If Danny O'Neil could sum up his football career in one season, he
If leading the University of Oregon to the Pac-10 Conference
championship and its first Rose Bowl game in 37 years was the only memory
O'Neil had of his collegiate days, he would rest on those laurels.
But the co-MVP of the 1995 Rose Bowl, following the Ducks' Cinderella
season in the fall of '94, can't escape his junior year, when the boos
vibrated throughout Eugene, Ore., or his sophomore year, when he led
Oregon to the Independence Bowl and "people still wanted anybody but that
O'Neil kid," he once told The Register-Guard in Eugene.
O'Neil, a former Mater Dei standout after transferring from Corona del
Mar High, would finally silence his critics in his fourth season as the
Ducks' quarterback, earning All-American honorable mention by United
Press International and setting numerous passing records in a wild
In that unforgettable year, O'Neil was in the hospital with a
mysterious staph infection in the ring finger of his passing hand, while
backup quarterback Tony Graziani led Oregon to a televised road victory
over USC, a team O'Neil always wanted to beat (and hadn't).
It was tough for O'Neil. "All my friends would be there, my dad had
over 100 requests for tickets, and suddenly I'm not even there. I'm left
behind watching the team play great," he said.
O'Neil, who already held the Oregon single-season passing and total
offense records, thought he might spend the rest of his senior season
signaling in plays from the sidelines. He couldn't be upset if the
coaches stuck with Graziani, but it was frustrating to think it could end
"But there was no way I could let it end that way," he said before the
Pac-10 finale in 1994. "There's no way I could have lived with myself
five years down the road if I hadn't tried to get it back together."
Five years down the road, O'Neil is remembered as an Oregon hero.
O'Neil won the starting job back, led the Ducks to an upset victory
over Washington in a come-from-behind effort, threw a winning touchdown
pass in another comeback triumph against Arizona, and, in the
regular-season finale, tossed six touchdown passes and marched the Ducks
70 yards in the game's final five minutes to overtake pesky Oregon State.
It was Oregon's third comeback victory of the autumn and the team's
seventh straight win with O'Neil at the controls.
For the first time since 1948, Oregon could be mentioned in the final
national rankings as it prepared to face Penn State in the Rose Bowl.
In a memorable Rose Bowl, O'Neil completed 41 of 61 passes for 456 yards -- all records that had stood since 1963. But Penn State won,
38-20. O'Neil shared MVP honors with Ki-Jana Carter.
"I didn't come here to set records or win the co-MVP of the Rose Bowl.
I came here for a victory," O'Neil said after the game.
O'Neil, however, moved ahead of names like Ron VanderKelen
(Wisconsin), Chuck Long (Iowa), Mark Brunell (Washington), Rick Neuheisel
(UCLA) and Art Schlichter (Ohio State) on the Rose Bowl's all-time list
of top passing performances.
"We didn't plan to throw as much as we did, but one reason we kept
throwing was because Danny was so accurate," Oregon Coach Rich Brooks
In a classic case of a Duck winging it, O'Neil picked apart Penn
State's defense as seven different receivers caught passes in the Rose
"If (O'Neil) is not in the NFL next year, it's a joke," said Oregon
tight end Josh Wilcox, who caught 11 passes for 135 yards in the Rose
Bowl. "I'm in full support of that guy. For four years, he's gotten
grief. He deserves only good things."
O'Neil, who finished with 8,301 passing yards and 62 touchdown passes
to become Oregon's all-time leader in both categories (ahead of Bill
Musgrave), did not get drafted in the NFL. But his senior year at Oregon
was almost a career in itself.
"The first three years were pretty tough ... but that last year in
college was the culmination of an entire career," O'Neil said recently by
telephone from Jerusalem, where he's studying Hebrew to better equip
himself for Bible interpretation.
O'Neil, who served as a high school pastor at Calvary Chapel for four
years under Chuck Smith, is planning to return to Oregon to start a
church and become a senior pastor.
In July 1995, the Kansas City Chiefs called O'Neil, wanting a quick
look before the opening of training camp. It was a long shot, but it was
an offer -- the proverbial once-in-a-lifetime chance.
The Chiefs asked O'Neil to leave the next morning -- Flight 322 out of
Orange County -- and, under normal circumstances, he would've jumped on
the plane. But O'Neil, with a Bible study to teach, had different
priorities and, suddenly, heaven could no longer wait. O'Neil told the
Chiefs he couldn't make the flight, but he could the next day.
"I know if you tell the NFL you can't come, there would be no more
flights," O'Neil said in October 1995. "It wasn't hard to do it -- it was
an easy choice. There were 350 to 400 kids who were going to show up, and
I was committed to them. I wanted to go (to the tryout), but I didn't
want to tell the kids, 'I love you, but if the NFL calls, I'm gone.'
"I told the Chiefs I could come the following day. I never heard from
After a three-week stint with the now-defunct Anaheim Piranhas of the
Arena Football League, O'Neil was done as a football player, but with an
O'Neil, who also played basketball, volleyball and golf at Mater Dei,
said his most fond gridiron memories come from his Junior All-American
days in Newport Beach and his first two years at CdM, when the
lower-level programs combined for a 19-1 record.
"It was pure fun. It was only about you and your friends winning,"
O'Neil said. "It wasn't about letting the whole state of Oregon down, or
politics, or money. It was purely about showing up on the football field
with your friends and beating the other guys. Those were the fun days."
O'Neil, a guard on Coach Gary McKnight's state championship hoops team
at Mater Dei in 1990, grew up playing with CdM standouts Warren Johnson,
Weston Johnson, Mark Flint, Brian Lucas, Jeff Jackson and Jerrott
Willard, all contributors to the school's back-to-back CIF Southern
Section Division VI title teams in 1988 and '89.
O'Neil, however, transferred to Mater Dei amid controversy, which led
to the Monarchs being slapped with a six-month probation by CIF. O'Neil
said he needed more academic discipline than what CdM could offer, and
his parents "urged" him to transfer. "It was a very difficult time for
me," said O'Neil.
O'Neil, 28 and single, is the latest honoree in the Daily Pilot Sports
Hall of Fame, celebrating the millennium.