Former adversaries on same side at Holy Cross
By JOSH THOMSON
THE JOURNAL NEWS
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(Original publication: November 19, 2005)
NEW YORK — On a recent crisp fall day in the Bronx, Tyler Nugent stood outside Fordham's Vince Lombardi Athletic Center waiting for the bus back to Worcester, Mass. A bag draped over his shoulder rested snugly against his hip as if it, too, hoped to lie down sometime soon.
Nugent, a senior cornerback at Holy Cross, had just finished playing nearly every defensive and special-teams snap during the Crusaders' game against Fordham. Though his broken wrist was finally free from its game-day cast, remnants of eye black still dotted his cheekbones.
Even following a crushing loss to a winless team, and in this somewhat weary state, Nugent found the time and the mood to discuss his relationship with teammate John O'Neil.
"It's been a strange journey, John and I," he said.
Four years ago this fall, the two White Plains residents were on opposite sides of Westchester's most heated Catholic schools football rivalry. They have since rekindled their grade-school friendship and, as four-year teammates at Holy Cross, grown closer than ever.
"We've been together almost 12 years," O'Neil said. "We know each other's knicks and knacks."
They first met more than a decade ago when the O'Neils moved to White Plains from Boston's South Shore and became parishioners at Our Lady of Sorrows, a Catholic church in White Plains the Nugents also attended.
O'Neil and Nugent ended up on the same basketball team and quickly became friends. The Nugents had never let any of their four sons play football before high school, but Tyler participated in — and excelled at — everything else.
A couple years later, despite the urging of Stepinac's varsity football coach, O'Neil, a quarterback, enrolled at Iona Prep for high school. Nugent chose Stepinac, where his mother, Kim, worked.
Aside from their traditional, longstanding Thanksgiving rivalries with White Plains and New Rochelle, respectively, the Crusaders and Gaels save their biggest clashes for one another. The environment makes it difficult for a player to remain close with a member of the opposing team.
"When kids go to Stepinac or Iona from a grade school, most of the time they stay friends," Stepinac varsity coach Mike O'Donnell said. "But it's like Army and Navy. Kids make new friends, and it would be very hard for fierce competitors to remain as friendly as they were."
As their respective high school football careers developed, O'Neil and Nugent were further separated. O'Neil, a smart, 6-foot-5, 220-pounder, threw for 2,465 yards as a two-year starter. Nugent, a fast, tough, 5-8, 168-pound back, was, according to O'Donnell, "one of the only players I have ever had who could take a game over. He would will us to win."
When both were seniors in 2001, the Stepinac-Iona Prep rivalry took on added importance. Crusaders assistant coach Joe Riverso was killed in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 and the game, slated for the following weekend, was postponed in the wake of the tragedy.
When it was rescheduled for later in the season, the Riverso family donated lights to allow the teams to play a night game. About 3,000 fans were on hand as the visiting Gaels took a 20-17 lead.
With 2:40 remaining and Iona Prep seeking a few more first downs to preserve the win, O'Neil dropped back to throw. He zeroed in on a receiver running a slant, but Nugent, reading his eyes, jumped the route. He took advantage of a slip and intercepted the pass. His 43-yard touchdown delivered a 23-20 win, Stepinac's first over the Gaels in a decade.
"I remember it like it was yesterday," Nugent said after flashing a broad, closed-mouth grin. "I still rib him about it once in a while."
O'Neil? "I still have nightmares," he said.
By the time college started, emotions from their rivalry were still simmering. For four years, O'Neil and Nugent had been casual acquaintances, nothing more.
"They always had a rivalry," Jack O'Neil, John's father, said at halftime of the Fordham game. "I don't even think they talked to each other until college."
By sophomore year, however, O'Neil had won the starting job and Nugent rotated in frequently. With the increased playing time, the difficulty of rooting for one another subsided and their friendship resurfaced.
One incident that strengthened the bond was the death of their former coach, Dan Allen.
During their freshman year, Allen was sick and doctors struggled to pinpoint exactly why. It turned out to be the mysterious but debilitating Multiple Chemical Sensitivity Syndrome, which essentially caused Allen's body and mind to deteriorate.
By the following year, Allen coached from a wheelchair and Holy Cross bottomed out, finishing 1-11. After the season, Allen was fired. He died the following year at the age of 48.
"It was a really tough situation," Nugent said.
The program has recovered and appears to be on the rise. The Crusaders arrived at Fordham 5-3 and — although they lost 24-20 and then fell to Lafayette last week — have an opportunity today (against 1-9 Bucknell) to finish the season with a winning record for the first time since 2000 and only the second time since 1992.
Throughout this run, Nugent and O'Neil have developed great mutual respect; O'Neil for Nugent's work ethic and penchant for playing with broken bones, and Nugent for his quarterback's smarts.
"He works as hard as anyone, probably more so," O'Neil said. "What he lacks in size, he makes up for it in effort and heart."
"Obviously, he has a great arm, but that's not even what makes him a good quarterback," Nugent said. "It's his mind. He's a very smart player and he's a very good leader for our offense."
That combination of size, skill and a strong mental capacity has attracted scouts from more than a dozen NFL teams. Just last month, both the Giants and New England Patriots visited practice to monitor film and O'Neil's workouts.
O'Neil, an economics major, would like to pursue a pro career, even if it's on the practice squad.
"You'd always regret it if you didn't," he said. "It's tough to give this game up."
Even after today, they both have a few more games to play. Ironically, Nugent and O'Neil have come full circle and are basketball teammates again, this time on an intramural team.
Life, it seems, is just like it was when they were 12.