Danny O'Neil: Then and Now

<I>The following is a continuation of a story from the August issue of eDuck the Magazine. To subscribe to eDuck the Magazine, <A HREF=http://www.grassy.com/citadel_publishing/oregon/>click here</A>.</I> <P> Nine years ago, former Oregon quarterback Danny O'Neil was preparing to enter his senior season as the starting quarterback for a Ducks team that at least one national publication picked to finish last in the Pac-10 Conference.

"My junior year I played great individually," O'Neil said, "I had great stats, a lot of team records…As an individual I did well but as a team we didn't do very well."

The knock on O'Neil was that although he had those great stats, he couldn't get enough wins for the team, especially when the Ducks trailed in a game.

"I was still criticized because I couldn't win, because I couldn't lead the team to victory," he said. "That was always a sore spot for me.

"When I entered my senior season, I remember that I was 14-14…But it wasn't just the record, it was that I couldn't lead the team from behind…The last 14 games, every time we trailed at halftime we lost. And that was a true stat."

O'Neil remembers golfing before the season with former Oregon free safety Jeff Sherman and discussing that statistic.

"I said ‘Jeff, I'm going to lead us back to victory three times this year,'" he recalled. "And we did it."

Danny O'Neil has gone from quarterbacking
a football team to shepherding
a congregation. (photos by Darlynn Wilson,
stylized by Neil Wilson)
As Oregon fans will remember, all O'Neil and the Ducks did that year was prove the pundits wrong by going out and winning the Pac-10 Conference title and a berth in the 1995 Rose Bowl – but only after they started out the season facing some adversity.

"That's what's amazing about that season," O'Neil said. "People's memory is the championship and the Rose Bowl.

"We lost back to back to Hawaii and then Utah. We were 1-2. We were bad and I was bad."

And then, to make matters worse, that's when he came down with a staph infection in a finger on his throwing hand and was out for two weeks.

"While I was gone (backup quarterback Tony Graziani) was playing great," O'Neil explained. "My career looks like it's over. The season looks like it's bad."

And then the Ducks played the Washington Huskies when a guy named Danny led Oregon on a come-from-behind drive and a guy named Kenny Wheaton sealed the victory by intercepting the Huskies' would-be game winning touchdown throw.

"After that Washington game," O'Neil said, "we went on a great run."

That victory over the Huskies was the sweetest of the season for O'Neil "because they were the big boys. They always had what you wanted.

"They had the Pac-10 Championships. They had the Rose Bowl. They had the notoriety. They had the national respect… And so for me that's what I wanted – what Washington had."

Danny O'Neil addresses his congregation.
(photo by Darlynn Wilson)
O'Neil – who was married this year to his wife, Kim, and now pastors at Calvary Fellowship in Eugene – now benefits from his experience quarter-backing a team as he shepherds a congregation.

"When you are a church pastor there is a lot of criticism and a lot of people aren't happy with you," he explained.

O'Neil had to deal with that kind of criticism when he played at Oregon "in the papers, on the talk shows, from fans," he said. "I'd get angry letters from fans saying how bad I (was) at quarterback, and ‘Just go home.'

"When you lose it's never fun. We had a couple losing seasons…so that's prepared me. I don't take too many things (personally). When someone criticized me it motivated me to be better. It prepared me to have a thick skin."

O'Neil also explains that since he was a successful quarterback on a major Division I football team, "my self worth and my motivation of life is not people-acceptance."

He says a pastor of a church will never receive that kind of notoriety or stature.

"I don't try to put a lot of worth in growing a church or trying to be successful or trying to have everybody like me," he said. "I've already had those things, where a lot of people like me and think that I'm great…Those feelings are fleeting. You're on the top of the world one day in football and then the bottom the next week because (you) lost. All those things are fleeting.

"What I want to do is invest in what's lasting. I don't have to be a big hotshot pastor. If people enjoy Calvary Fellowship, that's great. If they don't that's okay."

O'Neil also does chapels and Bible studies for many of the University of Oregon athletic teams and he spent a little time last fall doing some broadcasting work with Eugene radio station KUGN, which he says he has enjoyed.

"I'll tell you what," O'Neil said, "(broadcasters) Jerry Allen and Joe Giansante are really very good at what they're doing. I say that because I don't do anything but respond to what they're doing.

"Both of them are very good at asking a good question. So what I do on the radio…is I'm just talking, responding to their questions."

More Q&A with Danny O'Neil:

Is the 1994 Championship season still a vivid memory or is it starting to fade a bit?

I'd say it's definitely still vivid. The fascinating thing about that is the memories are still vivid but they're not as fresh, obviously, in my mind. It's almost like that was a different time in my life. To live in the past is not a wise thing to do regardless, and I'm never going to play football again. My football is over. And so my waking hours in my life (don't) have any football incorporated into (them). So it's odd for me sometimes when somebody will come up to me and say ‘Hey, Danny, can we still have your autograph?'…Why ask for my autograph? I don't think that way any more. I don't associate with football. But yeah, when I think about football I think about 1994 and that season…It's a great one and I really enjoy thinking about it and what a team we had, and about the players that we had on the team, and the coaches. It was definitely one of the highlights of my life…that season.

Do you see any similarities to the criticism you received and what Jason Fife is going through coming into his senior year?

Yeah, definitely. It's really about winning. And there's really not a lot else that people want to talk about. People will talk about good things if you're winning that people don't want to talk about when you're losing. It's human nature. It's not just an evil thing or a bad thing – people don't purpose to do it – but if you're losing the natural response is ‘Well, why are we losing? A, B and C.' And of course the quarterback will be one of those A, B and Cs…So Jason is going to get criticism. I think people know that it's not all up to the quarterback, but that's going to be a focus of conversation…One of the things that's hard as a quarterback is there's no support anywhere because there's nobody on your side. It's a lonely, lonely place to be…Coach Bellotti, when I was quarterback, he was a great coach. But his job was to make me a better quarterback. And so he's on me. And now the head coach is on me. My own teammates are on me…It's a lonely place to be when you are a quarterback…

Who do you think will win the starting job at quarterback this fall?

I don't know. I wouldn't be surprised if – my guess is – that it's going to be split again…My guess is that they're going to have a starter in, but it's a short, short fuse…Jason has the disadvantage because he's a senior so he's got a set history. So that sometimes can work against you…I know Jason a little bit and he's tough. He's got a great attitude. The talent level's there…It's going to be a great battle.

What do you think about the improvements in facilities since you were here?

Well, it's nothing short of amazing…This administration in the athletic department, specifically Bill Moos, they've done a great job…It's really a top-flight program. I think it's great.

Do you like the newest version of the uniforms?

I think it's fun. I do. I like them. First of all, the players like them…I would have loved to have these uniforms. I think it's great. I love them…

Does the recent downfall of Mike Price and Rick Neuheisel point to any deeper problems with the high-profile coaches and athletes of today?

No, I wouldn't say that. I would say…any time you have unconditional power you increase your temptation. Anytime you have a lot of money it increases temptation. Now there's nothing wrong, if you are very responsible, with having lots of money. But you need to maintain your moral values and your ethical values. This is of course not just coach Price and coach Neuheisal, but all professional athletes. People are people and…powerful positions usually just expose who you already are…

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