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When then-23-year-old Kevin O’Connell arrived in New England as a third-round draft pick, he thought he was in a good position to sit back, learn and enjoy life in the NFL. It was 2008, and Patriots quarterback Tom Brady was coming off the best season of his career. Matt Cassel was the backup and was entering the final year of his contract.

So as the third-string quarterback, O’Connell could learn the ropes. It would be, he assumed, like a redshirt season after a standout collegiate career as a four-year starter at San Diego State. As a rookie, he wanted to blend in and watch how Brady and Cassel handled the quarterbacks room. All three are from California, so they bonded over that while watching films together.

Plus, Brady had never missed a game in his seven years as an NFL starter. It seemed hard to imagine a better place to be a third-string quarterback before, ideally, supplanting Cassel as the backup the following year.

“I was so ready to watch this artist go to work,” O’Connell said of Brady.

But, of course, Brady tore his ACL in the first game of that season. Suddenly O’Connell was Cassel’s backup and was left with the much bigger burden of assisting with game plans and offering guidance to Cassel between drives.

Yet his unexpected, new role served a deeper purpose, one that was impossible to realize at the time. While O’Connell still had visions of a lengthy professional playing career, his brief time in New England planted the seeds for a turn to coaching that led to him landing the Minnesota Vikings’ top job as a 36-year-old. Now, after guiding the Vikings to an 8-2 start this season, he’s a candidate for coach of the year heading into a Thanksgiving night showdown against the Patriots and Bill Belichick, the NFL coach from whom he first learned.

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