Where Are They Now? Danny O’Neil (1991-1994): Bigger Than Life

Jerry Thompson Men of Oregon: Players and Coaches

Oregon Duck fans everywhere can always be grateful that former Oregon assistant Nick Aliotti stretched the truth when Aliotti was recruiting high school quarterback Danny O’Neil in 1990. Twenty years ago, O’Neil led the Ducks to the Pac-10 championship and 1995 Rose Bowl game vs. Joe Paterno’s Penn State Nittany Lionsand in that game O’Neil broke the Rose Bowl passing record with 456 yards. That success would very likely not have taken place if offensive coordinator Mike Bellotti and head coach Rich Brooks had known O’Neil’s real height and weight.

O’Neil played at southern California high school powerhouse Mater Dei and impressed not only Oregon, but storied programs USC and Alabama. Aliotti told Bellotti the slender and athletic O’Neil was 6-2, 190. The truth was, he was only 6-feet and 165 pounds! Years later, O’Neil related that Bellotti told him he wouldn’t have offered him a scholarship had he known his actual height and weight.

Danny O'Neil throwing a pass in the 1994 Rose Bowl

Danny O’Neil throwing a pass in the 1995 Rose Bowl.

O’Neil wanted to go to Oregon so badly, he wore high-top basketball shoes and never took off his full coat that concealed his true size on his recruiting trip to Oregon. Consequently, the ploy worked, as O’Neil passed the eye test. Oregon offered, but the battle for O’Neil was not over. Alabama’s Homer Smith came to the O’Neil home, but soon after the visit, Smith left to coach at UCLA.

The Bruins had already told Danny they were impressed with him but were not going to sign any quarterbacks that year, and O’Neil’s parents didn’t want Danny to be so far away in Alabama.

As is turned out, the Crimson Tide won the National Championship the next season with a true freshman quarterback. O’Neil has no regrets but can’t help but wonder if he would have beaten out that quarterback and led the Crimson Tide to the title.

USC told O’Neil he was No. 3 on their national list. When their top two prep QB’s chose other schools, the Trojans put on the full-court press for O’Neil. ”They were calling me every day for three weeks until signing day,” said O’Neil. “They even showed up at my house with a limo.”

O’Neil’s father and mother wanted very much for Danny to become a Trojan and were very upset when their son wouldn’t even agree to an official trip. ”I had given Oregon my word,” said Danny and thus resisted all the pressure from home and Tommy Trojan — and signed with the Ducks. When Danny arrived in the late summer for fall drills in 1991, he again was concerned about his physical appearance, especially his weight.

“I weighed 165 and had to do something to get to at least 170 pounds.” Before the weigh-in O’Neil drank as much water as he could and tipped the scales at 171.  The next day his weight dropped back down to 164. On another occasion, O’Neil used another clever method at an official weigh-in. Under his gym shorts he wore skin-tight leggings and packed them with five pounds of fishing weights!

Danny O'Neil was never as strong built quarterback but he made use of what he had.

Danny O’Neil was never a strongly built quarterback, but he made use of what he had.

O’Neil started at Oregon in 1991 as a redshirt freshman, trying to fill the shoes of the legendary Bill Musgrave. Having led the Ducks to wins over Washington State and Texas Tech, an injury ended his promising start — and season – but for the next three years, O’Neil led the Oregon offense.

The Ducks went 6-6 in ’92 but only 5-6 in ’93 with a poor 2-6 conference record. Then came the magical ’94 season. As a senior, it was O’Neil’s last chance to lead his team to new heights.

Of all the plays in the ’94 season, it was his first-down run against Washington that O’Neil is most proud of. Needing that first down to keep the famous late-fourth quarter “Drive” alive, O’Neil scrambled, was hit by a Husky linebacker, then lunged and reached the football as far forward as he could. A measurement was needed, and O’Neil had gained the first down by inches with his extra effort.

“For me that play represented every weight lifted, every sprint run … and all the hard work of my four-year career. Getting hit and fighting for that first down was very satisfying.” A couple of plays later, O’Neil received a play call with six options.

At the line of scrimmage he shouted out “2-32,” which meant seldom-used fullback Dwayne Jones was to get the handoff. Jones ran past a linebacker and safety for eight yards to score the touchdown to put the Ducks ahead late in the game.

Danny O'Neil throws a pass against Washington in 1994

Danny O’Neil throws a pass against Washington in 1994.

The do-or-die drive, which began at Oregon’s own two-yard line, did not seal the Oregon victory. It wasn’t until a few moments later, with the Ducks on their heels and Washington ready to score on a 1st-and-goal at the eight, that ecstasy transpired.

Damon Huard, the Washington quarterback, attempted a pass, but Kenny Wheaton made the famous “Pick,” and the subsequent TD, sealing the Ducks’ victory. Wheaton’s interception propelled the Ducks to four more straight wins, but, of course, that play wouldn’t have meant a thing without “The Drive” setting it up.

With all the great quarterbacks in Oregon football history, O’Neil, who was honored as the first-team Pac-10 quarterback in 1994, ranks second to Musgrave in passing yards with 8301. Musgrave, 8343, is No. 1 in passes completed (636) and third in touchdown passes (62) to Mariota (76) and Darron Thomas (66).

When asked who he thought was Oregon’s most talented quarterback, O’Neil said the following: “[Dan]Fouts was the greatest; [Chris] Miller was an amazing athlete; Akili [Smith] and [Tony] Graziani were the best pure passers; [Joey] Harrington was the best at winning; and [Marcus] Mariota will probably go down as the best of all time. And there are lots of QB’s in between that were unbelievably good. We have all been spoiled with a long and excellent tradition of Oregon quarterbacks.”

After graduating with a degree in economics, O’Neil had a short stint in the Arena League. Later he became a high school pastor for four years and senior pastor in Eugene for 12 years. He and his wife and their two children are now living in Orange County, Calif., where O’Neil manages the warehouse for O’Neil Storage.

Top photo by John Giustina

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