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Michael O’Keeffe: The man behind the jerseys

May 9, 2012 Leave a comment

To many at Fairfield University, the most important part of knowing junior goal keeper Michael O’Keeffe has nothing to do with soccer or his New Zealand accent.

“If you can name me a dozen people on the planet that are more universally well-liked than him, then I’d give you a million dollars,” said junior Tom Freda.  “But I’ll let you know now, you’d be wasting your time.”

Freda has lived with Michael O’Keeffe for two years. By now, most people can name a few things off the top of their heads about their roommates that annoy or confuse them. But when it comes to O’Keeffe, Freda couldn’t come up with a single legitimate thing.

“I don’t think myself a bad person, but compared to Mike, I’m like a despot,” said Freda, with a laugh. “That’s about the worst thing I can think of about the guy.”

O’Keeffe, the junior goalkeeper for the Stags’ soccer team and reigning MAAC Defensive Player of the Year, was selected to join the team for the Olympic qualifiers held earlier this month. After the team won the Oceania Football Confederation qualifiers, congratulations poured onto O’Keeffe’s Facebook, many of which coming from teammates, friends and classmates.

This does not come as a shock to many who know O’Keeffe personally however, as he is known around the university for his vivacious personality. WVOF Sports Director and broadcaster Ivey Speight, who has known and worked with O’Keeffe for almost three years, calls O’Keeffe “one of the most dedicated people that you’ll ever meet.”

“I’ve never seen a harder worker than O’Keeffe,” said Speight. “He’s not only a varsity athlete, he’s one of the best soccer goalies to come across Fairfield, and he’s never said to me ‘I can’t do a game because of time commitment’ … I don’t know how he finds all the time to do [all the work].”

O’Keeffe’s hard work is most obvious on the playing field, and those who are around him have taken notice.

“It’s the drive that he has. He’s one of those players who is always here, always putting in the extra work,” said Amelia Zammataro, a Graduate Assistant Athletic Trainer who has worked closely with the team over the past two seasons. “He’s just got a real commitment to playing and performing the best that he can.”

Perhaps a testament to O’Keeffe’s determination came after the interview with Zammataro was over, and someone else in the room who is involved in the athletic center chimed in adding, “Did you mention that [O’Keeffe] is the hardest working person we’ve seen here?”

Apparently O’Keeffe’s reputation precedes him.

“He’s a real leader on the team,” said Zammataro. “You can see it in the way that he acts on the field, outside the field, and all the players, and everyone around here has that respect for him as a leader.”

O’Keeffe, the 2011 Fairfield Male Athlete of the Year, will look to surprise some people and bring home some hardware with his teammates this summer in London.

But if you ask Michael, the native of the small town of Blenheim, New Zealand, who unofficially started playing soccer at age three, taking credit or bringing attention to himself isn’t something he likes to do, and credits others for a lot of his success.

“There have been lots of people who have driven me, but coming from a really small town, I’ve pretty much lived my entire career since I was 15 away from home. So the support of my parents has actually gotten me to these places,” said O’Keeffe. “I could have the most drive in the world, but in the end of the day, my parents are the ones who allow me to go to these places. It’s really credit to them.”

O’Keeffe is quick to credit his coaches he has here, especially his goalkeeping coach Javier Decima, for “always [being] out there early with me.”

The decision to travel almost 9,000 miles from New Zealand to Connecticut would be one that not many people would make simply for college. But for O’Keeffe, the decision was made a little simpler.

“I was at a crossroads between going pro, or scrapping the football side of things and just going to university,” said O’Keeffe. “And coming to the states in general allowed me to merge those roads together.”

After talking to a former assistant coach at Fairfield, O’Keeffe was prepared to make the trip, a decision he does not regret in the least. “Just being at Fairfield, I get kicks out of it,” said O’Keeffe. “I’m here most of the year, so for me Fairfield is home. I still get a buzz when I come back to Fairfield.”

For a man who will be competing with and against some of the greatest athletes in the world in a matter of months, O’Keeffe is still a college student at the core, describing some of his favorite memories as the times he’s spent at the campus cafeteria with his friends and teammates.

“I used to love Barone [the student cafeteria]. I used to hang out there for hours. I’d eat my meal, and the soccer team would just hang out and chill.”

And spoken like a true college student, the one thing that O’Keeffe is most excited about the Olympics is not the high-end hotel or the time spent in a foreign country. Instead? The 24/7 McDonald’s  in the Olympic Village.

“You wake up at 3 in the morning, and really want a Big Mac, you just walk outside into the Olympic Village, and get yourself a Big Mac and go back to bed.”

All the recognition that O’Keeffe has received has also not deterred him from what he views as his current goal: graduating from Fairfield with a degree in New Media. When asked if he would leave Fairfield this year if a professional team came offering him a job, O’Keeffe said “probably not.”

“That was a big reason for me coming over here [to Fairfield], was to get what my parents call a parachute, something to fall back on, if the soccer doesn’t go well. For me, finishing my degree is obviously as important as playing on the world stage, and one thing I’ve learned since I’ve been here is balancing those two.”

O’Keeffe said that he has learned a lot from his experience with the New Zealand team, especially from fellow goalkeeper Jake Gleeson, who plays professional in the MLS for the Portland Timbers.

“One thing that I really learned from Jake [Gleeson], now that he’s fully pro, he’s really gotten me to enjoy football again, as crazy as it seems. You sometimes get yourself into a hole, training every day, it becomes monotonous, just doing things for the sake of doing them,” said O’Keeffe. “He really got me to get the enjoyment back. That’s the biggest thing I learned from that whole tour. I’m glad, because it takes a huge weight off your shoulders.”

O’Keeffe has every right to boast about his accomplishments. He was the best goalie in the MAAC all season, and one of the best goalies in the country. He was arguably the best player on a team that was ranked in the top 25 poll at one point this season. He will be in the Fairfield Hall of Fame at some point in the future.

And yet, when someone like Speight thinks of O’Keeffe, those are not the first things that come to mind. They may not be among the first ten.

“Those [accomplishments] are the things that you shouldn’t forget about, and yet you do because of his personality,” said Speight.  “He does not have that ‘I’m better than you’ mentality.

“He brings a lot of energy. He is one of the funniest people you’ll ever meet. Sometimes you can’t help but smile. He has that effect on people.”

O’Keeffe certainly has a lot to look forward to in the coming months. However, his goal here at Fairfield has not changed: Repeat as MAAC champions, and go further in the NCAA tournament.

“After the Olympics, it’ll be our season at Fairfield,” said O’Keeffe. “There’s some unfinished business to handle there…As much as I’ve let it go, there’s still a bitter taste in my mouth.”

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Fairfield University bomb scare, 10 years later

May 9, 2012 Leave a comment

A shoebox, tin foil, and some wire. That was all that was needed to send panic through the region and destroy a university’s sense of security.

Canisius Hall, the site where Arbelo took a whole class hostage for about 7 hours.

Ten years ago this month, Patrick Arbelo walked into Dr. Elizabeth Dreyer’s “Voices of Medieval Women” class in Canisius Hall, and with an apparent bomb in his hands, held the class hostage for over six hours. More than a dozen TV trucks set up satellite links on campus, news helicopters buzzed overhead, and Fairfield got a dose of unwanted worldwide publicity.

“The first experience was surprise,” said Dr. Dreyer, talking about how she felt when Arbelo came into her classroom, “The second feeling was disbelief. We were thinking ‘Is this really happening?’, because it was so out of the ordinary.”

With the help of Fairfield Police, as well as federal agencies like the FBI, all of the hostages were eventually released, and Arbelo was brought into custody shortly before 11p.m.

Since that day, there have been no incidents that have garnered nearly as much state and national attention here on campus. Police say they learned some lessons that still guide their actions today, and several questions remain.

How effectively was the last hostage situation actually handled? What could’ve been better or what could have changed? Is Fairfield ready in the event that another hostage situation occurs on campus?

“We are much better prepared for a crisis situation today than we were back in 2002,” according to Todd Pelazza, the Director of Public Safety at Fairfield University.

Despite being overall pleased with how the negations went and how the situation turned out, Pelazza did admit to some areas that could have been better handled. “First and foremost, we would’ve gotten the message out,” says Pelazza. “For example, we told our dispatchers to not give out any information. We realize today that is not the right method. You want to get the word out as soon as you can and as accurately as possible.”

The switchboard for both Public Safety and Fairfield Police were inundated and overwhelmed, according to Pelazza, which added to confusion. And as a result of the incident, Public Safety now utilizes unified command system in which streamlines communication between the different branches of authority in the event of another crisis.

Lieutenant James Perez of the Fairfield Police Department, who was on the scene back in 2002 as a member of the SWAT team, shared Pelazza’s regrets about not having a plan already in place. “The one thing I wish we had done is I wish we had a protocol in place for that type of situation,” said Perez. “We would have had the press better informed and at a distance. We also had politicians come down, and they were able to walk freely, almost within 300 feet from the bomber, and we’ve learned that’s not a good thing.”

Fairfield Police have also trained a special team for that kind of situation, said Perez, and they have a great relationship with state and federal agencies, allowing them to work more quickly in times of crisis.

However, not everyone praised police handling of the case. One long-time critic says the police over reacted in the aftermath of the Twin Towers bombing in New York, which occurred five months earlier.

“It was the most disgraceful overreaction, and Patrick Arbelo was a victim of 9/11. It was the hysteria of 9/11 which caused this,” said Dr. Donald Greenberg, a politics professor at the university who witnessed the incident. “People knew that it was Patrick in the room, and anyone who knew Patrick knew what a troubled young man he had been. He was legally blind, there was no way on God’s good earth that Patrick could’ve put together a functioning bomb, and people should’ve known that.”

“I don’t care what they say about ‘We couldn’t take any chances’ or any stuff like that, we knew who the person was,” said Greenberg. “Patrick needed to be dealt with medically, not criminally.”

Greenberg was especially unhappy with how the authorities were quick to label what Patrick had as a bomb, considering his background. “He was legally blind…he had no technical skills whatsoever, he had no science courses. If you looked at the box, which you could see through the window, you would’ve realized what a joke it was,” said Greenberg, “…he had this silly little box that no more could be a bomb than I could be Mr. America. It was just an absurdity.”

Arbelo, pictured above, was committed to a mental hospital for 6 years before being released in 2009.

Arbelo was later found not guilty by reason of insanity of 27 counts of first-degree kidnapping and one count of possession of a dangerous weapon, according to the Mirror. A judge ordered Patrick be committed to a maximum security mental hospital, where he stayed until he was released in 2009.

Pelazza feels law enforcement was justified when they acted the way they did. “We did not know this at the time, but it was a facsimile bomb, which was in perfect working order, but did not contain any explosives. We had to act as if it was a real bomb.”

In addition to being critical of how the situation itself was handled, Dr. Greenberg attacked the administration for not handling the events that followed any better.

“They put the kid in jail, and let him rot in jail for close to two years….Our university and our president [Kelley] and our upper administration did nothing to stop that, they did nothing to interfere,” according to Greenberg. “Not only did we not act courageously, we acted in the most despicable way possible.”

“Any attempt we make to argue that we needed to do it because it was the age of terror, is somewhere between mendacity, hypocrisy, and just trying to cover yourself for behavior that you knew was despicable on your part. I think it was handled terribly.”

Dr. Dreyer was not critical of how the situation was handled, calling it “amazing”. However, she brought up another point: how many students are actually aware of this event happening 10 years ago?

“Most of our students don’t even know this happened,” said Dreyer. “I had one class where I brought it up as an example, and two out of 30 students had heard of it.”

No matter if students have heard of the Fairfield University bomb scare or not, Lt. Perez wants students and everybody associated in the community to be aware, so that it doesn’t have to be relived.

“Everyone must be security conscious…to prevent something like this from ever happening. Nothing actually happened [in 2002] but it could’ve been horrible,” says Perez. “ It is important that if students see something that is not normal, then let us know.”

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