By Phillip B. Wilson
INDIANAPOLIS — Danny O’Neil displayed his life ambition as a 2-year-old toddler while sitting on his father’s lap during Catholic Mass.
“He wasn’t even walking yet,” said his mother, Tina. “He grabbed a little Notre Dame football from the diaper bag and threw it down the aisle to the priest in the middle of Mass. We were like, ‘He’s always going to have an arm on him.’”
Now a junior quarterback at Cathedral High School, Danny has already set school records in career completions (399) and TD passes (65) with the remainder of the Class 6A playoffs and a senior season to come.
Coaches voted him City Offensive Player of the Year after completing 66.2 percent of his passes for 1,966 yards with 26 TDs and three interceptions in the regular season. He also rushed for 252 yards and seven TDs.
The Irish (8-1), ranked No. 3 in the SBLive Indiana Power 25 after a 40-29 comeback victory at two-time defending state champion Center Grove, are poised to make a title run. O’Neil led the team to a Class 5A title last year.
But for him, football is an all-consuming pursuit of excellence that requires the utmost preparation. Much like Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning, the player O’Neil has always idolized, he wears a No. 18 jersey. And like Manning, O’Neil spends much of his free time watching film and preparing intensely.
"He came out knowing he was going to be a quarterback,” said his father, Mike, who wrestled at Notre Dame. “From the earliest time when he could start talking and throwing a ball, it was always about throwing a football and trying to emulate Peyton Manning. That was his guy. He still likes No. 18.
“He just started at that early age, he’d watch football with me. We’d go to high school football games and other kids were running around but Danny was watching football. He’s been focused since he was a little guy about wanting to do this.”
The family bought a Colts highlight movie after the Super Bowl XLI victory. Danny watched it for years. When it was time to go out and play, Danny always favored his blue No. 18 Manning jersey and Colts helmet.
He started working with trainer Anthony Morelli after his sixth-grade season. O’Neil learned the importance of proper footwork and ideal throwing mechanics at an early age. And Morelli convinced the young talent that a key to success was studying film. O’Neil, to this day, can’t watch enough game film in preparing for the next opponent.
“I know that I want to be the best,” O’Neil said. “There are other people out there who don’t know my name, don’t know how hard I work. They don’t know about me or who I am. But my goal now is to make sure that everyone knows that I’m the best. That’s an impossible goal, that’s why I’m chasing it. Until that day comes, which it may never come, that’s when all my hard work can stop. But until that day comes, which I hope it never does, I’m just going to keep working as hard as I can.”
He’s completed 399 of 625 career passes (63.8 percent) for 5,220 yards with 65 TDs and just seven interceptions. The elusive scrambler has also rushed 211 times for 586 yards and 17 TDs.
O’Neil benefits from playing with quality players, most notably, No. 1 wide receiver Javon Tibbs, an All-City standout who has committed to Purdue, as well as All-City tight end Brennan Wooten, who has committed to Western Michigan.
The recruiting trail has heated up for the 6-foot-1, 185-pound passer. He’s received nine offers, including Indiana, Kentucky, Purdue, Cincinnati and Louisville. But he’s not in any rush to make a decision. Much like preparing for a game, it’s a process and he’s going to study all options.
When discussing with his parents what he’s looking for in a college program, Danny writes down three guidelines: education, the best fit in an offensive scheme and going to a school that really wants him. And he added a fourth, winning a college national championship.
He’s never met Manning, but what resonated about one of the NFL’s all-time field generals was Peyton’s competitiveness. O’Neil plays with the same internal fire. Take the Center Grove game, where he passed for 410 yards and five touchdowns to lead the Irish to 27 unanswered points in a stunning fourth-quarter comeback from a 29-13 deficit.
He’s fearlessly confident in making any throw regardless of the situation and it shows, especially when under pressure. And he realizes the importance of being a leader. When the Center Grove game looked bleak, O’Neil was reassuring teammates that Cathedral could rally against a team that had not lost to another Indiana school in 35 games.
“I had friends, parents and teachers all through the weekend and Monday tell me about how they left when we were losing,” O’Neil said. “Even when no one else believes in it, I had enough trust in my guys that I knew we were going to be able to make a run. We just needed one big play.”
The biggest plays came after Cathedral took possession at its 32 with 1:34 remaining. O’Neil threw three consecutive incompletions. Down to an all-or-nothing, fourth-and-10 snap in a 29-26 game, he held the ball as long as he could and got decked just after unloading a pass to Tibbs for a 33-yard gain. On the next play, O’Neil hit David Avers for a game-winning, 35-yard TD pass.
“The confidence in myself and the fearlessness, that just comes from trust in my teammates,” O’Neil said. “I knew David was going to come down with that ball if I put a little bit of touch on it and put it in the back of the end zone, where only he could get it. If I try to rifle that in there, who knows, maybe the defensive back is able to undercut it. I just made sure I gave him enough time to react to it.”
He earned praise from 24th-year Center Grove coach Eric Moore.
“He’s a cat burglar. He can get out of any situation he gets into,” Moore said. “He’s got a tremendously strong arm for positions he got put in and got rid of the ball. He did a great job. He’s a winner.”
Cathedral fifth-year coach Bill Peebles also gushed.
“Danny is a tremendous competitor. He never gave up,” Peebles said. “Everybody could have hung their heads. He was like, ‘We’re going to go down and score.’ He has the talent, the mentality, the intelligence and the moxie. He has it all.”
He’s a straight-A student who stays focused on and off the field. O’Neil insists football is about doing whatever the team needs to win, be it handing off or throwing a big pass. Just keep moving the chains. Read defenses quickly and know where to throw the ball. Keep studying and learning.
“There’s no way anybody studies as hard as he does for the upcoming game,” Mike said. “He comes home from practice, has something to eat, gets his homework done, and he’ll be in the den watching film until we make him go to bed.”
His parents as well as two older sisters, Morgan and Delaney, help with maintaining humility.
“There are times where on the field I’ll get a little cocky and kind of feel myself after a big-time throw, but I’m not the type of guy to go out and praise myself for something,” O’Neil said. “If other people want to praise me for something, cool. If not, no one cares, work harder.”
Considering his indefatigable work ethic and the amount of time he spends watching film including with his head coach during the week, it’s fair to suggest O’Neil’s dedication is far from normal.
“It’s totally his normal,” Tina said. “He wouldn’t have it any other way.”
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