad enough, sometimes, that he cannot express himself verbally, he said.
At school, he primarily uses a wheelchair, leaving some unsure how to approach him on the subject of his cerebral palsy. O’Chuida, an admitted open book, speaks straightforwardly with them, telling them what he needs from them. They are happy to help, and Patterson, too, was very receptive to him, his mother Linda Arrison-O’Chuida said.
“That school, they are just great,” she said. “I knew he would make friends and stuff, but it has been better than we ever could imagine.”
O’Chuida plans to go to Harford Community College with an eye toward studying broadcast journalism at Towson University on his way to being the main play-by-play broadcaster for his beloved teams. His desire to be “the voice for the fans” cuts across his studies, too. He prefers English and history to mathematical or scientific pursuits, enjoying putting his ideas to paper and clearly conveying them.
O’Chuida is excited for the next step in his life and the next drive toward the goal-line he is sure to cross.