Long before he became Delaware’s governor, John Carney used to play a game called “Interception” with his two sons and their younger cousin, Brian O’Neill.
O’Neill, a big husky kid and natural athlete, held his own and at times dominated the games. As he grew older, O’Neill’s sports exploits continued to amaze his uncle, who had been a three-sport high school star and played football at Dartmouth College.
O’Neill grew to 6 foot, 7 inches by his senior year at Salesianum School in Wilmington, where he was first-team All-State at wide receiver in football and center in basketball, leading the teams to state championships.
At the University of Pittsburgh, coaches converted O’Neill to a tight end and then an offensive tackle as he put on 50 pounds. His next stop was the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings, which took him in the second round of the 2018 draft. O’Neill joined the starting lineup midway through that season and since has been a stalwart in the lineup.
And this week, with the NFL season starting, the Vikings rewarded O’Neill with a whopping 5-year, $92 million contract. The deal is by far the most lucrative ever signed by a professional athlete born and raised in Delaware.
“The whole contract thing is just a little bit surreal,’’ Carney told WHYY News Friday. “I still look at him as a little kid who came around our house and playing football. It’s not that many years removed from that. … He’s got to be one of the greatest athletes ever to come out of the state of Delaware.”
While Carney has been a member of Congress and is in his second term as governor, he acknowledged being in his nephew’s shadow for quite some time.
“It’s been several years since I’ve been second fiddle to Brian,’’ Carney said with a laugh.
He recalled when he introduced O’Neill as “the most famous Carney” at Legislative Hall before his 2019 State of the State speech.
“He got a lot more attention than I did,’’ Carney said. “Of course, he’s an imposing figure at 6”7’ and whatever he is, 310 pounds. But we’re just so excited for him personally.”
The governor has traveled to several Vikings games, and plans to attend more this year, perhaps against the Ravens in Baltimore in November. On Friday he sounded like a football analyst while discussing his nephew’s winning blocking technique at right tackle.
“There’s nobody that can beat Brian from the outside. Just, he’s so quick with his feet and he’s got great reaction and great hands.”
Athletic pedigree and supreme work ethic
Beyond his uncle’s athletic talent, O’Neill, who turns 26 next week, has athletic pedigree galore in his genes. His mother Liz — the governor’s sister — was a star athlete at St. Mark’s High School and a college swimmer. His father, Brendan, who just retired as Delaware’s chief public defender, played football at Dartmouth with the future governor. His brother was formerly the state’s scholastic soccer player of the year.
Brendan O’Neill told WHYY News on Friday that he and his wife were traveling to Cincinnati for Sunday’s Vikings season opener against the Bengals. You can bet they will be sporting their son’s Vikings’ jersey with the big number 75.
O’Neill said he has been impressed by his son’s continued growth and success on the gridiron, but said he stands out for his work ethic and humility.
“Brian’s been taking a lot of us on a really fun ride for a number of years now, and this is just the most recent stop along that way,’’ the elder O’Neill said of the contract. “It’s an enormous cherry on top of what he’s already provided us.”
He said Brian has “been given a lot of gifts, but he’s really, really worked really hard to maximize his chances for success.”
Even with the new deal, which includes a $20 million signing bonus, his father says Brian, who has a bachelor’s degree in finance, won’t start spending extravagantly. Perhaps he’ll get a bigger apartment in Minneapolis. He’s single and lives and trains in California in the off-season, though he has a girlfriend from Wilmington, where he periodically visits his parents and friends.
Chuck Durante, president of the Delaware Sports Museum and Hall of Fame, said O’Neill will surely be inducted someday, and that he joins a long list of world-class athletes in major professional sports from tiny Delaware.
Indeed, two of O’Neill’s high school teammates are currently on professional teams in different sports. Troy Reeder is a linebacker on the NFL’s Los Angeles Rams. Donte DiVincenzo won a pair of NCAA championships at Villanova University and was named MVP of the Final Four in 2018. He’s now a guard on the NBA champion Milwaukee Bucks, though he was injured and missed much of the playoff run this season.
Another budding pro star is Chris Godwin, who went to Middletown High and is now starting wide receiver for the Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Godwin played a prominent role in Tampa Bay’s season-opening, last-second victory over the Dallas Cowboys on Thursday night.
Elena Delle Donne of Ursuline Academy is a two-time WNBA most valuable player who currently plays for the Washington Mystics.
Durante, a lawyer and longtime sportswriter, credited O’Neill’s whopping new contract to the fact “he really is promising, he’s really performed and in part because a river of money is gushing through pro sports now in a way that was unanticipated just 10 years ago.”
He called O’Neill an “extraordinarily well-rounded athlete” but it remains to be seen if he will have a long career that perhaps could lead him to the NFL Hall of Fame, like homegrown Delawarean Randy White. White went to McKean High and was a star defensive tackle with the Dallas Cowboys in the 1970s and 1980s.
“You never project in the future. In football, you are one hamstring pull from driving a truck,’’ Durante said. “It’s early in the career. He’s played three seasons of professional sports. And we wish him well.
“It’s clear that there are some measurements that have established him as being in the upper tier of right tackles. It’s premature to predict how he will be in the future. However, his physical makeup, his sense of discipline, and again, his range and broad array of athletic skills augur well for the long term.”
Carney reflected Friday on the fact that as a teenager O’Neill showed promise as a lacrosse player, and that one coach had advised him to focus on that sport and scrap football.
Carney said he spoke with that coach this week after the new contract was inked and the guy remarked that “he’s glad Brian didn’t listen to his advice.”