Patrolling the sidelines of Columbia Falls High School, O’Brien Byrd is back where it all started. Byrd grew up in Martin City, Montana, bussed to school in Columbia Falls, every day, and quickly became a member of Wildcat lore. Byrd was an impressive two-sport athlete, competing in both soccer and wrestling. But without a doubt, his love for the pitch overwhelmed any other extracurriculars he participated in.
In highschool, O’Brien thrived as the starting center back for the Columbia Falls Wildcats. Not only was he known for his defensive tenacity, and vocal leadership, but also his uncanny creativity. His senior season, Byrd led the state of Montana in assists (a large number coming from his trademark flip throw in), while leading his team to a State Playoff berth. Unfortunately, the Wildcats fell to Helena High in penalty kicks, and O’Brien was left to ask himself, “what next?”
That question was answered, when a recruiter from McPherson College, a small NAIA school out of McPherson Kansas, offered Byrd a scholarship to come play for the college’s soccer program. The jump from Martin City to college soccer, was immediately daunting for Byrd.
“I was embarrassed, I was exposed,” recalled Byrd as he looked back on his first day with the program. “My athleticism didn’t count for much on a team of athletes that were very good soccer players.”
Yet, despite the jump in competition, Byrd made the leap, and almost immediately proved that he belonged at the collegiate level. The day before the first game of his freshman season, McPherson’s senior right back suffered an ankle injury. Byrd was the next man up.
The rest was history, Byrd started every single game of his collegiate career, while garnering multiple All-Conference awards for his individual performance. By the time his collegiate career, had ended, Byrd had no idea if he would continue to pursue, until the Spring of his senior year in which he received an invite for a professional tryout in Salt Lake City, with the Utah Blitz.
Despite playing on the defensive line throughout the entirety of his high school and collegiate careers, Byrd had his best day on the last day of the tryout, scoring two goals as a holding midfielder. A Blitz scout was impressed with the scoring display, and invited Byrd to a second weekend with less tryout players, and a number of rostered players. Unfortunately, the Blitz elected not to offer Byrd a contract. Still, with the tryout experience under his belt, Byrd knew that he wanted to continue his career.
After a few years working odd jobs, Byrd finally got his big break: a tryout with the Reading Rage (nown known as Reading United AC, they currently play in USL League Two). The team signed him to his first professional contract weeks later. Byrd instantly made his presence known through exceptional communication. “They liked me, because I loved to talk. I liked to direct and make people do the work for me,” recalled Byrd as he looked back at his first professional experience. By the first preseason game, Byrd had won the starting center back job.
Unfortunately, knee injuries ultimately cut O’Brien’s playing career short, but his love for the game brought him into coaching. O’Brien moved back to his home state of Montana, with his wife Melanie (who also played collegiate soccer at McPherson), and was hired as the head coach of the Whitefish High School Boys Varsity Soccer team, at the age of 25. In his time at Whitefish, O’Brien won 5 state championships, including multiple repeat championship runs, and was named the NSCAA National Coach of the Year, in 2013.
O’Brien also founded the Montana Flathead Rapids, a local club that continues to serve the greater Flathead Valley. Now, Byrd coaches at his alma-mater of Columbia Falls High School, and has rebuilt the Wildcats program into a perennial playoff power. Without a doubt, Byrd is a Montana soccer Legend.