Some kids instinctively know they are going to become a teacher, or a doctor, or a fire fighter; and some kids instinctively know they are going to one day play football at the University of Notre Dame. Tim O’Neill was one such kid. He dreamed of playing football at Notre Dame and all of the rituals that accompany the mystique that is Notre Dame … tapping the famous “Play Like A Champion Today” sign on the way out of the locker room, running out of the tunnel into Notre Dame stadium, and of course that hallowed moment when your cleats hit the cushion to the tune of thousands of screaming fans. How does a 5’6”, 165 running back from the heart of Wolverine country manage to get the Notre Dame football coaches to take note of him and eventually earn a scholarship position on the Fighting Irish football team? Take a walk with me along the journey of a walk-on who just wouldn’t give up: Tim O’Neill.
Q: Growing up in Michigan, how did you become interested in attending and possibly playing football at Notre Dame?
A: “I grew up in the heart of Michigan Wolverine country but I always carried a torch for the Fighting Irish. My family history is the same as many other kids who follow in the footsteps of parents or sibling who also attended Notre Dame, and I grew up with a great love of the University. My brother Mike went to Notre Dame and was a walk-on full back under Coach Holtz and played behind Rodney Culver and Jerome Bettis. He didn’t play much … as you can imagine! My father also went to Notre Dame, he graduated in 1961; my grandfather graduated in 1926, and my great-grandfather graduated in 1906. That’s one impressive Notre Dame Legacy ahead of me and as you can guess I was pretty brain washed when it came to ND.”
“My wife and I were married in the basilica at Notre Dame, my parents were also married in the basilica and my grandparents were married in the log cabin chapel by the grotto. Notre Dame is a very special part of our family history.”
“With the deep affinity that I have for Notre Dame, I always wanted to play football at ND. There was no other place that I wanted to be. It honestly was a dream come true to attend Notre Dame, to walk onto the football team and eventually become a scholarship player. It was really special.”
“I was a pretty decent football player in high school, but at 5’6” and 165 pounds there were not a lot of schools offering me scholarships to play college football. I took a trip to the University of Michigan but they didn’t give me an offer. I knew my only opportunity was going to be to walk on somewhere and prove myself. I thought about maybe going to a Division II or Division III school but my parents always taught me to dream big. I put a video together along with a letter of recommendation from my high school football coach, John Walker, and sent it off to a bunch of colleges and universities, but the only response I really wanted was from Notre Dame. I received a call from Coach Bob Chmiel, the recruiting coordinator under Coach Holtz. I answered the phone half asleep and heard on the other end, ‘Hi, this is Coach Bob Chmiel and we’d like for you to come to Notre Dame and walk on the team.’ I really had no idea exactly what that meant but I got my physical and joined the team after classes had started my freshman year. I will always be grateful to Coach Chmiel for the opportunity.”
“I secured a spot as a walk-on but that came with no promises of playing time and no scholarship; but they liked what they saw and I made the team. There were 105 players at fall camp that year and only myself, Matt Sarb, and John Crowther made the team as freshman walk-ons after classes had started.We recruited ourselves to be at Notre Dame because we wanted to be there. We worked summer jobs to help finance our education and we were there because we truly loved the University. I had five amazing years at Notre Dame and I have absolutely no regrets. I can look back and honestly say that I wouldn’t have done anything differently and that I gave 100 percent. I worked harder as a Notre Dame football player than I had ever worked in my life, both physically and mentally. It was full of ups and downs, successes and failures, along with the inevitable disappointments when you thought you were going to get playing time and didn’t; but in the end it was absolutely worth it.”
“While I was at Notre Dame I started writing a journal to document my experiences as a walk-on for Notre Dame. When I started writing (during my sophomore year), it was more of a diary at first, a reflection at the end of each day. During my fifth year I wrote a lot more. Finally, a few years after graduation, I got around to compiling the entries into a book and publishing my story. I didn’t write it to make money, I wrote it because I truly believe in its message: to not underestimate yourself and your dreams and what you’re capable of doing. The book is called Every Play Every Day; My Life as a Notre Dame Walk-on and I’m fortunate that it is now in its second printing.”
“I wanted to portray a realistic look at the experiences of a Notre Dame walk-on and the sacrifices that it takes to follow your dreams and go after what you want. In order to succeed you often times have to give up some fun things, but in the end it was absolutely worth it. I didn’t drink my entire time at Notre Dame, but that was my personal choice. I didn’t want to be working out and sacrificing my body during the week, only to break it down and have to start all over after the weekend.”
Q: Did your coaches make you feel like a walk-on? What was your perceived status on the team?
A: “I don’t think they intentionally treated us differently, but that being said, I think you definitely had to earn their respect and rightfully so. They were invested in the guys they had recruited, the guys they had gone into their homes and talked with their parents. On the flip side of the coin, I think college football in general is a meritocracy. If you are the best person for the job then you should play. It’s definitely hard to get playing time as a walk-on but it’s not impossible. Take a look at Joe Schmidt, it’s definitely possible. There were guys I looked up to that were walk-ons that had earned significant playing time like Anthony Brannan, Jonathan Hebert, and Jeremy Juarez, and I tried to emulate their work ethic. I don’t want to make it sound like there was a bias towards scholarship players, but as a walk-on you have to work harder in order to get your chance. Once you get the chance, then it’s all on a level playing field and all you can really ask for is to be given that opportunity.”
Q: Did the scholarship players treat you differently because you were a walk-on?
A: “No, not at all. I think they looked at us as a football player. If you were a good football player they respected you. If you were lacking in talent, then they viewed you that way. I didn’t look at the scholarship players any differently. We were all equal and working towards the same goal, to win all of our games. In that respect we were one team. That’s how we approached it. Some of my best friends at ND were scholarship players. There was no dichotomy in the locker room. I think they respected us more because we had to work hard in order to maybe get a chance to play. They respected the fact that we weren’t on scholarship and were still going through everything they were going through.”
Q: What was it like playing under Bob Davie? Tyrone Willingham?
A: “When everything fell into place for me it was under Coach Willingham so I will always have an affinity for him. He was a walk-on at Michigan State and so he valued the walk-on role and could identify with what we were going through as walk-ons.”
“Coach Davie saw me practice every day. I was running the scout team offense against our first team defense every day and I know he respected my attitude and approach to practice every day. He had me speak at the Stanford game pep rally my junior year and I will always be grateful to Coach Davie for that opportunity.”
“Coach Davie and Coach Willingham had very different personalities but they both had positive qualities which they brought to the table. Coach Willingham changed my life forever by giving me a scholarship to play football at Notre Dame. After the football banquet, Coach Willingham would be there until 1 AM signing autographs. He was always the last person to leave from events. That’s who he was. On the flip side, he always felt the media didn’t belong in his business, that his players and coaches were most important to him and who he cared about. He would get down and do the workouts with us. We respected that.”
“But, we could also see, when he wasn’t getting the results on the field, that the pressure on him increased greatly. He started out 8-0, ranked number three in the country and then it just fell apart from there. It’s all about results in college football. That’s the reality. You have to win. You have to have integrity. And you can’t only excel in one area; you have to excel in it all.”
“I have stayed in touch with Coach Willingham as well as Coach Buzz Preston, my running back coach. They’ve always been good about lending a helping hand if you need it or sending you a congratulatory message on your marriage or new baby. They never forget their players.”
Q: What’s the most unexpected opportunity that you’ve been given as a Notre Dame football player?
A: “I graduated from Notre Dame in 2003 and in 2009 I heard about the tryouts for a Notre Dame alumni football game versus the Japanese national team that was going to happen in Tokyo, coached by Lou Holtz and Tim Brown. I was 29 years old at the time and trained for 7 months to make sure I was going to make the team because they were only going to take 50 guys. I viewed this as a once in a lifetime opportunity, to be able to play one game for Coach Holtz. What an honor.”
“I was seven years old when I went to my first Notre Dame game with my dad which was the Notre Dame vs. Michigan State in 1987, and Tim Brown ran back two punt returns for touchdowns in that game. I went home after that game and sent a letter to Tim Brown, asking him if he’d sign his name on this paper and send it back to me. He sent it back to me postmarked from Dallas, Texas, during one of his breaks from school, and it read, ‘Best Wishes, Tim Brown # 81.’ I kept that on my wall all through school.”
“I ended up making the alumni team and got to go to Japan and play the Japanese national team. Tim Brown was the wide receiver coach and that was the position I got to play for that game. Being a part of that was such an amazing experience. I was able to take my future wife to Japan and she was able to see me play football for one game since she had never seen me play in college. It was almost surreal to me. It’s one of the highlights of my life. I can see why Coach Holtz was such a successful coach. Tony Rice was 40 years old, and I was 30 years old and Coach Holtz coached us like it was the Super Bowl. He demanded excellence from us. He was there to win and you had better be there ready to win, too. Hearing him speak for a week at practice was worth everything.”
Q: Had you heard of Rudy before you attended ND?
A: “I had heard of Rudy. I had watched the movie and loved it. When people hear you are walking on at Notre Dame they inevitably make that comparison. I didn’t want to be Rudy, though; I wanted to be Emmitt Smith or Barry Sanders. I wanted to win the Heisman. And in my mind, I truly believed I was capable of achieving those things. That’s how I approached every day of practice, every game, everyday of the offseason, that if I got my chance, my opportunity, I would be ready for it.”
“During my freshman year at Notre Dame I didn’t play one play, but I think I earned the respect of the coaching staff. I would be the opposing teams’ starting running back in practice and go against the first team defense every day and I took pride in that. My first opportunity came my sophomore year when I got two carries against Arizona State. Then in my junior year I played in one game where Coach Urban Meyer put me in against Navy in the Citrus Bowl. He put me in as a wide receiver, even though I didn’t normally play wide receiver, but he wanted to reward me and I will always respect him for that.”
“It’s very difficult to stay positive when you don’t get much playing time.”
“Then Coach Willingham came in and that was my final year at Notre Dame. I really felt that it was my year and that the hard work of the previous four years had finally paid off for me.”
“The week before the kickoff classic, Coach Willingham called me into his office and told me I was going to play that year under a full scholarship. (He also told two of my teammates that same day that they were getting a full scholarship as well: Chad Debolt and Jason Halvorson.) That was one of the best days of my life. That was a very powerful moment. It proved to me that if you want something bad enough and make the sacrifices that you can do anything.”
“You’re always hoping to be rewarded but you don’t always get it. A lot of my walk-on friends and teammates didn’t get the opportunities that I got. They put in the work, and that doesn’t take away from their hard work, but it doesn’t always end the way you think it should.”
“I started on special teams on the punt block team my senior year and had nine carries at tailback for 74 yards. It was not record-breaking but it was awesome for me. It didn’t matter that it was against Rutgers and we were up by 40 points … it was my opportunity. We started out ranked number three in the country that year, but lost three of our last four games and finished 10-3.”
Q: Where has your career taken you since your time at Notre Dame?
A: “I studied finance at Notre Dame with a minor in theology. I really enjoy finance, but I really enjoyed theology, too. I knew that I wanted something that was fast paced, challenging and a meritocracy like I experienced at Notre Dame. I interned at Lehman Brothers in New York City on the financial side of Wall Street. It wasn’t on the trading side and I wasn’t generating revenue for the firm, which is where I really wanted to be. I applied for various trading jobs with a lot of Wall Street firms that were recruiting, and got an interview with Salomon Brothers and got a job in the sales and trading analyst program. I spent a year doing mortgage sales in Chicago and a year in high yield and credit default swap trading in New York.”
“When I was in mortgage-backed sales in Chicago I had a great mentor in John Russell, who was a Notre Dame graduate and a good mentor to have. He took me under his wing and I worked there for two years and still ask him for advice.”
“Most recently I am in Houston, Texas. I came to Houston with Citigroup in their commodity trading group. Currently, I am a managing director at Sequent Energy. Sequent Energy is one of the top natural gas marketers in the United States and I manage our financial trading exposure in the Western and Midwestern United States and I work with a great and talented team of individuals, led by our president Peter Tumminello. I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to do what I do without the lessons I learned as a Notre Dame football player. It set me apart in interviewing. It helped me get my foot in the door and once I got my foot in the door I didn’t let anyone slam it on me.”
Q: What was your biggest challenge as a Notre Dame student-athlete? How did Notre Dame prepare you for life after college?
A: “For me, I think my biggest challenge was overcoming the stereotype of being undersized. People have it in their mind that you have to be a certain size to play football, and for me in particular,running back. Overcoming the perception that my size was a disadvantage only made me better. On one hand I was smaller, but on the other hand I was harder to tackle. I was also quicker which made me more difficult to catch. I worked hard to be on equal footing with the other running backs that were bigger than me.”
Q: What advice would you give current student athletes?
A: “I would tell them don’t underestimate yourself, your goals, and what you’re capable of achieving. There are going to be a lot of times when you are discouraged, when you think the coach doesn’t like you, when you’re being picked on. Stay the course, work hard, and good things will happen. It may not happen in the time frame you think it will happen, but if you stay focused and believe in yourself you will get there in due time. Also, don’t let other people’s expectations of you define who you are. Always have higher expectations for yourself than anyone else.”
I’d love to give a big thank you to Tim for stopping by the blog! You can read more about Tim in Volume II of Echoes From the End Zone: The Men We Became due out in 2016. Stay tuned for more stories in the “Where Are They Now?” series!
Cheers & GO IRISH!