Tyler Campbell remembers when he became friends with Ian O'Shea right down to the moment.
"We started becoming friends in fifth grade, and we've been friends ever since," Campbell said. "We were taking the PSSA test. He was across the hall from me. I was dancing and being goofy. He did it right back. Then we started talking."
O'Shea hasn't been dancing much this fall, though. Coming off a junior year in which he made all-state, O'Shea missed almost the entire first seven games with a pair of injuries and only now is beginning to feel like he's had much of a football season as Bellwood-Antis has made its run into the PIAA Class A semifinals.
Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski
Bellwood-Antis’ Ian O’Shea catches a two-point conversion to tie the state playoff game against Delone Catholic.
O'Shea will line up at tight end and outside linebacker when the Blue Devils try to earn a trip to the state championship on Friday night against District 2 champion Dunmore at Central Mountain High School.
"This makes up for all the time I missed," O'Shea said. "It takes my season back to where it should be."
O'Shea isn't the only one happy to have him back on the field.
"The leadership part of it is extremely big. He's a three-year performer. He's kind of the vocal spokesman in a lot of the things that we do," Bellwood coach John Hayes said. "He's a good role model. Those are the kinds of things that are often overlooked when you try to pull the parts together both in the locker room and on the practice field. From the physical part of it, he's obviously a bigger, faster, stronger player at the position that he plays.
"His experience and his ability to make plays certainly make us a better football team."
O'Shea was looking to build on the five touchdown passes he hauled in for the Devils during their District 6 Class A runner-up 2011 season. However, he sustained three cracked ribs in the middle of the Devils' season-opening win against Tyrone this season when he was hit going up for a ball across the middle.
O'Shea missed the rest of that game and the next three before coming back for the Mount Union game. Instead of an uplifting occasion, it became more frustration for O'Shea, who injured his ankle on a freak play.
O'Shea already was no stranger to missed time. He bluntly says he feels sometimes as if he is injury prone. In just the last few years, he blew out a knee playing basketball, broke a hand tripping over a hurdle while running track and tore a hip flexor.
"It [goes through your head]. 'Why me in my senior season, my last season as a Blue Devil?' It was really hard to go through that," O'Shea said. "Now that it's over, I have so much better motivation to make this the best season that I can."
O'Shea has made a lot out of his limited opportunities. In his first game back, he returned an interception for a touchdown to seal a win over Northern Bedford in a battle of Inter-County Conference unbeatens. In the District 6 semifinals, he took a short pass and turned it into a 70-yard touchdown that broke a scoreless tie and spurred B-A on to victory against Bishop Guilfoyle.
Then, last week, it was O'Shea that caught a two-point conversion in the last minute to force overtime, where the Devils finally overcame Delone Catholic.
Since returning to the lineup, O'Shea has eight receptions for 201 yards and two touchdowns. He has 40 tackles this season, all but six of which have come in the last six games.
"Getting him back with the team meant getting a lot of speed back, along with a lot of size and a lot of strength," said Blue Devil quarterback Seth Worthing, who also runs with O'Shea on a couple of medal-worthy track and field relay teams in the spring. "With him at tight end, that gives me another big option if I'm rolling out and I need to find somebody quick."
Even when he wasn't able to play, though, O'Shea tried to remain a visible part of the team, showing up for film sessions and practices and trying to give motivation, encouragement and insight to his teammates from the sidelines during games.
"I tried to be as much in the game as possible without actually being in the game," O'Shea said. "I just wanted to stay involved, but it was really difficult."
Although O'Shea comes off as a really upbeat, intelligent - and, if you ask his teammates, fun-loving, joke-making - young man, the Blue Devils closest to him could tell it was more than his ribs and ankle that were hurting.
"He was very emotional. He was down on himself," Campbell said. "He came back really quick from his ribs. I don't even know if he was ready to come back, but he wanted to get back out on the field and be with his team again. Then he hurt his ankle. For him to come back from two big injuries is a great story."
For a player as supportive of his teammates as is O'Shea, it was hard on the players that had been around him the longest to see him going through not being able to play. When he made it back, though, it made it feel even better for players like Campbell.
"There's a lot more confidence. He and I are the two big [vocal] leaders on the team. It was hard to do that myself. When he came back, everything went even better than it was before," Campbell said.
O'Shea comes across so well-spoken, straightforward and yet polite that it's sometimes easy to forget how good of an athlete he is. Although he looks like he could be a thrower in track, he's actually a sprinter who was part of the PIAA Class AA silver-medal-winning 1,600-meter relay with Worthing. He finished third in the district in the 100 dash and the 300 hurdles and also was on a state-qualifying 400 relay that would have medaled if not for a dropped baton.
"He gets along well with everybody. He has a tremendous attitude in that way," Hayes said. "I think all the younger kids, his peers, they all respect him. That's important. Leadership comes in many ways. He's not bashful of saying what needs to be said."
No matter the outcome this week or next, O'Shea will have an opportunity to continue a football career that began when he started out in the pee-wee leagues in second grade. Juniata, Waynesburg and Lycoming have been recruiting him hardest. He's looking to combine college football with ROTC - "I have a lot of family members that went into the military, and friends," O'Shea said. "It would just be a great thing to get my college degree and be able to serve my country."
Of course, getting a couple of extra games in would be welcome, too, especially considering the injuries that shortened his season.
"I just want to make the most of it while I can still play," O'Shea said. "Regardless of what I do in the future, I want to make this a memorable year."