Nov. 12, 2005
By Jim Wrobel
Special to GoHolyCross.com
When you talk to senior quarterback John O'Neil you find out quickly how important "family" is to him. If it is his parents, siblings, friends or Holy Cross football, the three-year starter's strong sense of family, unselfish attitude and determination to help Holy Cross football back to its winning ways has led to this season's success.
"It's definitely a big payoff especially in my senior year," said O'Neil. "Going out with a winning record has been a big goal all year and something we have had in mind for four years, and hopefully we can accomplish it. The past three years we have not had great win and loss records, but this year is a big difference and winning helps with everyone's emotions and morale."
O'Neil's hard work over his career now has him being mentioned with some of the great quarterbacks in the history of the school. Over the course of his career as a Crusader, O'Neil has now completed 564 of 1,003 passes for 6,244 yards and 49 touchdowns, becoming only the third player in school history to throw for 6,000 career yards. O'Neil is currently ranked third all-time at Holy Cross in career passing yards, touchdown passes, completions and attempts, while standing fourth in completion percentage (55.9) and yards of total offense (6,704). He needs 352 more passing yards this season to join Tom Ciaccio (1989-1991) and Jeff Wiley (1986-1988) as the only Crusaders to throw of over 2,000 yards in three consecutive seasons.
O'Neil is always quick to point to the team as a group for the reason why Holy Cross is having a winning season. "I think this team has strong camaraderie" said O'Neil. "Compared to the last three teams, this one has really jelled as a unit from the freshmen to the seniors. I think we have a great senior class with great senior leadership, and that has trickled down to the lower classes." He also gives a lot of credit to the coaches for his improvements over his career. "My leadership abilities have become a lot better. Coach Griffin has helped me in that category. Also my athletic skills have improved over the course of four years, which I attribute to my coaches and strength coach Jeff Oliver."
It is not surprising that O'Neil is unselfish and has such a positive attitude, after you find out how supportive and united his family is. "My family is very tight," said O'Neil. "The five of us are very close and we support each other 110 percent. That is the one thing my parents have stressed for us to be very close and be there for each other."
O'Neil's father, John, and his mother, Geraldine, have always made it a point to support their son in person no matter where the game is. "My dad has never missed me play a football game in my career, and my mom has maybe missed two," said O'Neil.
Being a Division I college athlete runs in the O'Neil family as his father played football at the University of Massachusetts, and was twice named first team All-Yankee Conference as a defensive back, while O'Neil's sister Kelly is member of the Holy Cross softball team. His brother Ryan is currently a sophomore and also a quarterback at the same school where O'Neil attended, Iona Prep School.
Even though he had played football in college, it does not make watching his son play any easier. "It is very difficult to sit and watch my son play," said the elder O'Neil. "I find it difficult to sit down, so I am often found pacing in the stands while following the line of scrimmage. The game is so much faster than when I played and the hitting seems so much harder. After watching my son's career, I am very concerned with the amount of injuries that I witness in the course of a season. So at the end of a game, when my son is still standing with no serious injuries, I am happy and anxious about the next game."
Ever since O'Neil was a little kid he wanted to follow in his father's footsteps and play college football, and his father has always been extremely supportive. "My mom was telling me a story back before I could walk that my dad was rolling footballs to me before I could even stand up," said O'Neil. "My dad has been my greatest coach since day one. He will always be the one that tells me if he sees something wrong with how I am playing. He knows me in and out. And whenever I have a problem I go to him, especially about football."
O'Neil's father, who was also his Pop Warner coach, is extremely proud of his son. "Johnny has worked very hard throughout his career at Holy Cross. He has worked through injuries and difficult life experiences, especially with the terminal illness of coach Allen during his sophomore year. With a new coach, coach Gilmore, a new philosophy has developed within the team and it is now apparently taking hold and benefiting this year's team as well as the future teams. Johnny's work ethic has always been there to improve and to lead his team to achieve its full potential. In Johnny's words, `This is a special group of guys.'"
The O'Neils are unique in that not only do they have two kids that play a Division I sport, but they both go to the same school. "Both Johnny and Kelly chose a college that offered a great education and the opportunity to play at Division I competition. The amount of time that it takes to participate in a sport and maintain your academic grades is a full time job. As young student-athlete's growing up, they both worked hard to improve their athletic abilities within the sports they chose and to continually maintain high educational achievements. My wife and I have brought them up to achieve their `personal best.' We have always been a tight family and we support each others' achievements. That is why they are successful."
When looking for a college O'Neil wanted a family atmosphere along with a great academic record to prepare for his future. "Lafayette, Penn and Holy Cross were my top three choices at the end of my search," said O'Neil. "The family atmosphere at Holy Cross, a great place to play football, and the opportunity to get a great liberal arts education was the main draw." And his father is glad that he picked Holy Cross. "The reason for my children selecting Holy Cross was because I advised them to get a great education first, because an injury could end their athletic career at any time. Holy Cross has been a fantastic experience for both John and Kelly because they have shown that they are scholar athletes who are experiencing the best college athletics and classes at Holy Cross."
Ironically, at the same time when O'Neil was deciding to go to Holy Cross, his friend from grammar school Tyler Nugent was deciding to go to the same place. They are both from White Plains, N.Y., and played on the same grammar school basketball team. "Tyler and I have been competing with or against each other for close to 12 years now in sports," said O'Neil. "We know each other really well and it helps on and off the field. I remember growing up with Tyler. We went to the same Parish and had our confirmations together. We'd hang out and play basketball together after school. Our good friendship started back then in fifth grade."
O'Neil then went to Iona Prep School and Nugent went to Archbishop Stepinac, which happen to be rival schools. "Because we went to rival high schools we weren't associated with each other as much, but we remained friends," said O'Neil. "And when we found out we were both going to Holy Cross we started to get back in touch and became closer friends again."
O'Neil, who is an economics major, wants to eventually work in New York City, but first he wants to see if he can continue to play football. "I want to have a shot to try out for some football team," said O'Neil. "I want to continue to play football for a couple of years just because I don't want to stop playing football and regret it. I want to make sure I play football for as many years as I can."
With his family right behind him as always, life lessons learned at Holy Cross and his great football ability there is no reason that O'Neil won't be playing football for many years to come.