When punter Pat O’Donnell emerges from the locker room at Soldier Field, he sees a sign that says “Bear Down.” Every time, he thinks about his father, Terry, who died Sept. 19, 2017, at age 61 after an 11-year battle with colon cancer.
Terry isn’t there to watch his son play for the Bears, but Pat feels his presence.
“Just moments like that help me reflect on him,” O’Donnell said. “Game day, I say a little prayer and point to the sky. It’s good to have him support me every game day on Sunday. I feel that.”
Four years after Terry’s death, O’Donnell is still inspired by his father’s strength and perseverance. Sometimes, he talks to Terry in his car when it’s quiet. Despite the toll of the illness, he remembers all the good moments he had with his dad, who didn’t want his cancer fight to interfere with his son’s budding football career.
Terry fought to witness some of his son’s proudest moments: graduating from college, getting selected by the Bears in the sixth round of the 2014 draft and eventually playing in the NFL.
“He saw me get drafted, which was a huge moment in my life and his life, and we had a great embrace,” O’Donnell said. “It was one of those moments where I think the 11 years of him battling [cancer] paid off for those moments and times that he wanted to see.”
During and after the ordeal, O’Donnell learned something important, which he applies today: Life is fragile and short, and there are better ways to spend time than getting stuck on the negatives. He realizes how lucky he is to play football with elite athletes every autumn Sunday. It’s not something he takes for granted.
“Someone could be healthy one day, [and] the next day they get a diagnosis,” O’Donnell said. “You just have to push through the bad days. Every day that I had a bad day, whether it be practice or taking a test, I just thought about my dad and all those struggles and adversity that he’s going through, going through cancer. It helped me in a way to just become a stronger person, just living through him and having him show me the way, because he never complained about anything.”
As a well-known athlete playing for the city’s most popular team, O’Donnell also has an opportunity to help the community — something he does now and intends to continue doing.
“I’m just trying to be there for the people, like Bears Care and different outreaches — whatever I can do to spread awareness [of cancer],” he said. “My dad caught colon cancer late. It was one of those deals where the screening processes have gotten better over the years and people are becoming more aware that it’s important to do.
“Whatever I can do to spread awareness, I feel like that’s my priority right now: Just help spread the word. Males get checked, females get checked, so they can live the healthiest life they can.”