Gorman: A first for the last of a Quaker Valley family
Matthew O'Neill wanted to be first, so he sprung from his folding chair in the Quaker Valley locker room and started his speech.
“We've got this opportunity, and it's rare. I've never had one like it, and I never will again,” O'Neill said, pausing for effect, “unless we win.
“Boys, we get this once in our life — one time. Let's take it. They're not better than us. We play like we play, and they ain't going to beat us.”
If it sounds like a speech he'd waited his whole life to give, well, that's because it is.
Matthew is the 11th member of his family to play football at Quaker Valley, the last of three generations of O'Neills to wear the black and gold.
After following in the footsteps of his grandfather, Jack, great uncles, his father, uncles and cousins, Matthew became a trailblazer Friday night.
A senior captain for the Quakers, he is the first in the family to play in the playoffs at Chuck Knox Stadium. The WPIAL Class AA first-round game against New Brighton was the first home playoff game in school history and just Quaker Valley's fifth postseason game.
“It's been a family tradition to play for Quaker Valley, and I'm glad to be a part of it,” Matthew said. “To play in front of a home crowd for a first-ever home playoff game — no one in my family has experienced this — is really special.”
What has been a dream season for Matthew and Quaker Valley followed a summer of sadness.
Zach O'Neill, a 2010 Quaker Valley graduate who was a Leetsdale and Leet Township police officer, died June 23 of a pulmonary embolism. Zach's sudden death stunned Matthew, who honors his cousin by wearing his No. 58 jersey.
“Zach was always at every single one of my games, even away games,” Matthew said. “It was a little weird, walking out there and not seeing him.
“He was a great football player and, more importantly, a great person. It was always special to me to wear his jersey, but this year it's extra special.”
Matthew found solace by focusing on football, his second family. He and senior right guard Garrett Zeigler led offseason weight room sessions to prepare for their final season.
In another cruel twist, Zeigler tore his ACL on the first day of practice in pads. First, Matthew lost his cousin. Now, his best friend was out.
So walking onto the field for the coin flip took on new meaning for Matthew.
For his whole family, really.
They sat in the top two rows: Jack, a '63 Quaker Valley grad; Kim O'Neill wearing her son's No. 58 jersey; and Lt. Col. Bryan O'Neill, who is in the Air Force 171st National Guard, smiling ear to ear.
“As a dad, I'm as proud as can be,” he said. “I've been all over the world in the Air Force, but to see him lead his team out onto the field of battle is the most wonderful thing I've ever experienced.”
A 5-foot-9, 235-pound center and nose guard who is described as a throwback by Quaker Valley coach John Tortorea, Matthew takes pride in doing thankless tasks. Built like a fire hydrant, he takes on double and triple teams at nose guard so linebackers can make tackles.
“We don't have a lot of tradition as far as we're concerned with football, and the O'Neill family and Matt himself brings us a lot of tradition,” Tortorea said. “Matt was a big contributor of success this year as a captain. He's one of our leaders, one of our toughest kids. We love to have him.”
And Matthew has loved every minute of his senior season. Quaker Valley won its first seven games, its best start since Bryan O'Neill was a junior center/middle linebacker on the '83 team that went 10-2.
“I couldn't have asked for more,” said Matthew, a three-year starter who endured a 1-8 season as a freshman. “If you would've told me we were going to make the playoffs and have a home game, I wouldn't have believed you. It's pretty special to be on the team that turned it around.”
Pretty special for Matthew to be one of 10 seniors who played Quaker Valley's first home playoff game like it was their last, for a 29-15 victory — the program's first since 1999. Even more special for the youngest of the O'Neills to have such a rare first.
One that will last forever.