WHEN WE ponder Australians who have played American football, we generally raise the names of the likes of big-kicking trio Darren Bennett, Ben Graham and Sav Rocca.

There's one name that trumps them all by the length of one of his legendary drop kicks, and he's one of the great forgotten stories of Australian sport.

Pat O'Dea (pronounced O'Day) enjoyed a brief Australian Football career with Melbourne and Essendon before becoming one of the US code's first superstars, its all-time greatest kicker and the only Australian inducted into the American College Football Hall of Fame.

The enigmatic O'Dea achieved celebrity status across America as the famed 'Kangaroo Kicker'.

And then he mysteriously disappeared.

A sad upbringing

Patrick John O'Dea's colourful life began in the Victorian country town of Kilmore on March 16, 1872.

Life was fragile. Pat, or "Paddy", was the seventh-born of 11 children, with three of the four siblings preceding him not reaching the age of two.

His father Patrick senior, who was born in Ireland, ran the local flour mill. When he died at 49 in 1880, his widowed wife moved her brood to Melbourne.

Young Pat, who attended the Christian Brothers College in St Kilda and then Xavier College, would always be built like a greyhound but he became deceptively strong.

American sportscaster Dave Revsine's 2014 book The Opening Kickoff: The Tumultuous Birth of a Football Nation reveals that O'Dea started kicking a leather football complete with a bull bladder made by his older brother Andrew (Andy), who later claimed that when Pat was eight he could roost a ball 50 yards (46 metres) and when he was 10 he could kick 60 yards (55 metres).

The Pat O'Dea 1934 'souvenir' match program

A brave athlete

Pat O'Dea first came to public attention on January 3, 1888, when the 15-year-old risked his life by trying to save a mate's mother from drowning at Mordialloc. The woman's husband, prominent horse trainer JR Crooke, had first tried to save her but became too exhausted before young O'Dea "with great courage breasted the breakers" and brought her ashore. Mrs Crooke couldn't be revived.

O'Dea received a bronze medal for bravery from the Royal Humane Society of Australasia, and in later retellings insisted sharks had been stalking them and that he'd actually saved the woman's life.

He also displayed his athleticism as a sprinter, rower, steeplechase rider and, of course, as a footballer.

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A star goalkicker for Austral in the Victorian junior association, O'Dea joined then VFA club Melbourne in 1892 at 20. The Redlegs capitalised on his versatility, using the 183cm player's unique skills at either end and on a wing.

Though fast and capable of taking acrobatic marks, O'Dea was remembered for his prodigious kicking, particularly with the drop kick. Abnormally long-legged, he attributed much of his power to his eye-catching follow through, in which his right kicking leg extended well above his head, while his left foot rose about 20 centimetres off the turf.

In 1894 O'Dea was named an emergency for a Victorian team and was instrumental in Melbourne finishing runner-up.

After a brief stint in Gippsland – where he probably relocated for work reasons given it was at the height of the crippling economic depression of 1893-97 – O'Dea returned to the Redlegs in 1895 before making a mid-year switch to Essendon.

The Big Apple beckons

Off the field he wasn't as successful. According to author Revsine, O'Dea applied to study law at Melbourne University three times but failed the entrance exam on each occasion.

But as he would do so brilliantly countless times on football fields in both Australia and America, O'Dea saw an opportunity and seized it.

His brother Andy, also an accomplished sportsman, had travelled to England and then the United States as a trainer for Australian heavyweight boxing champion Paddy Slavin. Andy O'Dea decided to stay in the US and was soon appointed rowing coach at the University of Wisconsin (UW).

Andy had told his little brother to "stay with the old folks" back home, but Pat ignored this advice and arrived unannounced at UW in Madison.

Pat O'Dea's older brother, Andrew. Picture: University of Wisconsin

When the wannabe lawyer had a casual kick of the American ball on campus it caused such a commotion among awestruck onlookers that he thought he'd committed a public offence. UW's football coach was so impressed that the 24-year-old Australian was swiftly offered a chance to study law, on the condition that he also joined the football squad.

The NFL was decades from being formed and college football was the game's elite level, so this was a big deal for the talented Aussie.

Pat O'Dea (circled) in a team photo in 1899. Picture: University of Wisconsin

A lucky escape

O'Dea almost didn't make it onto the field. One afternoon in April 1896 he trained with Andy's rowing crew and both of them were lucky to escape with their lives when a squall swamped their boats.

Pat clung to both his vessel and a crew mate who couldn't swim. Through sheer exhaustion in the cold water, O'Dea eventually lost his grip and the other rower drowned. A rescue party finally arrived after two hours.

Understandably, the traumatic experience discouraged O'Dea from rowing and he focused on football.

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After his first game of college football, O'Dea suffered a broken arm at practice. In his first game back, he caused a sensation at the Chicago Coliseum indoor stadium when he rocketed a punt kick that became stuck in roof beams.

O'Dea quickly adapted to the American code, which in its formative years perfectly suited his skills. Forward passes weren't yet legalised so the game more resembled rugby. Crucially, field goals were then worth five points and touchdowns four (their values are now three and six points, respectively) so it was a game in which a kicker could dominate.

The American ball was also rounder and less pointy back then – it was actually similar to an Australian football at the time – so it was more conducive to drop-kicking.

'Greatest punter': Pat O'Dea in full kit. Picture: University of Wisconsin

'The most impossible kick in football history'

O'Dea spent four years at UW, the last two as captain, and smashed all of the game's kicking records, producing extraordinary efforts of precision and power with drop kicks, punts and place kicks from his "educated toe". (It was in the US that he learned the art of the spiral punt, later known as the torpedo in Australian Football.)

The Badgers' fullback became the most dangerous player in the game, launching the longest known drop-kicked field goal with a 62-yard (56.7 metres) bomb on the run in a blizzard.

O'Dea believed his greatest goal – which has been hailed "the most impossible kick in football history" – was a match-winning 55-yard (50-metre) place kick into a howling crosswind. As he'd lined up, the referee said he was "crazy" for even considering it.

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He roosted a punt kick that sailed, with wind assistance, 110 yards (100.6 metres) – the full length of the field. He once scored four field goals in a game.

It was said that O'Dea "could curve a football as pitchers curve a baseball, and hit a five-yard target at 80 yards".

It's little wonder that 'the father of American football', Walter Camp, selected O'Dea in the All-American teams of 1898-99 (he was the first western states player to achieve the honour) and declared the Aussie "put the foot in football".

It was suggested in a half-page newspaper cartoon that O'Dea's right leg had become as iconic as the right arm of world champion boxer John "Boston Strong Boy" Sullivan.

'The leg of Patrick O'Dea', as depicted in a cartoon in an American newspaper

O'Dea's skills weren't limited to kicking. Briefly a world record holder in the 300-metre hurdles while competing for UW, he used his speed to devastating effect to sprint 90 metres to score a touchdown.

Through it all, the graceful O'Dea seemed to barely ruffle a hair. There would be no goal celebrations, nor the slightest hint of surprise – he'd simply move on to the next play.

A date with a diva

Opponents physically targeted him but he usually evaded their clutches. However, he was often injured.

This physical threat to his wellbeing led to an emotional plea from his former neighbour in Melbourne, the famous singer Dame Nellie Melba. When the prominent pair met up after one of her shows in Chicago, it was reported that Melba "sought by every means to secure his promise that he would never again risk his life and limb in what she called 'this brutal football game you are playing here in America'."

O'Dea became something of a heartthrob, with UW students recalling him as "a handsome, congenial, carefree individual with a flair for the unusual".

They composed songs and poems about the Kangaroo Kicker, including this tribute in the UW yearbook of 1900:

The grandstand is a howling mass,
The lines are crowded thick;
Now center makes a clever pass,
When Pat goes back to kick.

Unerringly the pigskin flies
Above the goal cross sticks;
The rooters' 'rah-rahs' rend the skies
When Pat goes back to kick.

Wisconsin's Kangaroo

O'Dea is credited with helping to improve the perception of people in America's western states, and western folks' perceptions of themselves.

He was pleased to oblige, later writing to a friend: "In all my successes I was referred to as 'Wisconsin's Kangaroo', and it made me feel proud that I was able to keep, or, rather, help keep, our home sport before the people."

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His college career over following his graduation, O'Dea became non-playing coach of Notre Dame in 1900-01, introducing a novel team mascot - a live kangaroo, which would "bound along the sidelines".

Before the final game in 1901, he mysteriously decided to play for the opposition, the professional South Bend Studebakers. He then incurred the wrath of his new teammates when they suffered an upset defeat after being baffled by Notre Dame's tactical moves.

Summarily sacked by Notre Dame, O'Dea coached Missouri for just one season in 1902.

Mugged, beaten and sacked

Trouble followed O'Dea. He was bashed by Chicago street thieves and, just weeks later, almost died after falling into a bath of boiling water at a hotel.

There was also a short-lived stint as football coach and athletics director at the American School of Osteopathy, with researchers suspecting school administrators discovered he'd lied about his academic qualifications in claiming he'd graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree at Melbourne University in 1893.

His departure marked the end of his involvement in elite-level football.

His charm seemingly fading, O'Dea found life increasingly challenging.

Married on Valentine's Day, 1903, with a daughter later that year, he soon abandoned them. In 1910 he wed again. Business dried up.

A young Pat O'Dea in a suit. Picture: University of Wisconsin

The disappearance

O'Dea gradually disappeared from public view, and then he seemed to vanish into thin air during World War I.

There was a rumour he'd been scolded to death in Missouri, but the general belief was that he'd joined an Australian army regiment that had docked at San Francisco and he'd later been killed somewhere in France or aboard a sinking ship. His own brother also subscribed to this 'unknown soldier' theory.

In 1934, just as plans were announced to erect a memorial plaque in his honour, the man himself "returned from the dead".

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San Francisco Chronicle sportswriter Bill Leiser had received a tip-off that O'Dea was living in the small town of Westwood, deep in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in north-eastern California.

Then 62, O'Dea had been living there for 15 years under the assumed name of Charles J. Mitchell (he had a younger brother named Charles, while Mitchell was Dame Nellie Melba's original name) and had worked as a clerk for a lumber company.

News of O'Dea's secret life was a bombshell, creating breathless headlines across two continents. In Madison it even overshadowed the arrest of the kidnapper of Lindbergh's baby.

O'Dea claimed his football fame had been a handicap in business as it was all anyone wanted to talk to him about.

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"I wanted to get away from what seemed to me to be all in the past. As Pat O'Dea I seemed to be very much just an ex-Wisconsin football player. I was very happy as Mitchell for a while," he said.

"Later I often found it rather unpleasant not to be the man I actually am. So I am going to be Pat O'Dea for the rest of my life. Perhaps I should never have been anything else."

However, there were probably more sinister motives for O'Dea's self-imposed exile. In 1919 he'd been charged with embezzling $3000 and stock valued at $1500 from a female client, and was due to appear before a grand jury in Sam Francisco, but he then went missing.

Embezzlement charge headline: A newspaper clipping of the time

A note from JFK

The born-again O'Dea was completely unprepared for his overwhelming reception from the sporting public. He received a "rapturous welcome" on his homecoming to UW. People packed the streets for a glimpse of the legend, greeting him with "lusty cheers" and singing.

The man of the moment – who was always referred to by the US media as a former "Australian rugby star" – revelled in the adulation, as he would for the last three decades of his life.

Among the hundreds of people to send 90th birthday wishes to O'Dea in March 1962 were then president John F. Kennedy, whose note opened with: "As a fellow son of Erin and a longtime admirer …"

Just weeks later, O'Dea was inducted into the American College Football Hall of Fame.

The next day he died from cancer in a San Francisco hospital.

Pat O'Dea, in later life, back at the University of Wisconsin. Picture: University of Wisconsin