By Joey Bennett
TERRE HAUTE — The task for Indiana State football competing in the Missouri Valley Football Conference is considered to be similar to that of Terre Haute North and Terre Haute South playing in the Metropolitan Interscholastic Conference.
Tough opponents every week with no easy games. Opponents with more players, more money, and more recent success. Lack of respect from league brethren.
Therefore, the obstacles looming in the road for North senior Chris O’Leary as he joins ISU’s program this fall will be familiar ones.
O’Leary made a verbal commitment last week to attend ISU and play for Coach Trent Miles, and will sign his national letter-of-intent on Feb. 3.
This past season, the North senior threw for 1,998 yards and 16 touchdowns while running for 500 yards and five more touchdowns.
The quarterback set school single season records this year for attempts, completions, passing yards and quarterback rushing yards.
O’Leary said it’s a “relief” to have the process over, and he’s looking forward to the opportunity to join the Sycamore program.
“I like the players and the coaches a lot, and their facilities also,” O’Leary said. “Their weight room is top of the line, and it’s up there with all the schools I’ve been to.”
ISU’s recent track record in terms of wins and losses is well known, but O’Leary sees that trend changing.
“On my visit I talked to players and coaches, and they are all very confident that the losing is a thing of the past,” he said. “They are ready to turn the program around, and they’re doing the right things. It’s definitely on the upswing.”
O’Leary had visited larger schools such as Michigan State and Western Kentucky, but had the most interest from Football Championship Subdivision (formerly I-AA) schools and other lower division schools literally stretching from Maine to San Diego.
He could prove to be a “diamond in the rough” story in the Kurt Warner or Tony Romo mold, someone who could prove to be a higher level player who slipped through the cracks in the eyes of the bigger schools to the FCS level.
Injuries were the downfall of the 6-2, 180-pounder throughout his high school career and limited his collegiate choices.
He dislocated both shoulders, and had surgery during his junior year when he only got to play in three games and was forced to miss the entire basketball season.
Last summer, four hernias required additional surgery and caused him to have to pass on invitations to some of the top passing camps in the country that are used heavily by colleges in evaluating prospective recruits.
“That definitely hurt my recruiting options,” he said. “ISU was able to see me play on their field during my senior year, and I happened to have a good game that night. They started talking to me then.”
North Coach Chris Barrett is thrilled to have one of his players to earn a full-ride scholarship and predicts success is in O’Leary’s future.
“Chris is an outstanding young man and football player,” Barrett said. “He is a very good spread-option QB with good speed, accuracy, and decision making ability. His best attribute is his leadership ability.
“Chris comes to practice every day and he makes those around him better,” he added. “He is looking forward to making an impact at Indiana State University.”
O’Leary credits Barrett and the North coaching staff with helping him to achieve his goal of playing college football.
“Coach Barrett and his staff had a lot to do with it,” O’Leary said. “He’s an ISU grad and he knows Coach Miles really well. He was able to put in a good word for me, and he’s really backing the program well.
“He definitely hopes we get back on top.”
O’Leary also credits Billy Blundell, quarterback coach at North, with compiling video highlight films and statistics packages for his recruitment.
O’Leary said the preliminary plan is for him to redshirt next fall to take a year to get acclimated to college and the higher level of competition as he works on getting bigger and stronger.
“My goal personally would be to learn the system for another year, and then come in and start as a redshirt sophomore,” he said.
O’Leary wants to be a college football coach once his playing days are over, and hopes to someday serve as a graduate assistant at ISU. He’ll major in communications to provide himself a backup plan.
There was only one negative about ISU as O’Leary considered his college plans — the fact that it’s in the same city where he has grown up.
“My goal was to get out of town and be on my own, and staying here was probably the only negative thing,” he said. “I’ll be living on campus, so I will be a little bit removed from home but my family will still get to see me play. I’m really looking forward to it.”
Joey Bennett is a former Tribune-Star sports reporter and copy editor who now teaches and coaches at Northview High School in Brazil. He can be reached at email@example.com.