After Cody O’Neill quit college football and began a career as a college coach, he couldn’t see that day coming.
But life threw O’Neill one of the nastiest curveballs of all time in 2020, one that completely reshaped his career path. And on Monday, O’Neill, 20 months away from a heart transplant, took up his new job as Marian Central’s athletic director.
O’Neill and his wife Kelsey had already planned to move to Woodstock this summer and buy Kelsey’s childhood home. As fate would have it, former Hurricanes AD Curtis Price left the AD job at Chicago St. Rita, his alma mater.
While O’Neill was back in the Chicago area for a doctor’s appointment in early June, he also stopped at Marian’s to interview Superintendent Mike Shukis. He was officially discontinued two weeks ago.
“I never thought I would ever be here again,” O’Neill said. “I thought I would be in collegiate athletics my whole life with the path I was on, but obviously fall 2020 has changed a lot for me. So after everything that happened and [I] I’ve had conversations with my wife, coaching wasn’t entirely out of the picture, but it was time to take some of the things that were taking so much time away from my wife and kids.”
O’Neill is a 2009 Marian graduate; Kelsey is also a Marian alumnus. Her uncle, Brad Harding, notified O’Neill that the AD job was vacating.
O’Neill first met Shukis when he was in elementary school at Harvard’s St. Joseph Catholic School. Shukis was a counselor at St. Joseph.
“He was my advisor there and eventually became a director and continued to rise in his career,” O’Neill said. “That was a big draw for me, to have that connection and to know what a great person he is and to know that Marian is in good hands with him.”
Shukis remembered O’Neill well from her time at St. Joseph’s.
“As an administrator, do your best to believe in all of your students,” Shukis said. “Some are easier to believe than others. Cody was one of the easy ones. In a way, I think it was harder for Cody because of our previous relationship. I really took my time with his interview to see what kind of person he has become.
“He had very good previous experience. His work with big budgets, fundraising, scheduling and with coaches. He has also demonstrated very strong leadership skills in his previous experiences. All of this and more put him at the top of our list.”
O’Neill played on Marian’s Class 5A runners-up football team in 2006 in an offensive line that also included future NFL player Bryan Bulaga and future Notre Dame defenseman Sean Cwynar.
O’Neill had a strong career with FCS South Dakota, graduating in 2014 and serving a tryout camp with the Minnesota Vikings. He served as a student assistant coach for the spring 2014 season, joined Montana State-Northern from 2014 through spring 2017, and then took over as offensive line coach at the South Dakota School of Mines in Rapid City.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in spring 2020, O’Neill became ill, but not from the virus. After months of being unwell, O’Neill’s heart was diagnosed to be functioning at about 20% of what it should have been.
In October of that year, O’Neill was on a transplant list and in November was transferred to Northwestern Medical Center in Chicago to await a match.
On November 18, O’Neill underwent a 6-hour surgery for the transplant. He wasn’t ruling out a return to coaching at this point, but felt he needed to slow down for a while.
O’Neill served as an operations coordinator at the South Dakota School of Mines for the senior year, which he believed was essentially an assistant athletic director’s position.
“I absolutely loved it, I enjoyed it every day,” he said. “A couple of the big things I’ve done have been working with the budget, managing money and making sure all sports and day-to-day operations get done. That was one of the big things that Mike Shukis came across in my interview and that’s what I’ve been doing since spring 2021, working with the administrative assistant in the office on budget stuff and day-to-day operations, events and travel, hotel accommodations, and taking care of it.”
It helped prepare O’Neill for his return home and his next job.
“As I said, Cody’s knowledge, skills, experience and leadership were outstanding,” Shukis said. “But it was his character that really set him apart from all the other candidates. We believe he is just an outstanding human being who is a perfect match for Marian Central.”
Cody and Kelsey O’Neill have a daughter Emersyn (4) and a son Lincoln (1 1/2). Kelsey was seven months pregnant with Lincoln when Cody had the transplant.
Kelsey’s parents, Andy and Jocelyn Harding, wanted to downsize their home, so they sold to Cody and Kelsey and moved to a smaller home in Woodstock.
The Hurricanes’ new football manager, Liam Kirwan, who was four years behind O’Neill at Marian, sent some players over to help the O’Neills move in. Players got a little history lesson while helping out their new AD.
“They were talking about George Harding (Marian’s Football Field) and Kelsey said, ‘Are you laughing or making fun of George Harding?’ said O’Neill. “And they said, ‘No, this is what we call the field.’ She said, ‘This is my great-grandfather.’ You looked at her, that brought everything back home.”