Dan-to-Dan coverage: O'Neil x O'Neil

It's not quite like that movie with two Jean-Claude Van Dammes (Twice the Van Dammage!!!), but it's close. It was fun meeting the other, better looking, more accomplished Danny O'Neil.

“Dear Danny, This is going to sound very odd, but …”

That’s how my text message to Danny O’Neil began before explaining that I, too, was named Danny O’Neil and had also lived in Oregon. But while he played sports, I wrote about them and talked about him. I just happened to have attended the school on the other end of Saturday’s rivalry.

Honestly, this is an interview I’ve always wanted to do, and he was way more indulging and good-natured than a jackal such as myself deserves:

I didn’t exactly talk myself into feeling a sliver of happiness over what happened at Autzen Stadium in 1994.

A different Danny O’Neil did that, and at that point in the phone conversation I had to stop the other Danny O’Neil, the former Oregon quarterback, and inform him that this Danny O’Neil, a University of Washington graduate, did not appreciate the fact that I was actually feeling good for someone about what happened at Autzen Stadium on Sept. 24, 1994.

OK, let’s pause for just a second because there were entirely too many Danny O’Neils in the previous paragraph. The similarity in our names has always been this funny little coincidence in my life. I even had a picture of the other Danny O’Neil taped to my bedroom door when I was in high school in Northern California. It was from a story in the Oregon in 1991, his redshirt freshman season when he was one of four guys competing to become the Ducks’ starting quarterback. It was just kind of odd. He played quarterback at the university in the state where I grew up for the school that I’ve grown to loathe more than any other. Honestly, the University of Oregon is one three things that I truly loathe in this world along with the Oklahoma City Thunder and people who drive the speed limit in the left-hand lane.

The feeling is mutual in Oregon. At least it was before the Ducks started beating the Huskies with a regularity reserved for dead horses and snare drums. And as much as the recent results make me cringe, the more athletic Danny O’Neil reminded me that this is how people in Oregon used to feel about the Dawgs. At least they did when he arrived on campus from Mater Dei High School in Orange County.

“I was a Southern California kid growing up,” said the better Danny. “These are not rivalries you grow up. You learn really quickly what’s important to people.”

And beating Washington was really important in part because of regional tensions that dated back to 1948 when the schools were members of the Pacific Coast Conference and the conference’s Rose Bowl representative was going to be decided on a vote between Cal and Oregon. Instead of opting for regional solidarity, Washington not only voted for Cal but convinced Montana to do the same and Norm Van Brocklin didn’t get to play in the Rose Bowl. Boo freaking hoo.

I actually think the reasons for the hostility are much simpler. Washington spent a good chunk of the 1970s and the 1980s beating Oregon as if it stole something. Washington won 17 of the 20 meetings from 1974 to 1993, starting with a four-game stretch in which the Huskies outscored the Ducks 171-24.

That changed beginning in 1994, which is what prompted me to finally track down that Danny O’Neil guy because he was the quarterback for that team and co-MVP of the Rose Bowl. I talked to his mother first. She was a lovely lady living in Southern California. She laughed when she found out that I was a Danny O’Neil, too, and thought her Danny would get a kick out of talking to me. I sent him a text, and he said he’d be happy to talk. “Anything for my name’s sake,” he said.

Every year or so I get an email or a Tweet from someone who thinks I’m that Danny O’Neil. Then there was a time a few years ago when I was working at 710 ESPN Seattle and we had an interview set-up with Joey Harrington, who specifically said he was excited to talk with me. Took me a second to realize why.

“How’d you end up in Seattle?” Harrington asked.

It took every bit of restraint I possessed not to inform him that I’d become a huge Washington fan after getting out of Oregon as soon as I could and that my life had improved immeasurably since leaving that state that doesn’t trust its citizenry to pump its own gas. It wouldn’t have been lie per se. It was just wouldn’t have been the whole truth. My editor at the Sporting News had to be told, multiple times, that I wasn’t that Danny O’Neil. But I never fully committed to the bit in part because by all accounts that Danny O’Neil who quarterbacked the Ducks is a really nice Danny O’Neil.

What I didn’t realize was that entering that 1994 game against Washington, he wasn’t exactly adored by Duck fans. That surprised me because I always thought he had been hailed as a conquering hero. After all, he chose to enroll at Oregon despite being offered a scholarship by both Alabama and USC. He liked the fact he’d be competing for a job as a redshirt freshman. A job he won by the way until an injury knocked him out in 1990. In 1991, the Ducks reached the Freedom Bowl and while he set school records as a junior in 1992, the team finished 5-6.

That offseason, Danny read a story that pointed out that as a starting quarterback, he’d never led Oregon to a victory in a game it trailed at halftime. It was emblematic of the way he was viewed, and when the Ducks started off his senior season 2-2 with losses to Utah and Hawaii, well, they were a loss away from facing some real grumbling over another mediocre campaign. Then, O’Neil suffered a finger injury and in his absence, sophomore Tony Graziani led the Ducks to a victory at USC, Oregon’s first win at the Coliseum in more than 20 years. Graziani started the next game against Washington State, O’Neil entering after Graziani was knocked out by an ankle injury. The Ducks lost to the Cougs, but beat Cal and then came Washington.

“That game is what changed everything,” said the smarter Danny.

That’s when I spoke up, saying firmly that I did not enjoy being made to feel even a little bit happy for someone over the outcome of that game. That was the turning point in the rivalry. That interception by Kenny Wheaton that is burned into the collective football consciousness in Eugene. Of course it was a 98-yard drive engineered by O’Neil that put Oregon ahead to begin with the. He was 4-for-4 passing on the drive and his stretch for the chains on a third-and-8 scramble was crucial. Kenny Wheaton’s interception sealed the first fourth-quarter comeback Danny O’Neil had as a Duck and kick-started a Rose Bowl run.

So there, you happy? After years of unapologetic antagonism toward the Ducks all it took was a phone call with the guy who shares my name to help me get over myself.

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