On August 1, 2020, Aidan O’Connell joined hundreds of Big Ten football athletes in preparation for the upcoming season—hopeful but uncertain due to the daily changes brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Then, on August 11, the worst news possible came with the announcement that the Big Ten would cancel the season with the hopes of playing in the spring. Most players were justifiably frustrated, disappointed and even angry at the decision.
But O’Connell knew that moment in time was an opportunity to take a deep look inside and check his motivations for playing the game of football.
"I try to live in a way that glorifies God. You never know the seeds you’re going to plant in someone’s life.”
“Situations like that really show you what you value and what you make an idol in your life,” O’Connell said. “I get to play football. I get to spend time with friends. I get to go to school at a great university. Sometimes you can make those things an idol without even realizing it. Does my happiness depend on those things?”
When O’Connell arrived in West Lafayette, Indiana, three years ago, there was a good chance the answer to that question was “yes.” Even though he had been raised in a faithful church-attending Christian home, he shared the same tendencies of his generation’s majority and, like most Americans, lacked a broader worldview.
As a true freshman, O’Connell was buried on the crowded quarterback depth chart. To his surprise, however, starting QB and future NFL athlete David Blough became a mentor and friend on the field and in his spiritual life. O’Connell also connected with FCA his first week on campus and met athletic chaplain Marty Dittmar who has served Purdue for 24 years.
“He was really open,” Dittmar recalled. “He was very personable and expressed a real desire to be involved with FCA at Purdue.”
So when FCA Purdue’s annual trip to South Africa rolled around the following Spring Break, Dittmar instinctively knew that O’Connell was a prime candidate despite never being on the mission field before.
O’Connell was a natural. His love for kids deepened his time at the Bethesda orphanage and school for children whose parents have died of AIDS. Throughout the seven days, O’Connell and the other student leaders interacted with more than 250 kids throughout the community and built a fence around the school playground.
“I know it’s cliché, but you go there because you want to help them and they end up helping you,” O’Connell said. “You see things through a new lens. When I came back, it was almost hard to enjoy things that I had—to get in a car and go places or go out to eat. I was almost angry at myself because I realized the people back in South Africa couldn’t do the things that we take for granted. It helped me see the fragility of life and appreciate the privileges we have here.”
O’Connell returned to South Africa in May of 2019 and this time was able to stay for ten days. An extra year of leadership training back home proved invaluable as he took a larger role on the ministry team.
“It was neat to watch him mature from a kid that kind of stood in the background to where he was the front man,” Dittmar recalled. “He was the guy who shared the Gospel with the kids during chapel. That was pretty awesome to watch.”
While O’Connell’s heart for the kids of South Africa grew larger, it spurred an even greater desire to ramp up his efforts in West Lafayette.
“He had a passion to come back to Purdue and lead his peers to Christ,” Dittmar said. “He knew that was his place. In our devo times, he expressed how God was telling him he needed to get back to Purdue and share the Gospel with his teammates.”
After David Blough graduated, Dittmar made the logical choice and inserted O’Connell as the new FCA Purdue student leader—a role he has continued ever since.
And on September 16, 2020, when the Big 10 reversed course and decided to play football after all, O’Connell had another role to play as starting quarterback. Unfortunately, he tore a ligament in the big toe on his right foot against Northwestern, which ended his season prematurely.
Instead of getting upset at his misfortune, a quick reminder of his time in South Africa helped bring a fresh, eternal perspective into focus.
“He’s responded to all of those things with a godly, biblical response,” Dittmar said. “There’s a lot of guys who go through difficulties like that and start to think that God doesn’t care of them anymore and they quit. But Aidan is unshakable in his faith and he sees God’s hand in everything.”
“I try to make sure my words line up with what I believe,” O’Connell concurred. “Even more than that, I try to live in a way that glorifies God. You never know the seeds you’re going to plant in someone’s life.”
* * *
As Aidan O’Connell prepares for his senior year at Purdue, he hopes that supporters will pray for a greater measure of courage and bold leadership.
“I just want to be who I am no matter who I’m around and no matter what people want out of me or what they want me to say,” he said. “I want to be strong and stick to what I know I should be doing.”
For Marty Dittmar and his work with FCA Purdue, his simple prayer is to get more student-athletes into the Bible.
“It’s a life-changing thing,” he said. “They get into the Word and the Word gets into them. I would ask people to pray that, like Paul told the Thessalonian church, that the Word would go out unfettered.”
Want to get involved? Support Dittmar’s chaplaincy ministry and learn about more ways to serve with FCA Purdue.