Nearly 70 years ago, identical twins Johnny and Eddie O’Brien helped turn Seattle University into a baseball and basketball power before embarking on major league careers.
Today, their grandsons are trying to help the Redhawks return to past glory.
Connor O’Brien is Johnny’s grandson, and the starting shortstop on the Seattle U baseball team. Connor, a sophomore, bears a great resemblance to his granddad, who played infield and pitched in the major leagues.
Matt Vail, a freshman walk-on for the basketball team last season, learned to play hoops with grandfather Eddie, who died in 2014.
It might seem fitting that both ended at the school that meant so much to their grandfathers, but it wasn’t necessarily their plan.
“I didn’t know where I wanted to go until they asked me if I wanted to walk on (to the basketball team),” said Vail, a 6-foot-5 forward.
Connor was looking at Washington and Washington State until meeting with one of Seattle U’s coaches.
“I decided it was a good fit; it didn’t have much to do with the family legacy,” said Connor, who said he feels no added pressure being an O’Brien.
Until being interviewed together, O’Brien and Vail weren’t well acquainted. They had attended the annual O’Brien St. Patrick’s bash together, but it’s a big family. Now they hope to watch each other play.
“I didn’t know you were going here until a couple of weeks ago,” Connor O’Brien said.
“Same here,” Vail said.
Connor got into baseball while attending the O’Brien baseball camps that Johnny and Eddie ran.
“His big thing is to punish the ball,” Connor said of his grandfather’s advice.
Connor laughed a bit at the question of if he asked Johnny for tips.
“You don’t have to ask him,” Connor said. “He loves to tell his stories. Every time I’m around him, he’s bringing up something from back when he played. Something that he can bring from his past that can help me.”
On the walk from campus to the athletic center the two pass the O’Brien Center, named for Johnny and Eddie, and with memorabilia from the pair’s careers.
“That’s a little weird,” said Connor, who quit playing basketball after his freshman year at Archbishop Murphy High School in Everett. “But based on what he did here, it doesn’t surprise me too much. They were able to get that building named after them.”
Vail said in the summers he would go with Eddie for a couple of weeks to Idaho, where they would play cards and get in a little baseball. Vail learned about his granddad’s accomplishments, but it wasn’t from Eddie, who was not blood related (he is the grandson of Eddie’s second wife, Terry).
“He didn’t like to talk about it too much,” Vail said.
Vail stopped playing baseball after his eighth-grade year to concentrate on basketball, where he became a top player for Stanwood High School.
“Eddie taught me how to play basketball,” Vail said. “It was always fundamentals. He would tell me to stop practicing if I wasn’t practicing perfect.”
Vail, who averaged 13 points in his senior season at Stanwood, played in nine games last season for Seattle U. Vail did not score, but made a great impression on his coaches and teammates, and he said, “it’s super fun, being a part of it.”
“Eddie would have been over the moon,” Terry said of having a grandson play for Seattle U.
“Matt is just a great teammate,” Seattle U basketball coach Jim Hayford said. “He works hard every day and it’s great to have someone like that around, just because he is such a good person. I know it brings a lot of joy to his extended family, and his grandfather’s friends, to see him doing so well.”
Connor is also doing quite well. He is an exceptional fielder and an improving hitter.
“He is one of the most athletic shortstops that you will see at any university up and down the West Coast,” Seattle U baseball coach Donny Harrell said. “He has made some incredible plays that are jaw-droppers. We could put a highlight reel on him with the season he has had defensively.”
And it hasn’t been bad on offense. He is fourth on the Redhawks (who are 12-37 in a rebuilding season) in batting average (.280) and third in runs batted in (27). Connor has yet to hit a homer as a Redhawk, and wants to work hard in the offseason to add some weight and increase his strength.
Donny Harrell, in his 10th season as Seattle U’s coach, said Eddie O’Brien, who had worked as the school’s athletic director and baseball coach, was his first mentor at the school.
“He just had a huge influence on me,” Harrell said.
But that said, Harrell made it clear Connor was given no preferential treatment just because of the family legacy.
“He earned the scholarship,” Harrell said. “We weren’t going to go there just because of the name. I don’t think we’ve seen anything close to the ceiling of what he is capable of. Eddie and Johnny did a lot to help us get this program started, and you would think Connor would feel a lot of pressure with that, but he has just come in here and does his thing and never given into the legacy that there is at Seattle U with that name.”
Johnny, 88, had two other grandchildren play college baseball, but Connor is the first to play for Seattle U. Riley O’Brien pitched for College of Idaho and is now at Class AA in the Tampa Bay organization and Brendan O’Brien just finished his baseball career at Linfield College in McMinnville, Ore.
“Ed and I were primarily interested in going to college to get an education, and what I like is that Riley got a degree from the College of Idaho, Brendan is graduating from Linfield, Connor is going to get a degree from Seattle University in a couple of years and Matt Vail is going to get one too,” Johnny said. “They’re all interested in sports, but they’re also very interested in getting an education. That pleases me the most.”
Johnny didn’t get to see Connor play as often as he would have liked this season, but has plans to go see every home game next season.
“It gets me even more interested in Seattle U sports, and I was to begin with,” said Johnny of having a grandson playing for the team. “I am looking for breakout years next year for both Connor and Matt. They got some experience behind them.”
Not that anyone will expect numbers like their granddads put up. Johnny, a three-time All-American in basketball, hit .455 with 17 homers in three seasons for Seattle U baseball before signing with the Pittsburgh Pirates.
“It’s pretty impressive,” Connor said. “I don’t think anyone will come into the program and put up stats like he did.”