SAN DIEGO — Matt Rambo knew he would cry at some point Saturday. He did not expect it to be because of Brennan O’Neill.
When told that O’Neill, the 21-year-old MVP of the World Lacrosse Men’s Championship, credited Rambo and Rob Pannell for making him feel accepted on a team of professionals, Rambo struggled to summon a response.
“Oh man,” he said as tears welled up in his eyes. “He pushes me to be better. I just love the kid. He’s like the nicest, most genuine person. He’s in college and he’s balling out on the biggest stage in the world. If I could help him break his shell, I’m honored.”
“He leaves me speechless. I didn’t see that coming.”
— John Danowski
Cynics have tried to knock O’Neill off his pedestal ever since he was declared the next big thing in the sport as an eighth-grade wunderkind in Bay Port, New York. He was 14 when he committed to Penn State, a choice he later changed to Duke.
The same people who built up O’Neill wanted to tear him down, calling him overrated and criticizing his performance in the Blue Devils’ loss to Notre Dame in the NCAA championship game. They cried foul when he won the Tewaaraton Award, conveniently ignoring the fact that he led the nation in scoring (55 goals, 42 assists) while playing in the hardest conference in the country.
And they questioned the merit of a college player competing in the world championship.
“We took some criticism when we took Brennan O’Neill because he was a junior in college,” said U.S. head coach John Danowski, who also coaches O’Neill at Duke. “It wasn’t so much the coaches’ decision. We saw the respect he earned from the other guys who were trying out at the same time. They were wary when he had the ball.”
So was Canada. It didn’t matter, however, if it was long-stick midfielder Ryland Rees or short-stick defensive midfielder Latrell Harris. Neither could stop O’Neill, who scored five goals to lead the U.S. to a 10-7 victory in the gold medal game Saturday at Snapdragon Stadium.
“He leaves me speechless,” Danowski said. “I didn’t see that coming.”
On this team, O’Neill didn’t have to be the chosen one. He could be himself — quiet, reserved, sneaky funny, a tad awkward and supportive of his teammates. In return, the veterans of the team took every opportunity to inflate his confidence.
For two weeks, O’Neill shared an apartment with Matt Dunn, Zach Goodrich and Jake Richard at the University of San Diego’s Manchester Village. They called it O’Nei’s Café and invited customers for coffee and smoothies. “ESPY nominated!” the sign on the door read.
Rambo asked O’Neill one day at practice if he had been fined by the U.S. team’s kangaroo court — a mock justice system (presided over by judge Blaze Riorden) where athletes levy penalties for faux pas like sitting with the coaches at lunch.
“Yeah,” O’Neill deadpanned. “For being your daddy.”
The team erupted in laughter.
“A lot of it was Coach Danowski and us just hanging out in the dorms. It wasn’t about anything on the field. It was just all loving each other and connecting with each other,” Rambo said. “It’s bigger than talent. It’s bigger than our team. It’s about the culture.”
Moments like those — and encouragement from the likes of Rambo, Pannell and Tom Schreiber, who suggested O’Neill should lead the team in shots — put O’Neill at ease with his role on the team. He belonged.
“It’s nice to have guys you’ve looked up to for the last five to 10 years — guys you’ve watched since you were little — tell you how much they appreciate you and how good they think you are,” O’Neill said. “That’s what they did for me. It meant a lot coming from them. They assured me that I could play.”
“That might have been the key to his success,” Danowski said. “That he was able to feel comfortable, be himself and the guys accepted him for who he is.”