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O’Neill voted Man of the Year

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BY BILL SORRELL
Saturday morning, after Collierville edged Arlington 28-27 to clinch a third-place playoff seed Friday, Collierville Head Coach Mike O’Neill was washing the Dragons uniforms.
“It was my turn,” he said.
With two industrial washing machines among the amenities at Collierville’s new high school, O’Neill flipped a switch, making it an easier process.
“That goes with the territory. When you sign up for head coach you wear a lot of hats. We like to wash those pretty quick after the game. It’s a Saturday morning ritual,” he said.
“Everything is in its proper place building up to Friday night, the big game. Win, lose or draw the next week, you’ve got to prepare. You have to have a short memory. You can’t revel in the victory too much or be too upset about the loss. Next week you are going to have to get the ball rolling again. Doing laundry is part of it.”
The Dragons (5-5) will play at Whitehaven (7-3) at 7 p.m. Friday in the first round.
Named the 2017 Region 7-6A Coach of the Year, O’Neill was voted by readers of the Collierville Independent as 2018 Collierville Man of the Year.
“I’m speechless. I’m honored and humbled by it. It’s a very nice gesture,” said O’Neill, adding, as he thought of his laundry duties, “I’m the blue-collar Man of the Year.”
O’Neill spent Monday at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston having a three-month checkup. He was treated there for Stage 4 throat cancer last October through March this year.
“This time last year I was about to leave on a Sunday going to Houston with a lot of anticipation. I was so ready to get to Houston and get this thing going. I knew once I got there, they would test me every single way to find out how bad the cancer was. The anxiety was almost overwhelming. Coming off the season, getting before the players (telling them about his cancer and that he would not coach them the rest of the season) was tough to do but I knew I had another mission.”
O’Neill, who was a catcher for the University of Memphis baseball team, remained positive.
“I’ve always had a positive attitude toward different things in life. Cancer forced my hand to up my game in that department. I had a choice, getting better or hanging around feeling sorry for myself. I could take on this and give it my best shot. It opened my eyes how severe this disease is and how many are battling it and how well our medical community is attacking it.”
The message O’Neill immediately heard at MD Anderson was, “You have cancer. We are getting rid of it. Let’s go to work.
It opened my eyes to reach out to people struggling with cancer and communicating to others in time of need. I have found that out first hand, people reaching out to me in random gestures, in unselfish acts of kindness, so positive, prayers of different denominations and faith.”
A member of Catholic Church of the Incarnation in Collierville, O’Neill said, “I give everything up to my faith, everything that Jesus Christ is. That played a major role. I have always believed in the power of prayer. That has gone to the next level.
O’Neill is scheduled to receive another award on Nov. 9, the Courage Thru Cancer award.
It will be at Minglewood Hall in Midtown at 7 p.m. It is a cancer fund raiser. The organization strives to make certain no one who is diagnosed with cancer faces it alone.
Collierville Head Football Coach Paul O'neill during warmups
O’Neill has made a video and it will be played during the event should the Dragons still be in the playoffs.
“It’s going to be very positive,” he said. You may google Courage Thru Cancer to find the video.
“I really appreciate life in general, stepping back, really trying to be in the moment more than taking every day for granted, being true to what you believe in. Honesty, that is a big part. Being faithful to that in any relationship, in marriage, parents, players, students. Having integrity, that to me is so important. Without it, what’s the point?”
Moving to Collierville for the first time in 1996, O’Neill calls the community incredible.
“I love Collierville 100 percent. I saw first hand the power of this community,” said O’Neill. “It’s really overwhelming. People reached out, graciously offered help, offered encouragment.”
He said that he appreciated community support from school leaders including John Aitken, superintendent of Collierville Schools, Chip Blanchard, principal of Collierville High School, colleagues, athletic director Jeff Curtis, politicians.
On his first day back in class after treatment, the CHS band, directed by James Barnes, played in his honor. O’Neill teaches entrepreneurship, marketing and business management.
“It’s an incredible community. They really take care of their employees. They care about students. It’s such a positive place,” said O’Neill.
Past and present players reached out to O’Neill and continue to encourage him.
Dragons senior wide reciever Jordan Henderson said, “I have learned so many life lessons from Coach. Every challenge we face on the field, he relates to everyday life. I have learned real fight from him after his battle with cancer. It also taught me how precious life is and how we should make the most of every day. I admire his attitude, the way he attacks every issue. No matter what it is, he’s going to get after it 110 percent.”
Mitch Austin, Collierville quarterback, a junior, said, “He had camcer and was back in four months, that really tells you something about someone. He has influenced me by making right decisions in football and in life.”
On the field, O’Neill has taught Austin about defenses and how the system works. He is glad that O’Neill is his coach because he has seen an example of not giving up.
Austin said there is no one who deserves Man of the Year more than O’Neill.
When O’Neill’s wife Beth O’Neill learned of his Man of the Year honor she had a “big smile.”
“She could qualifiy for Woman of the Year. She’s a saint. During my recovery at MD Anderson, she led the charge. She is the story behind the story. She rallied the troops and kept me on track. She’s a big reason I’m getting honored this way. I am married to a great person in every way. She was the best advocate any cancer patient could have,” he said.
He and Beth will celebrate their 27th wedding anniversary on Nov. 2. They have three children. Their daughter Brooke Clement, a librarian at Presbyterian Day School, and her husband Bowers live in Memphis. They have a 4-year old daughter, Mary Reagan.
Their son Michael O’Neill and his wife Christi live in Nashville. A 2012 graduate of Collierville, he played football for his father. He is in sales and marketing.
Their 23-year old daughter Mary Elizabeth O’Neill lives in Nashville and is an aspiring recording artist. She has three songs on Spotify as Mary O’Neill. She began working with a voice instructor while the family was in Houston.
All three of their children graduated from the University of Tennessee.
O’Neill’s father Ron O’Neill attends all his games. His mother Nancy O’Neill has corticobrain basal degeneration, a progressive neurological disorder. There is no known cure. It is in the Parkinson’s family, not far from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). She was diagnosed a couple of years ago.
“I am extremely close to my parents. I had a tremendous childhood,” said Mike O’Neill. “I am definitely a family man. Family is very important to me. It’s family first in the O’Neill household.”
Growing up his parents had rules and guidelines but they were not super strict he said.
“From my career to my college choices, playing college sports, my mother and father have given me good, sound advice. Look at the different options. What if Plan A doesn’t work out, what happens with Plan B? That helped me with balance of being not too really involved in one facet of my life. Be a good student, think about other aspects besides sports.”
A 1984 graduate of Germantown High School, O’Neill played strong safety on Germantown’s 1983 state championship team coached by Ken Netherland. As a freshman he was on a state championship baseball team.
“That was a good era for Germantown,” he said.
He has been impacted by his coaches, whom he calls mentors, including Charlie White, his football position coach at Germantown; Netherland; George Syskes, his head baseball coach at Germantown; the late Don Jacobson, head middle school coach who was one of the reasons he got into coaching; Jerry Ellis, ninth grade coach who inspired him to become a coach; Joe Platt, summer baseball coach for the East Memphis Tigers.
He played baseball his freshman year at Columbia State, his sophomore year at Northwest Community College. Arm injuries ended his college career. He graduated from the University of Memphis in 1990.
With an undergraduate degree in business management, O’Neill later decided to go into education. He was working with United Equipment Company selling heavy equipment and was at a 1998 Ducks Unlimited event. He entered in a drawing for a Suzuki Grand Vitara which he won.
Selling it, he had enough money to concentrate on school and student teaching.
“It was God’s way to help me make the transition. I firmly believe that,” said O’Neill, who had been working at FedEx while attending class. He earned a Master’s of Art Degree in Education at the University of Memphis in 2001.
He began student teaching at Christian Brothers High School in 2001 and was hired as a business teacher there in 2002 and began coaching football.
Previously he coached an 8th grade football team while he was a salesman for James Hardie Building Products in Baltimore after college.
As a coach, O’Neill has tried to look at the big picture.
“There are a lot of different moving parts to coaching, being part of a family. People have busy lives. You have to coordinate, be flexible. Seeing the big picture is important. Moving in a positive direction that is going to create growth and overcome adversity. How do you deal with it (adversity)? You can complain about it, mope or have a positive attitude and move forward to do something about it,” he said.
As he deals with his players he encourages their working together.
“Working with others you have a better chance of overcoming those obstacles. Achieving your goals is very important because all these young men are facing difficult things off the field, parents’ divorce, family, grades. It is listening to different things, to their issues, to work through some things and trying to get the message across of how bad it seems, there is light at the end of the tunnel,” said O’Neill.
The goal of the Collierville football program is to create young men who are going to be responsible, handle discipline, answer the bell when it is time to work, roll up their sleeves, have accountability and be a brotherhood he said.
“The wins will come. That is the way we try to strive for a lot of family in this program. There are times families go in different directions but with our young men have quite a bit of diversity and I think it works for us. Our kids get along with one another. I’m very honored to be a part of this program and want to continue to see it grow,” he said.
This season has been challenging because the Dragons had to replace eight starters on defense and eight on offense.
“We were definitely young. We had a bunch of first-year senior starters. We had a lot of questions to answer. It is still a work in progress. We ended on a positive note after a tough loss versus Houston. We are 0-0 going into the second season. Anything can happen,” said O’Neill, whose goal is to defeat a “very good” Whitehaven team.
“We have played one of the toughest schedules (in Shelby-Metro) and have seen physical, athletic teams. We hope that will pay off for us.”

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