BY MICHAEL KELLY
CLIFTON PARK — Mike O’Toole’s memories of moving from Rotterdam to Clifton Park as a boy four decades ago remain vivid.
“We moved to the area when I was 9 or so, and I remember going to the Shen football games was such a big deal,” O’Toole said. “We had so many wonderful players [throughout the area] and I was amazed at the talent.
“As a young kid,” he continued, “I really just wondered if I’d ever make the team.”
It turned out, O’Toole was more than good enough to make the team.
O’Toole’s storied career included playing high school football for Shenendehowa and college football for Army, and landed the now-48-year-old a spot in this year’s class for the July 30 induction of the Capital Region Football Hall of Fame, which was held at the Radisson Turf Inn in Albany.
“I was flattered and humbled when I found out, and I still am,” said O’Toole, who lives in Clifton Park and works as a senior vice president for Merrill Lynch.
Rexford’s Joe Vellano also received his induction this year. The lineman played at CBA and graduated from the school in 2007 before heading to the University of Maryland and eventually the National Football League. In the NFL, he’s spent time with the Indianapolis Colts and the New England Patriots, with whom he earned a Super Bowl ring in 2015.
Joining O’Toole and Vellano in this year’s induction class, the seventh for the Capital Region Football Hall of Fame, were: Chris Breen (Troy), Rob Bush (Amsterdam), David Byrd (CBA), Chuck Catalfamo (Hudson Falls), Lennie Daniels (Coxsackie-Athens), Andre Davis (Niskayuna), Rit DiCaprio (Mont Pleasant), Mark Galuski (Catholic Central), Micah Kimball (Fonda-Fultonville), Ron Oyer (Linton), Matt Swedick (Johnstown), the 1939 Whitehall team, Sandy Brousseau (Capital Region), Todd McLenithan (Cambridge), Pat Liverio (Amsterdam), Alex Mancini (Fonda-Fultonville), Art Ritchko (Bethlehem), Robert Noto (Amsterdam), Mark Galuski (Troy, Averill Park), James Canfield (Troy), Michael Simpson (UAlbany) and James Allen (Times Union, TWC).
O’Toole graduated from Shenendehowa in 1986, having played two seasons of varsity football in addition to competing in basketball and track and field for the Plainsmen. While he helped Shenendehowa to league championships in basketball in 1985 and 1986, and qualified to compete in the 1985 Empire State Games in the decathlon, it was on the gridiron where he shone the brightest.
From his freshman to senior years of high school, O’Toole’s various Shenendehowa football teams lost a total of one game. He played in the secondary and as a linebacker on defense, while he was also a reliable rusher on offense. As a junior, he helped Shenendehowa win the Section II Super Bowl; as a senior, he was named an all-state linebacker and The Daily Gazette’s Defensive Player of the Year.
“It was an honor just to play,” O’Toole said of his high school career. “I really wanted to make sure I deserved it, so I worked hard to get better each day.”
O’Toole started playing football later than most high school stars. His mother did not initially let him play the sport — “She thought I’d get hurt,” he said — but she relented as he entered his teenage years.
As O’Toole moved closer to graduating from high school, he wanted to find a college where he could get both a great education and play high-level football. He was recruited to the United States Military Academy as a running back, but played both ways as a freshman on the school’s JV team. As a sophomore, he was named a starting linebacker. Injuries hampered his sophomore and junior seasons, but as a healthy senior he was Army’s second-leading tackler with 75 tackles to cap a college career in which he was twice named the ECAC Division 1-A Player of the Week.
“I had a good year,” allowed O’Toole, who humbly credited his coaches — from Shenendehowa’s Brent Steuerwald to Army’s assortment of coaches — for putting him in position to have success.
After graduating in 1990, O’Toole worked for six months as a graduate assistant before deploying to Germany to serve in the Army. That’s where he met the woman he would marry, Anja, with whom he has two sons. He was honorably discharged from active duty in 1993 as a first lieutenant.
Since the mid-1990s, O’Toole has volunteered as part-time coach with the Shenendehowa football program. Plainsmen varsity head coach Brian Clawson called O’Toole a “tremendous asset” for the Shenendehowa program.
“What a wealth of knowledge he has,” Clawson said. “He was such an outstanding high school player, but he also went to West Point, started there, and still looks like he could go out and play.”
O’Toole downplays his role with the Plainsmen. “I tell those guys I serve at their pleasure,” is how he describes his involvement with the program. But Clawson said O’Toole dedicates more time than he lets on to his high school program, and that the former Shenendehowa great helps mold the team’s linebackers at several practices each week.
“He coaches in a way where he challenges each and every linebacker to reach their full potential,” Clawson said. “He strives for perfection with them and knows the finer points of coaching the position.”
Coaching is one way O’Toole is able to give back to a community he has been a part of for nearly 40 years.
“My goal is to hopefully make my footprint bigger than my foot,” he said.