That was the sophomore's only catch of the afternoon, and according to O'Leary, the most memorable reception of his collegiate career. A 36-20 victory had Notre Dame jump 12 spots in the next poll.
"I felt like the ball was in the air for about two hours," O'Leary said. "I always still get jazzed a bit for the celebration by friends at home and former teammates. I jumped about an inch and a half off the ground. The picture was on magazines all the next week. My friends were saying I had to work on my celebrations. I was used to always handing the ball back to the ref."
The nation's top-ranked tight end coming out of Cleveland St. Ignatius in 1996, O'Leary envisioned many celebratory moments in the end zone at Notre Dame Stadium. That's what he was told when he was recruited, even though the Irish offense didn't have a history of throwing to the tight end . Ohio State was the first school to offer a scholarship, followed up by many more. Notre Dame and Lou Holtz were the last to offer, and he eventually chose the Irish over Boston College.
"Holtz was actually in my house as a senior in high school," O'Leary said. "He pretty much sold me coming to my house and talking about all the plans he had, although he did say I would catch 50 passes. He said he was taking on that new offense the Dallas Cowboys were running. He really sold me, talking about this Irish set when they flank the tight end out. I figured I would have some holes and gaps to catch a lot of balls."
That vision never panned out, but in the long run O'Leary wasn't disappointed.
Holtz ended up leaving after O'Leary's red-shirt freshman season, Bob Davie took over, and O'Leary became more of a blocker and never caught more than 13 balls in a season. Although there were many trials and tribulations on the football field, O'Leary accomplished the two things he wanted to do as an Irish player, be a team captain and play in a Bowl Championship Series game, both done his final season in 2000.
O'Leary battled a shoulder injury his sophomore season causing him to miss six games. When he was on the field, he shared time with Jabari Holloway for four years, never becoming the man at tight end. While he sucked it up and blocked on most plays, O‘Leary always thought his strength was as a pass catcher.
"It's just one of those things, life deals you cards and you have to play them the right way," said O'Leary who was also the team's long snapper. "If Jabari wasn't there, I would've had a lot more playing time and more balls that came my way. It was one of those things you have to deal with in life and we had a lot of respect for each other. I couldn't even imagine if he wasn't there. But in the back of your mind you always wonder what options or possibilities would've came from that."
O'Leary never considered transferring really enjoying his time as a student at Notre Dame. He graduated with a double major in computer applications and sociology. Though the lack of catches probably hurt his draft stock, the 6-foot-3, 250-pounder was drafted in the sixth round by the Buffalo Bills in the 2001 NFL Draft.
"I wouldn't of changed anything," O'Leary stated.
"It was a family type atmosphere. I loved Notre Dame, and there is a lot of things you learn off the field that helps you in life that you may not learn somewhere else. I remember just being very happy being on campus and knowing all along if things were going well with football or not, that this was the right place for me."
O'Leary carried that attitude into the real world.
After playing his rookie season with the Bills, O'Leary came back home and took an internship at the Cleveland Clinic. He worked as a project coordinator, with his responsibilities geared towards helping NFL agents select specialized physicians to help with their injured clients.
"Taking that internship, there is something that has to be said for the way Notre Dame prepares you for life after football, and I wanted to make sure I had something to fall back on," O'Leary explained.
Good thing he took that internship, because three seasons later, O'Leary tore some ligaments in his neck while playing with the New York Giants, and several doctors advised him to hang up his helmet for life. Some of the contacts O'Leary made at the Cleveland Clinic were instrumental in him getting his first job away from sports at Summa Enterprise Group, where he helped generate revenue for a hospital.
O'Leary, who played for the Pittsburgh Steelers in between his stints with the Bills and Giants, hurt his neck in practice blocking. Lined up as an H-Back, he filled the hole and picked up linebacker Michael Barrow, trying to create some space for Tiki Barber to run.
"I stuck my head in there to push him out of the hole," said O‘Leary, who worked as a reserve tight end and long snapper for all three teams. "I thought it was a stinger at first and it ended up being something more serious. I would've played another 10 years if it was up to me.
"It was tough," O'Leary continued. He married his life love this past August, and just had his two-year anniversary as a salesman for Cintas Corporation. "A couple doctors said you'd be seriously putting yourself at risk, and staying healthy and getting out while I could was a lot more important than an NFL career. The main thing is I made it to the NFL, and that was my goal and I'd like to think I had a good career."
O'Leary also had good times on the field at Notre Dame despite some of the obstacles. The 2000 season, O'Leary and the Irish started out 2-2, but with freshman quarterback Matt LoVecchio taking over for an injured Arnaz Battle and inadequate Gary Godsey, Notre Dame ripped off seven straight wins earning a BCS berth.
"It was a difficult time," O'Leary said. Just one of the many. "You're 2-2, and your starting quarterback goes down. At that point as a team, you could either fold or you could rally around the new guy and make him feel comfortable. At that time Matt was limited and could only read half the field, and you had to take things with a grain of a salt. If you were the third or fourth progression and wide open, you just had to shrug it off. It was one of those things where we had a great offensive coordinator in Kevin Rogers and a great offensive line coach in Steve Addazio, who came up with a plan to make Matt successful and us successful the rest of the season."
O'Leary later joked that his two goals should've been to be a captain and win a BCS game, as the Irish suffered a tough 41-9 loss to Oregon State in the Fiesta Bowl, his last game in a Notre Dame uniform.
O'Leary tries to make it to at least one Notre Dame game per season from his home in Rocky River, Ohio. Notre Dame, the place where he learned to play the hand life dealt him, and the place that turned him into the successful man he is today.