Giants fan represented his favorite team in Atlanta
By Jim Hague
Observer Sports Writer
Josh O’Neill is an 11-yearold Nutley resident, a sixth grader at Washington School. He’s also a very dedicated athlete.
“I play basketball in the winter and baseball in the spring,” O’Neill said. “But football is my sport.”
O’Neill plays running back, wide receiver, defensive end and safety for his Nutley Recreation football team.
He’s also a punter – a very good punter at that.
“My punting is good,” O’Neill said. “I guess I can kick 30-to- 40 yards.”
That would be good enough to topple most high school punters.
O’Neill is also a very dedicated football player, practicing his craft with his father, Mike, for about a half hour to 45 minutes every day.
He had to put in that much time to compete for the NFL’s Punt, Pass and Kick national championship.
That’s what young Josh did last weekend, as he and his father traveled to Atlanta – all expenses paid, no less – to compete in the NFL’s longstanding competition for aspiring football players all across the country.
O’Neill, representing his favorite team, the New York Giants, competed on the local and sectional levels and was one of the top four finalists in the age 10-and-11 bracket.
“I feel very fortunate,” O’Neill said on the day before his trip to Atlanta, where he competed before the Atlanta Falcons played host to the Seattle Seahawks in the NFL Divisional Playoff game Sunday. “It’s a once-ina- lifetime experience. I’m not sure I’ll ever get a chance like this again. It’s such a great feeling, going to the nationals. It’s a great honor for me. It took some skill, but it also took a little bit of luck.”
O’Neill is a veteran of the Punt, Pass and Kick competition. Two years ago, at age 9, O’Neill competed in the New York Jets’ competition at the Jets’ Atlantic Health Center in Florham Park.
“My Dad saw an application and he suggested I try it,” O’Neill said. “I spent time, practicing and preparing and I won the Jets’ team championship for my age.”
There was only one problem. Josh is a Giants fan.
“Was it tough wearing that jersey?” O’Neill repeated a question. “Yes, very. I’m the only Giants fan in the family. My Dad is a big Jets fan.”
Competitors are asked to punt, pass and kick the football as far as possible – with a catch. Accuracy is also a major component, so you have to try to keep the ball as close to a straight line as possible, because the distance is measured as well as closeness to the straight line.
“The first year, kicking off the tee was a little tough,” O’Neill said. “I hadn’t gotten the hang of it, kicking straight away.”
But when O’Neill signed up for the program again last fall, he knew he had a good chance.
There was the local competition in Nutley, then another in South Plainfield, where O’Neill had to defeat 15 other competitors. Finally, there were the sectionals in Garfield, where O’Neill won by over 100 feet, giving him the chance to advance to the Giants’ team championships held at the Timex Performance Center, the Giants’ training facility.
The Giants’ team finals were held in conjunction with the Giants-Saints game last Dec. 9.
“Before I went into my kick, I was feeling so confident,” O’Neill said. “I whispered in my Dad’s ear, ‘Dad, I got this.’ I hit the kick and it was right on. I felt so good.”
Mike O’Neill, who also coaches in the Nutley Recreation football program, was doing the mathematics of Josh’s distance in his head.
“I figured that if he got 290 feet (combined), he could get to the nationals,” Mike O’Neill said. “But he blew that number away.”
“Dad always totals up the score,” Josh O’Neill said. “He predicted 310 feet and I said, `No way.’”
However, Josh surpassed 310 feet and earned the trip to Atlanta for the nationals.
“It’s outstanding,” Josh O’Neill said. “I’m very excited. Two years ago, I was disappointed that I couldn’t go. But now since I’m representing the Giants, I might as well go and get the spirit of it.”
O’Neill believes that being a veteran of the PP&K competition helped him immensely this year.
“I think the experience just made me work harder,” O’Neill said. “I was more determined to accomplish something this year. I’m pretty motivated in everything I do.”
O’Neill, who has an older sister Kaitlyn (age 15), who is a Nutley High cheerleader, was going to Atlanta with a clear head.
“I don’t care if I win or lose,” O’Neill said. “I’m just getting a great experience. Not a lot of kids my age get a chance like this. I’m excited, but always nervous. My Dad tells me that nervous energy is always good. I just might be able to bring home a national championship.”
So the O’Neill father and son headed to a local park in Nutley to practice Josh’s skills. He believes he is a better passer, but the punting numbers are startling.
“I just have to stay fresh,” O’Neill said. “I don’t want to get stale. I’ll even practice when we get to Atlanta.”
Yes, this is an 11-year-old being interviewed. Most kids his age give “Yes” or “No” answers, but O’Neill was such a pleasant interview, you had to stop to remember that he’s only 11.
“I don’t want to make it look like I’m going through the motions,” he said.
Needless to say, Mike O’Neill is beaming as a proud father.
“I don’t think I can be any prouder,” Mike O’Neill said. “Win or lose, Josh has done an incredible job. He’s earned every bit of this.”
And better yet, young Josh got to represent the Giants, his team.
“My favorite player is Eli Manning,” O’Neill said.
Who knows? Maybe someday, Josh O’Neill will be throwing a football further than his celebrated hero.