When the New Zealand Olympic soccer team starts playing this summer in London, it will know that it has the support of roughly 4.4 million people who reside on the small island nation. What the team may not know is that it also has the support of the approximately 3500 students who attend a small university in southeastern Connecticut.
Fairfield University may not know much about the Oly-Whites, as the team is informally called in New Zealand, but its students do know one thing: their favorite Kiwi goalkeeper, Michael O’Keeffe, will be on the team, making them immediate de facto fans.
O’Keeffe, the junior goalkeeper for the Stags’ soccer team and reigning MAAC Defensive Player of the Year, was selected to join the team for the Olympic qualifiers held earlier this month. After the team won the Oceania Football Confederation qualifiers, congratulations flooded O’Keeffe’s Facebook – many from teammates, friends and classmates of O’Keeffe.
This does not come as a shock to many who know O’Keeffe personally, however, as he is known around the university for his vivacious and welcoming personality. Ivey Speight, who has known O’Keeffe for almost three years and has broadcast various sporting events with O’Keeffe on the campus radio station, WVOF, calls O’Keeffe “one of the most dedicated people that you’ll ever meet.”
“I’ve never seen a harder worker than O’Keeffe. He’s never said to me: ‘I can’t do a game because of time commitment,’” said Speight. “He’s a media major too, which is one of the most time consuming majors. I don’t know how he finds all the time to do [all the work].”
O’Keeffe’s hard work is most obvious on the playing field, and those who are around him have taken notice.
“It’s the drive that he has. He’s one of those players who is always here, always putting in the extra work,” said Amelia Zammataro, a Graduate Assistant Athletic Trainer who has worked closely with the team over the past two seasons.
“You can always depend on him, that he’s going to put his best effort into everything that he does, and that is a part of his leadership qualities. He is always going to rise above everybody else on the team,” said Zammataro. “He wants to . . . set the example for everybody else on the team.”
Perhaps a testament to O’Keeffe’s determination came after the interview with Zammataro was over, and someone else in the room who is involved in the athletic center chimed in adding, “Did you mention that [O’Keeffe] is the hardest working person we’ve seen here?”
O’Keeffe’s reputation precedes him.
It’s not just the exemplary work ethic that O’Keeffe exhibits that has gained him fans and friends across the campus. “He’s one of those people who cares about every person, every aspect of the team,” said Zammataro
O’Keeffe’s infectious personality stays with people even when he is not there. Speight can remember the first time that he encountered O’Keeffe.
“I was in Barone and backup goalie Sergio [Lara] said to me there was a kid on the soccer team who was interested in sports broadcasting, a New Zealand guy,” said Speight, referring to O’Keeffe. “And that was the start of the Michael O’Keeffe era.”
“He brings a lot of energy. He is one of the funniest people you’ll ever meet,” said Speight. “Sometimes you can’t help but smile. He has that effect on people.”
But if you ask Michael, native of the small town of Blenheim, New Zealand, he doesn’t like to take credit or bring attention to himself, and credits others for a lot of his success.
“There have been lots of people who have driven me, but coming from a really small town, I’ve pretty much lived my entire career since I was 15 away from home. So the support of my parents has actually gotten me to these places,” said O’Keeffe. “I could have the most drive in the world, but in the end of the day, my parents are the ones who allow me to go to these places. It’s really credit to them for being able to get me to these places.”
O’Keeffe was quick to credit his coaches here, especially his goalkeeping coach Javier Decima , for “always [being] out there early with me.”
All the recognition that O’Keeffe has received has also not deterred him from he views as his current goal: graduating from Fairfield with a degree in New Media. When asked if he would leave Fairfield if a professional team came offering him a job, O’Keeffe said “probably not”.
“That was a big reason for me coming over here [to Fairfield], was to get what my parents call a parachute, something to fall back on, if the soccer doesn’t go well. For me, finishing my degree is obviously as important as playing on the world stage, and one thing I’ve learned since I’ve been here is balancing those two.”
O’Keeffe said that he has learned a lot from his experience with the New Zealand team, especially from fellow goalkeeper Jake Gleeson, who plays professional in the MLS for the Portland Timbers.
“One thing that I really learned from Jake [Gleeson], now that he’s fully pro, he’s really gotten me to enjoy football again, as crazy as it seems. You sometimes get yourself into a hole, training every day, it becomes monotonous, just doing things for the sake of doing them,” said O’Keeffe. “He really got me to get the enjoyment back. That’s the biggest thing I learned from that whole tour. I glad, because it takes a huge weight off your shoulders.”
Speight calls O’Keeffe “The Mate”, playing off the New Zealand and Australian colloquialism for friend.
“I forget sometimes that he’s a Division 1 athlete, and a future Fairfield Hall of Famer,” said Speight. “He’s the best goalie in the conference, he led a team that was 25th in the nation at one point, and he was their best player. He may be one of the best goalkeepers in the country. Those are the things that you shouldn’t forget about, and yet you do because of his personality. He does not have that ‘I’m better than you’ mentality.”
Let’s hope at least “The Mate” knows that he has a few thousand fans from Fairfield cheering for him and his team come this summer, even if the rest of his teammates and countrymen don’t know it.