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Shared Game Plan Key to Journey for Leah & Kevin O'Connell

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Kevin O'Connell's résumé is a tad more impressive than most others' his age.

At just 37, he's played in the NFL, dabbled in broadcasting, transitioned to coaching in the NFL, earned a Super Bowl ring as an offensive coordinator and now is entering his first season as a head coach.

The fast rise has been impressive, to say the least.

And yet to those who know and love him, he's still just Kevin. Take his wife Leah, for instance, who met Kevin before the NFL became a reality.

Leah attended San Diego State University on a volleyball scholarship, excelling as the Aztecs starting setter and earning team captain honors.

She still remembers the first time she saw Kevin on campus. She and a friend were sitting at a table when she noticed the tall athlete with brown hair and a smile made for TV.

"Who is that?"

"He's the quarterback."

Leah laughs now at the recollection, the memory still ripe with nostalgia.

"Of course he's the quarterback," she recalls telling her friend, laughing then, too. "Right. Of all people."

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As athletes, Kevin and Leah hung in the same circles. They quickly formed a friendship, and by the summer before Kevin's senior season, the two were dating. She remembers asking him one day about his football career and whether he hoped to play beyond college.

Kevin's facial expression answered for him.

"It was almost a silly question, like, 'Of course I want to. I don't know if I'll get to. That's really hard to be able to do,' " Leah said.

Riding the roller coaster

Fourteen years later, things have come full circle, in a way.

Leah is again sitting at a cafeteria table, though this time in the Vikings training facility. Sunlight spills through the floor-to-ceiling windows and onto her lap, where her hand rests gently, protectively, over her abdomen that's not yet giving anything away.

"We have another on the way," she explains, smiling.

The other three children – Kaden, 7; Quinn, 5; and Kolten, 3 – are spending the morning with a sitter.

In some ways, that first sighting of Kevin seems like just yesterday; and yet in other ways, the two have already lived a lifetime together.

"I can't even count on two hands the number of moves, the places we've lived since then," Leah laughs.

There was 2008, when New England drafted Kevin in the third round as a reserve QB behind Tom Brady, and the two dated long distance while Leah finished her senior year at SDSU.

Then 2009, when Kevin found himself released by the Patriots and signed by the Lions for – checks calendar – less than a week before being traded back out east to the New York Jets. He spent three seasons in green and white, during which he and Leah got engaged and married within a 12-month period.

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Next came a one-month stint at Dolphins training camp in 2011 before being released and claimed again by the Jets, whose rookie quarterback had suffered a dislocated thumb. Kevin spent that season with New York, then in 2012 had a tryout with Seattle and a three-week training camp stint with the Chargers.

It was, as many NFL playing careers are, a roller coaster, but Leah's remained by his side the whole time.

Football family

Leah's father, Kit Lathrop, played for multiple NFL and USFL teams from 1978-87 before stepping full-time into coaching when Leah was a baby. Kit coached five seasons at Arizona Western College before moving around the Canadian Football League, where in 2000 he helped the BC Lions earn a Grey Cup Championship.

The Lathrop family moved a lot during Leah's childhood, adapting her to a somewhat transient lifestyle many within the world of sports are used to. Wherever they landed, she thrived on new adventures and an always-creative imagination.

She recalls riding horses at their family's home in Arizona and spending hours outside exploring, family trips to the lake, coloring or writing stories.

A love of storytelling and prose has followed Leah into adulthood. She looks forward every year to writing the family Christmas letter; a half-completed screenplay is saved to her laptop, while children's books ideas are filed away in her phone.

Eventually she'll write, but for now in the busyness of life, she's focused first and foremost on the kids and supporting her husband in his new role.

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She models her mindset somewhat after her mother, Becki, whom she watched intently growing up. Becki was a stay-at-home mom, but when the family moved, she always found a project or passion to connect with, from interior design to working as a high school counselor for special-ed students.

"She always found something to fulfill her and to use her gifts to bless others," Leah said. "But she was flexible, and that's how it's been for me. I didn't go to school to be a doctor. I didn't go for dentistry or to be a lawyer, any of those things where you have to anchor into one track.

"And having kids, the coolest part is – my aunt said this – you get to live life all over again through their eyes," she added.

Leah has previously coached volleyball, and these past two years she coached Kaden and Quinn's flag football and soccer teams.

When it came to flag football, she and Kevin tag-teamed the group of youngsters on game days. While Kevin coached the Rams Saturday morning walk-throughs, Leah oversaw the kids' pregame practice hour.

Kevin would hustle from the Rams facility to the flag football field, where he'd call the game before then heading straight to the Rams team hotel.

"He had no down time," Leah said, "but it was really cool and rewarding for him. Any game we lost, he'd be like, 'That's on me.' And I'm like, 'Kevin, they're 7. Some of them have never even played football before."

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Regardless of Kevin's coaching level, Leah has always brought the kids to games to watch Dad on the sidelines.

Kaden, who's been attending games since he was 6 months old, is "locked in" to everything that's happening on the field. Quinn and Kolten tend to be more drawn to snacks than the scoreboard, but their time will come.

Leah noted a couple of years ago when Kaden started to grasp the fact that his dad's job is special. He noticed that during team warmups, most others weren't allowed to cross the painted white lines and play catch with the coaches and players.

"I've tried to explain to Kaden, 'You don't need to tell everybody what your dad does,' " she laughed.

Because for Kaden, Quinn and Kolten, he's just Dad.

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Kaden wants to be just like his father, and he loves playing football, basketball, golf and baseball with him. Kolten gets excited for playground or swim time with Kevin, and the two regularly play together with Paw Patrol toys.

And then there's Quinn. Kevin often can be found having tea parties with his only daughter. Or they'll dance together, play volleyball, play with dolls and read Frozen books.

All three love snuggle time with Kevin, Leah noted, and he often plays "trivia," tossing them creative questions to get their minds going.

"It's such a Kevin thing," Leah said. "He's always so clever and quick witted."

Made to coach

Part of that quick-thinking nature shows up in Kevin's coaching – and playing – résumé over the years.

Leah recalled his time at San Diego State, where his attention to detail and ability to make decisions on the fly stood out on the field.

"He always used every opportunity to get better, study the game, and improve his own abilities so that he could use that to encourage, motivate, and better those around him," Leah said. "He has never been an 'I' guy, and he's always cared about everyone — making sure to treat each person the same, and with respect.

"Looking back, the path has been extremely blessed – but it has never come easy, nor was it void of his blood, sweat and tears," she added.

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Following his collegiate career, Kevin had the opportunity to learn under Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick, Brady and quarterback Matt Cassel.

"New England is a tough place to start; Belichick has his way of doing things. However, as hard as it is — honestly, it was probably the best thing for Kevin. The learning curve is brief, and the margin for error is basically none. That's a solid standard of expectation, and another huge contributor of why Kevin is the way he is. Coach Belichick gets everybody to buy into his program."

It's not only Kevin's ability to think on his feet, though; he also has the even-keeled demeanor, patience and passion to take on an NFL coaching job.

And although the former QB does call upon his own playing experience at times, he rarely talks about his days in pads.

"He does a really great job of reflecting on what he knows but then applying it to their situation, specifically," Leah explained. "I think a lot of coaches – and parents, too – will say, 'Well, I did this.' And if you really think of it, that's quite irrelevant to them because they're not you. They're not meant to be you. They're not wired the same way.

"He has a tremendous understanding of that. He has amazing social awareness, situational awareness. He always understands his audience," Leah continued. "He's been like that for a long time, and I think it goes back to how he was raised. His mom is extremely poised; his dad was in the FBI. He was a quarterback in that captain role, as well, where you're always under a microscope."

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Leah calls her husband steady and light-hearted. He holds himself and those around him to extremely high standards, but he also understands and knows when to extend grace.

"He leaves very good imprints on every place he's been," Leah said.

From the huddle to the broadcast booth and then to coaching, Kevin has always had a plan and a proactive mindset, consistently making the most out of opportunities extended to him.

When Mike Pettine took over the head coaching job in Cleveland, he reached out to Kevin to offer him the role of quarterbacks coach, saying he thought he'd "be great" at the job.

"We thought about it and were like, 'All right, if God's gonna open this door, then we ought to at least give it a try,' " Leah said. "But he kind of knew … 'As soon as I jump on this coaching train, we ain't getting off.' "

Kevin worked with Johnny Manziel and Josh McCown in Cleveland, spent a brief stint in San Francisco with Colin Kaepernick, then went on to coach Kirk Cousins, Colt McCoy, Alex Smith and Dwayne Haskins in Washington. Prior to joining Minnesota, he spent two seasons in L.A. with Jared Goff and recent Super Bowl champion Matt Stafford.

"He's just had such a wide range of players, experience and trial that, for as young as he is, he's incredibly well-seasoned with life experience," Leah said.

"Being able to weather the storm and keep it consistent I think he does a really great job with that," she added. "It's something where he makes sure that everybody else is going to be OK. … That's a gift that he has. That's why he's here."

Foundational faith

Both before and after their paths intersected, Kevin and Leah have made their Christian faith a foundational part of their stories.

For Leah, it's what helps her maintain peace of mind during that roller-coaster ride.

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"I think it goes back to my Biblical worldview – tomorrow has enough worries of its own," she said, referencing Matthew 6:34. "Don't worry about that. Just stay focused on the day. Do the day well. You're not promised tomorrow.

"It's been like, 'OK God, where are you going to send us? And then we'll figure it out from there.' "

It would by lying to say that moving a family of five from L.A. to the Twin Cities was easy. There certainly have been chaotic days of little sleep, stressful travel plans and young kids thrown off their schedule.

But Leah and Kevin have learned to take it all in stride and not take a moment of this NFL journey for granted.

"Do what God has called of you in the time that you're in. … Because life is chapters, you know? This is this chapter. One that we hope lasts for quite some time," Leah said with a wink.

"I do think our world has a way of hyping certain things, especially in the entertainment business and the sports world and that kind of thing, and I never want him to feel like he has to be driven to maintain that for any other reason than it's what he loves to do," she added.

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Watching Kevin prepare for his first season as a head coach – poring over film, creating the Vikings offensive system, working with new coaches and investing in players – Leah most admires the way he maximizes every portion of the day.

"He never wastes a moment. He always makes the most of it," Leah said.

Leah plans to do the same during her time in Minnesota.

She has a heart for young people, for teaching and for physical and emotional wellness, and she hopes to combine those passions in ways to impact the Twin Cities community.

Leah didn't hesitate to meet members of the Vikings organization and Community Impact department after arriving in Minnesota. She envisions youth camps and activities that offer children a chance to play and have fun while also learning valuable lessons about nutrition, physical activity and character-building.

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"That's where my heart is, and I feel like it would come very natural for me," said Leah, who added that Kevin previously has been drawn toward visiting children's hospitals and similar outreaches.

"I've heard it said before: the entertainment industry can be incredibly self-serving if you let it. Or it can be, 'Wow, what an amazing opportunity to use this gift to serve and bless others,' " Leah said. "I loved that and think about that often, just in day-to-day life."

She mentioned the messaging and ornamentation Kevin has added to or replaced around the Vikings practice facility to reflect this "us" mindset.

" 'It's about our team, our way, our process.' I think that's huge for the organization," Leah said. "It takes the entire building to succeed. If everybody is not on-board with your goals and your vision, it doesn't work."

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