Asked why he had chosen to speak already, he said, “Why not? You know what I mean? I think football’s a very interesting game, has ups and downs, highs and lows, and I think that that’s the beauty of it, and I’m good to speak if people are willing to listen.”
Asked if an upbringing in arguably the toughest per-capita sports culture, Australia, had helped him cope, he said, “Good question. I guess, as I said, pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and go again. That’s the beauty of sport. We get another chance against Minnesota to come out and prove that we’re improving and also that we’ve learned from the stuff that we did against Michigan State, which I think overall, we had a really great game.”
Asked about a “healing process,” he said, “I don’t know if there’s really a healing process, you know what I mean. You make errors in a football game. You learn from them, and you sort of move on. So, great to have them here to sort of look over and say, ‘Could you have done better there . . .’”
The healing process belongs largely to Michigan’s populous coast-to-coast fans, who rightly had assumed victory when Michigan lined up to punt with 10 seconds left, a 23-21 lead over a No. 7-ranked rival, Michigan State. Many people, including Michigan State basketball Coach Tom Izzo, reported having missed the play that ensued because they had begun to depart Michigan Stadium. Long-snapper Scott Sypniewski directed the ball back to O’Neill, who muffed it.
When he collected it, he said, he went by an Australian football instinct to pick it up and give it a kick, but he whiffed because the heat had come from multiple, rushing Spartans. The football squirted over to a Michigan State reserve safety, Jalen Watts-Jackson, who caught it and ran 38 yards for a game-winning touchdown that figures to be remembered around here for only at least the duration of the 21st century.
With a full load of stubble and the large, occasional smile that helped him get by in modeling earlier in life, O’Neill had the look and sound of someone beyond college. A transfer from Weber State whose parents and brother have been visiting Ann Arbor since before the game, he did leave a few clues of the abnormality of this experience.
He acknowledged that he and Sypniewski would be “bound at the hip for the rest of our lives,” even as he found the snap to be “in my catch zone,” and said, “Obviously, that’s completely on me, this error, and very much know that I could do better if I had my time over again, but obviously, football being what it is, you don’t get another chance.”
Of Twitter, he said, “I tried to avoid that . . . I figured I’d be better off just to let this one cool down for a bit before I check it.” The abuse he had received on that site had prompted Michigan Athletic Director Jim Hackett to write a supportive letter in response. Izzo, speaking earlier Tuesday in East Lansing, expressed sympathy for O’Neill and said of the berating from certain fans, “I can’t even go there, that’s how bad it is.”
O’Neill said he had not watched the play, except in study with his coaches.
He expressed gratefulness for a barrage of support — from teammates, fellow students, Hackett, outside voices all the way to Australia, and the former Michigan and NFL kicker Jay Feely. After his team had its first practice since the game, his teammates told of seeing the play over and over.
“It’s hard to describe,” said top running back De’Veon Smith. “It’s just like I laughed in disbelief, that it happened to you. You normally see that happen to other (people).”
“He’s always in the training room, getting extra stretching in, just making sure he’s ready to play,” offensive lineman Graham Glasgow said of O’Neill. “I think it is really unfortunate that this had to happen to him.”
He paused. “He’s got a great accent, too.”
Some of that Australian background factored into the play, as O’Neill reviewed it willingly. As another in the recent trickle of Australian punters coming to college football, he said he had dropped a punt previously at Weber State, but had picked it up and nailed it 67 yards. This time: “My instinct kicked in,” he said, “and I tried to sort of kick it over my head and it didn’t work out but that’s life, that’s football, you learn from it, see how you do better, pick yourself up, dust yourself off.”
He said of the play, “Yeah, trying to get it off as quickly as you can. Really just trying to catch it, throw it on the boot, get it over and finish it up.”
When the rush came, he said, “It’s not really panic. It’s funny. Because obviously, playing Australian football, you feel pressure quite well. And your peripherals are quite good. The helmet takes a little of that away. Knew I had pressure but thought I had time. Turned out not to be the case, and as fate would have it, that was the result.”
Once Watts-Jackson got going, he said, he knew he couldn’t catch him because “I don’t think I’m that quick.”
Finally, somebody asked if he regretted his newfound visibility.
“No, no,” he said. “No, no. I’m happy to play for Michigan football, and you choose to play at the college level, you take the good and the bad.”