Fulfilling his senior leadership role, Brian O’Neill “brings the juice” on and off the field.
A native of Roseland, N.J., linebacker O’Neill was a multi-sport athlete at West Essex High School, pursuing football, basketball, and track. But by his sophomore season, he knew he had found a passion in football, which he had played since second grade Pop Warner, as he felt his most comfortable on the football field.
“I’m pretty outgoing and loud. It’s easy for people either to a) look up to me or b) come to me if you have any problems or anything,” O’Neill said. “I think I’m pretty open and cordial with that stuff, and a lot of kids rally behind that.”
In his most recent season as a Quaker, O’Neill made second-team All-Ivy and led the Red and Blue defense with three interceptions, as well as racking up 58 tackles and 12.5 tackles for a loss in 10 starts.
O’Neill was no stranger to big hits on either side of the ball in high school, starting at both running back and linebacker. He ultimately opted to contribute to the defensive unit for Penn, hoping to capitalize on his affinity for hitting and bring that sort of mentality to his teammates.
“Football is such a momentum game, so if one side is really bringing energy and juice and is really pumped up — say I or my teammate makes a big play in the backfield, we get riled up and what not,” O’Neill said. “That's why the juice and energy is so important because that can destroy an entire offense of defense depending on who makes the play.”
One of O’Neill’s largest football inspirations is current Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Justin Watson. Though the two only shared one year of overlap for the Red and Blue, O’Neill vividly recalls trying to take advantage of any opportunity he had to learn from Watson.
“We used to sit down on the bleacher after practice every day and talk, and I just got to pick his brain," O'Neill said. "At that point, I knew where he was headed, so I thought it would be really beneficial to understand what he thinks and what he does."
These conversations weren’t restricted to football: O’Neill asked about traveling, freshman life, managing athletics with classes, building relationships with teachers, and more. Like Watson did for him, O’Neill hopes to exhibit the same qualities of mentorship and being a ‘big brother’ to his younger teammates.
While leading his team on the field is not possible this upcoming fall, O’Neill has found other effective ways to unite and capitalize on the moment. He is as strong and fast as he has ever been — after training heavily during the offseason — and he is preaching the message that the teams that prepare and come together best during this time are the ones that will succeed in the future.
However, O’Neill is lamenting his time spent away from strength coach Miguel Rivera, who he described as one of the biggest assets to the team. In addition, Penn's facilities are still not available for practice, but all signs are headed in the right direction in terms of NCAA and Ivy League protocols.
Reflecting back on his time at Penn so far, O’Neill recounted a couple of exhilarating moments — like beating Harvard last season on a game-winning play or blocking a field goal his freshman year to win — but what he’ll remember most is being in the locker room with his teammates.
Expect O’Neill to continue giving back to the program he loves until the final whistle of his Penn journey is blown.