DENHAM SPRINGS – It was an indelible moment Tyler O’Donoghue will never forget about LSU’s Tiger Stadium.
During his formative years, while growing up in a purple-and-gold household, O’Donoghue recalled attending one of his first home night games at LSU with his grandfather, Thomas Flynn, where he stepped out of the concourse, into the stadium and straight into nirvana.
“Just the lights and the crowd … I lost my breath,” he said. “I knew from that moment I wanted to play there.”
When day turned to night and O’Donoghue dreamed about his future, such thoughts were draped in LSU’s purple and gold colors, following in the footsteps of his parents John and Kelli to become the family’s next generation of student-athlete in Baton Rouge.
He wanted to be an LSU Tiger, run through the fabled tunnel and ‘H’ goal posts onto the field in Tiger Stadium and help the Tigers to a victory.
Part of that narrative will play out to O’Donoghue’s expectation when for the first time the Denham Springs High School graduate will take the field at Tiger Stadium at 6:30 p.m. Saturday.
The main difference is that O’Donoghue – a senior tight end – will be playing for Northwestern State (0-2) when the Demons visit No. 4 LSU (2-0) in a non-conference game that will be televised on the SEC Network.
“I’ve always talked to my dad about wanting to play at Death Valley and run out of the tunnel,” O’Donoghue said. “I didn’t know which tunnel that I would be running out of. I’m going to finally see a childhood dream come true. It will be against the team I grew up with, but I’m OK with it. I have zero regrets coming to NSU. I love it there. I’ve had a great time.”
John and Kelli were a couple of transplants from out of state who signed with LSU to play baseball and run track, respectively, and effectively never left their adopted home state.
The O’Donoghue’s eventually settled in Denham Springs, where they raised Tyler and his younger sister Abby, now a junior high jumper at LSU.
Family outings in the fall were awash in purple and gold for LSU home games where Tyler O'Donoghue was introduced to the art of tailgating before making his way into the stadium to watch the Tigers play.
The sound of ‘Tiger Bait’ was commonplace within earshot of the opponent or rival fans and now it’s O’Donoghue’s turn to walk in the cleats of the opposition and be on the receiving end of some good-natured barbs.
“I’ll enjoy all of the LSU fans cussing at me,” he said.
O’Donoghue still expects to have his own personal support group and believes his parents (his dad’s a Baton Rouge police offer; his mother a real estate agent) will be adorned in Northwestern State’s purple, white and orange garb, while he expects Abby to be outfitted in her LSU school colors and flash one ‘pitchfork’ (raised index and pinkie finger with an extended thumb) in his honor.
“It may be the first time my dad will be called Tiger Bait,” O’Donoghue said of his father, a pitcher on LSU’s 1990 SEC championship team, who has a shutout in the College World Series to his credit. “They’ll enjoy it. They love the atmosphere. I expect my sister to cheer for LSU. That’s her school.”
Trips to Power-5 Conference schools have become the norm for Northwestern State, like most FCS schools, and during his career O’Donoghue has played at Texas A&M in expanded Kyle Field and Baylor’s glistening Lane Stadium.
However, there will always be some distinctively different about LSU and Tiger Stadium for O’Donoghue that will turn the near three-hour hour trip into a Homecoming of sorts.
“I know it’s going to be different,” he said. “It’s going to be extra special when I walk out the tunnel to do our walk-through. I’m going to take a look around and realize that I used to be in those seats watching people play.
“We used to go to the first non-conference game, and it was usually an FCS team,” O’Donoghue said. “We were so excited thinking that LSU was going to whoop them and now I want to take it to them. That’s a mindset that you’ve got to have when you’re playing somebody like LSU.”
Northwestern State finds itself a decided underdog; a program under second-year coach Brad Laird that hasn’t experienced a winning season in more than a decade (7-5 in 2008).
The Demons, 5-6 last season, have already dropped consecutive games to start the 2019 season to Tennessee-Martin (42-20) and Midwestern State (33-7). They travel to Houston Baptist next week to start Southland Conference play after going 4-5 a year ago.
“We’re all hungry,” O’Donoghue said. “We really want to be where we used to be. You want to have a good season, but we don’t focus on the past that much. We want to focus on what’s right in front of our face.”
Losing can takes its toll, and with NSU’s 14-33 record during his career, it would be plausible for O’Donoghue to be somewhat dismissive about the way his five-year career has played out to this juncture, one that’s included a head coaching change.
Instead, he remains thankful for the opportunity former NSU coach Jay Thomas afforded when O’Donoghue was a lightly recruited tight end out of Denham Springs and appeared to be at a crossroads in his future once signing day passed without having signed a scholarship.
O’Donoghue had played quarterback for head coach Dru Nettles at Denham Springs until his senior year when the team had an opening at tight end and O’Donoghue willingly filled the void.
His unselfish nature wasn’t rewarded on the back end of his career where there were a handful of Division III scholarship offers, but none of which captivated his fancy.
With recruiting interest at a standstill, O’Donoghue began emailing his highlight film to college assistant coaches at Northwestern State and UL-Lafayette without as much of a nibble.
NSU eventually found itself in the market for a tight end after the signing period when a tight end prospect they were expecting to sign opted for another school.
“It was late,” O’Donoghue said. “If I hadn’t signed, I planned to go to Southeastern for two years and then LSU and finish my degree.”
O’Donoghue said NSU, with the help of Nettles, called the day after receiving his film and Thomas explained there was an opportunity awaiting O’Donoghue.
“Coach Thomas said he saw a future with me,” he said. “I jumped at the chance.”
Following a redshirt season, O’Donoghue played in six games in 2016 – the final under Thomas – before seeing action in nine games in both his sophomore and junior seasons on offense and special teams.
One constant that remains, though, although not a driving force in his life, is making the first catch of his college career as O’Donoghue showed signs of figuring more into NSU’s passing plans with a pair of catches in the team’s first fall scrimmage and a 57-yard TD in team’s Aug. 17 scrimmage.
“I would like to think that,” O’Donoghue said of being able to catch passes his senior season. “As long as I keep working hard, you may see the ball in my hands a few more times than in the past three years. The tight ends could get the ball zero times, and we if go 11-0, I don’t care.”
There may not be a statistical windfall waiting to define his career, but O’Donoghue remains thankful for a journey that appeared unlikely five years ago.
O’Donoghue’s been selected three times to the SLC Commissioner’s fall honor roll, has maintained a 3.1 GPA and will graduate in business administration with designs on conducting his post-graduate work at LSU, where Saturday he’ll experience an evening that’s been a lifetime in the making.
“I’m excited about it, a lot of my childhood friends go to LSU and will be there,” he said. “It’s always special to walk into those big stadiums, but I think it will be twice as special to walk into Death Valley.”