Passion and pure drive are undoubtedly the reasons for CU’s starting punter Darragh O’Neill’s success as a Division I athlete in a sport he never played in high school. The fact that O’Neill propelled himself to a starting role at a program with a storied history in football in a matter of months speaks volumes about not only his athletic ability, but also his will to compete.
I was a sophomore at Fairview High School when O’Neill was entering his senior year, in which he became captain of both the soccer and basketball teams. I was playing basketball at a yearly summer basketball camp when I was faced with the daunting task of playing O’Neill in front of the rest of the campers.
Needless to say, I was dismantled by the older, stronger and faster O’Neill in a quick manner — an unimpressive feat for a basketball star. What truly impressed me is that in all my years of playing basketball after that day, I have never come across a competitor whose fiery demeanor and determination intimidated me more than his. I have encountered more athletic players and even Division I prospects in my summers playing club basketball, but none have made me quake in my shoes as much as O’Neill did.
His fire helps him in a sport where his position is often overlooked and sometimes even looked down upon. A perfect example of such fearlessness came in CU’s second game against California, when O’Neill believed he was illegally hit while still vulnerable after getting rid of the ball. O’Neill responded by jawing with a pair of Golden Bears, both of whom likely outweighed O’Neill by 100 pounds.
A Division I soccer prospect, O’Neill declined scholarships to smaller schools to attend CU on his own dime. While watching the Buffs struggle last season, O’Neill began to believe he could be an asset to the team.
“I was just watching some games last year, and I just loved the atmosphere, and I thought I could help out the team,” O’Neill says. “Over the winter I was just messing around punting with my dad, and I decided it was something I could do, so I started working on it.”
His rise to a starting role is an uncommon one. Often soccer players become kickers rather than punters because the kick comes more naturally. The transition was not as easy as he originally thought.
“Definitely, I thought it would be like kicking a soccer ball,” O’Neill says. “But it was absolutely nothing like it. Obviously the shape of the ball is completely different, so it’s a completely different leg swing. It was definitely hard to pick up at first.”
O’Neill has been able to translate his determination into one of the few consistent bright spots for the Buffaloes. He has stepped up in a big fashion for a program that has recently had problems with the punting game. He has averaged 45.9 yards per punt in the first three games of the season, and he also kicked six of his punts inside the opponent’s 20-yard line.
What makes his performance all the more impressive is the fact that O’Neill is excelling in high-pressure situations in front of a home crowd.
“It’s pretty cool to be a part of it,” says O’Neill. “But, honestly, when I’m out there, I just blank out the crowd and everything, and I’m in the zone, and I do what I need to do and just get the job done.”
O’Neill will have to draw upon both his athletic abilities and his fiery attitude with tough opponents approaching. He seems to possess the intangibles needed to succeed and improve a CU squad looking to return to its past glory.