Monday, July 17, 2006 | On a mid-summer Monday at the Mountain West Conference football media days this afternoon, Kevin O’Connell will sit at a table set up for San Diego State interviews in a ballroom of the Coronado Marriott.

His audience, the media, is eager to talk 2006 college football. The Aztecs’ junior quarterback from La Costa Canyon High will no doubt put on a good face for his team and university. He always does.

He’s articulate, he enjoys playing for his hometown university and he has the look and frame of a quarterback that is straight out of central casting. He’s still listed as a 6-6, 220-pounder, but he looked more like 6-7, 230 to me when I saw him the other night. I’m 6-3 and I felt 6-1 standing next to him.

At media days, O’Connell is fulfilling a responsibility as the Aztecs starting quarterback to talk SDSU football under new coach Chuck Long. This will be a piece cake for him compared to last year.

In an up-and-down 5-7 season, O’Connell showed maturity beyond his years. He was in the uncomfortable position of speaking for a team and season while the coach who recruited him and groomed him, Tom Craft, was taking on criticism and would be ultimately be fired.

O’Connell hurt for his old coach, but he’s mature enough to see the promise and opportunity in front of him and his team with his new coach.

But let me tell you about a recent mid-summer evening when O’Connell took time to talk SDSU football with a much less demanding group than the media – young, impressionable kids. This was a gathering of youth football players and cheerleaders being honored in June for academics.

Palomar Pop Warner was looking for a speaker for its “Little Scholars Dinner” scheduled for a Saturday night. Shereen Saurey, a can-do person who works administrative support in the SDSU football office, approached O’Connell with the request and he accepted without hesitation.

Imagine the reaction of Debbie Winters, the Palomar Pop Warner commissioner, when her modest request for a “football player” turned out to be the starting quarterback.

“We were thrilled,” Winters said. “We were very impressed with him and the time he took to talk to the kids and inspire them. He had a huge impact on them. I’m sure he won over a lot of new San Diego State fans.”

I don’t know about you, but if I’m the starting quarterback on a campus with the caliber of women you see walking around SDSU’s campus, I can think of a few other places to be on a summer Saturday night.

O’Connell began his talk by telling the kids he was more of a soccer player growing up on the East Coast until he moved here in elementary school and played San Dieguito Pop Warner.

“I was one of the smaller kids, believe it or not,” O’Connell said. “I wasn’t always the most athletic person, but I was lucky to develop later in life. I developed some skills my junior year in high school and I’m still trying to develop them.”

Then, conscious he was here to talk about more than football and that his audience included young girls as well as young boys, O’Connell explained his older sister’s influence on him.

“I have a wonderful mom and dad who were always on me about my studies,” O’Connell said. “My sister was a perfect example to follow. She was a good athlete and a straight-A student. I tried to keep up with her. Now I have a chance to go to college and get a great education. I’m a political science major, which is ironic because there is a lot reading and writing and that’s something I’m not normally good at. I was more of a math guy in high school. But that’s an example for you that things will change in your life.”

Then he told the kids about the relationships he has built on sports teams dating back to Pop Warner football.

“The bond I have with my friends is something I’ll always have,” O’Connell said. “I’ll take the leadership skills I learn and used them the rest of my life. They’ve given me the ability to stand up here and talk to you guys tonight. Work hard and you’ll be successful and you’ll be in position to be a good role model. No matter what your goals are, I recommend you set them high.”

That was Kevin O’Connell on a mid-summer Saturday night when no one besides young kids and the adults who guide them were watching.

“I had lunch with my parents earlier today, and they asked me what I was doing tonight,” O’Connell told the kids during his talk. “I said I was going to talk to ‘Little Scholars.’ They laughed. I said, ‘No, really.’ They thought it was a riot because they remember trying to get me to study.”

The kids I saw seated before O’Connell weren’t laughing. They listened in rapt attention. In recent years SDSU has failed to connect with its community, which is painfully evident when the football program struggles.

Maybe O’Connell’s mid-summer talk was a sign of a new direction for SDSU football. It had to be worth a couple touchdown passes toward connecting the Aztecs with San Diego.

Tom Shanahan is voiceofsandiego.org’s sports columnist. He is the media coordinator for the San Diego Hall of Champions. You can e-mail him at toms@sdhoc.com. Or send a letter to the editor.

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