Michael O’Keeffe: The man behind the jerseys
“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.”
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.”
“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.”