Cover Story: Brennan O'Neill's Coming of Age

How the U.S. team culture brought out the best in Brennan O’Neill — and why the 21-year-old world championship MVP let it fly on the sport’s biggest stage

This article appears in the current edition of USA Lacrosse Magazine.

IS THERE ANY MORE AMERICAN EXPERIENCE than playing lacrosse in a place historian Colin Woodard once described as an “American industrial apocalypse?”

The Menomonee Valley was well on its way to shedding its reputation as Wisconsin’s biggest eyesore, of course, by the time Jake Richard arrived at Marquette University in the fall of 2012. Abandoned factories, decaying smokestacks and rusted railyards had long since given way to green spaces, tourist attractions and new urbanism.

Marquette invested in the redevelopment by constructing a 13.5-acre athletic complex next to the Milwaukee River tributary since cleansed of a century and a half’s worth of waste from butchering cattle, tanning leather and manufacturing farm machinery.

Only the Cargill meatpacking plant remained, a last vestige of the valley’s sepia-toned past.

“Tell us a little bit about that environment,” U.S. men’s national team coach John Danowski asked Richard the morning of the World Lacrosse Men’s Championship gold medal game.

The 23 players had returned from breakfast to find their University of San Diego dormitory lounge rearranged into an amphitheater. They fanned out in three rows across a Yankee blue leather sectional, a Tuscan rose love seat and a collection of armchairs cobbled together from various spots throughout USD’s Manchester Village as Danowski peppered them with questions — the piercing kind that provoke thoughtful and sometimes vulnerable responses.

“You could see cow carcasses dropping from the roof,” Richard replied. “Birds would fly by and drop bones on the field. It smelled terrible. We were losing all the time. You would have never thought it was worth it.”

Richard paused as he considered how beating Canada might relate to beating Denver for the Big East championship when the Pioneers were the No.1-ranked team in the country his senior year in 2016.

“We went out there honestly never knowing if it was all going to be worth it. And then we won that last game,” he said, nodding toward defensive coordinator Joe Amplo and long-stick midfielder Liam Byrnes, who he played for and with at Marquette. “It felt incredible. I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world. That special moment is something I’ll never forget.”

He lifted his head and scanned the room.

“I feel like I won already, being a part of this with you guys,” Richard said. “But I want that moment with everybody. The same one we got together out in Denver, that validation.”

His right hand gripped an imaginary mallet.

“I want to f—ing stake it down so nobody can take it away. That’s what I’m playing for today.”

Richard did not need the metaphorical prop. Sitting several seats to his left was the 6-foot-2, 235-pound sledgehammer who in six hours would nearly singlehandedly deliver the result he sought.

BRENNAN O’NEILL MIGHT BE THE ONLY 21-YEAR-OLD IN THE COUNTRY who takes longer to respond to texts than his parents.

“I’m just not a big phone guy,” he said. “It’s too much now.”

Golden Ukonu learned long ago not to expect a reply unless O’Neill wants to get to the gym — which was precisely the case July 13. O’Neill had yet to unpack from his 24-day trip to California when he texted Ukonu, his personal strength and conditioning coach since high school. “I miss home,” he said.

Home means Long Island, generally, but specifically Revolution Athletics in Bohemia, N.Y. The 10,000-square-foot training facility with blue turf, cinder block walls and more iron than a medieval movie set opened in 2008 as ground zero for college football and NFL hopefuls.

Ukonu was among the first athletes to come through “Revo.” A 6-foot-4, 380-pound offensive lineman, he was a two-year starter and Dream Bowl selection at LIU Post. The Tennessee Titans signed him as an undrafted free agent in 2016.

Though Ukonu never made it out of rookie minicamp, he was eager to share his experiences. He started The Lineman Academy at Revolution Athletics. O’Neill, who had just finished his freshman year at St. Anthony’s High School, saw this mountain of a man put a football player through sprints, tire flips and strongman exercises.

“I want to train like that,” he told Ukonu.

O’Neill wasn’t the only one. Team 91 Crush teammates Xavier Arline, Aidan Danenza, Andrew McAdorey and Joey Spallina also joined Ukonu’s program, as did Chris Gray, Ally Kennedy and Ellie Masera. The Long Island Lacrosse Journal called Ukonu the area’s “best-kept secret.” 

When O’Neill signed with Duke as a senior Nov. 13, 2019, he sat between his mother, Diana, and his father, Ed, both retired NYPD police officers. Behind them stood Ukonu.

“A lot of people like to put you on your high horse,” O’Neill said. “He’s the first guy that told me I still had work to do.”


STRONG ISLAND: O’Neill works out with his personal strength and conditioning coach, Golden Ukonu, at Revolution Fitness in Bohemia, N.Y. 

By that point, O’Neill had long been anointed the next great one in the sport. The youngest of four siblings, he made national headlines when he committed to Penn State in eighth grade. O’Neill was only 14, but his size, speed and stickhandling were elite.

Duke assistant coach Matt Danowski found himself most enamored with O’Neill’s vision when he first saw him play at the Quaker Fall Lax Fest in Radnor, Pa.

“My first memory of Brennan was he caught the ball on the wing. Danenza ran the field and cut. [O’Neill] just caught it and threw it to him streaking toward the goal. And it was like, ‘Wow, that kid really gets it,’” Danowski said. “You rarely see eighth-graders play with their head up like that.”

Danowski noticed something else after O’Neill became a household name. As quick as the lacrosse world was to put him on a pedestal, people were just as eager to knock him down.

“The fields would be packed with people wanting to see him fail or do something spectacular. There was no in between,” Danowski said. “If he did fail or if he didn’t do something outrageous, everyone would say, ‘Eh, he’s not that good.’ That kid’s been living with that since he was in eighth grade. Nobody can relate to that.”

Partly out of self-preservation, O’Neill’s circle of trust got smaller as the naysayers got louder. His training only intensified.

“We are here this one time, and he has a 1.55-second 10-yard split. That’s like an NFL time,” Ukonu said. “And he’s pissed about it. ‘Run it back, run it back.’ So we do it three more times until he shows 1.54, and he’s on top of the world. ‘Bro, it’s 6 a.m. in the morning. You got math class in an hour.’ It’s crazy.”

O’Neill lived up to the hype in high school, amassing 317 points. He scored seven goals each in the 2018 NLF National Championship final and the 2019 CHSAA championship game.

It’s been more of the same at Duke. He was the ACC Freshman of the Year in 2021, became the fastest player in Blue Devils history to eclipse 100 career goals in 2022 and won the Tewaaraton Award as the nation’s top scorer (55 goals, 42 assists) this year.

But the “he’s not that good” whispers returned after O’Neill shot just 1-for-9 in Duke’s NCAA championship game loss to Notre Dame. As a team, the Blue Devils misfired on 23 straight shots in the first half of a 13-9 defeat at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia.

Ukonu expected O’Neill might take some time off. Instead, he attended the Tewaaraton ceremony in D.C., then flew back to Duke for training camp as the youngest player and the only collegian on the U.S. senior team.

After camp broke, O’Neill drove eight hours home and reported back to Ukonu to squeeze in several more sessions before departing for San Diego. “I just don’t want people to think that this is my best,” he told his trainer. “I still have more to prove.”


Rob Pannell leaps onto Brennan O'Neill's broad shoulders to celebrate one of O'Neill's five goals in the gold medal game. O'Neill, 21, is the youngest-ever world championship MVP.

RICHARD ASSEMBLED THE ROPE UNIT during a six-on-six drill at U.S. training camp and asked them, “Who do we want to pole?” Jogging out of the substitution box were Tom Schreiber, Michael Sowers and Brennan O’Neill.

“We said it pretty quickly,” Richard said. “Put him on Brennan.”

O’Neill garnered instant respect from his more veteran U.S. teammates, all of whom play professionally in the PLL. 

“I remember coming home from training camp, and the Marquette staff was asking how it went. And the first thing I said was, ‘I think Brennan O’Neill might be our best player,’” said Richard, an assistant coach for the Golden Eagles. “When he makes a play, it just pops differently.”

Schreiber said O’Neill should lead the team in shots. No one batted an eye. Not even Rob Pannell, the three-time U.S. team attackman and all-time leading scorer. He took a shine to O’Neill and picked him as his partner in Euchre, the trick-taking card game pro lacrosse players love.

“We want him to know that he is supposed to be here,” Pannell said after O’Neill scored three goals in a 7-5 win over Canada in the world championship opener. “He is meant to be here. He was chosen to be here. You saw why tonight.”

“That’s not a college kid,” U.S. goalie Blaze Riorden remarked. “That’s a grown man out there.”

On this team, O’Neill didn’t have to be The Chosen One or Baby Zion. He could be himself — quiet, reserved, sneaky funny, a tad awkward and a great teammate. In return, the veterans took every opportunity to inflate his confidence.

They called him "O'Nei" (oh-NEE). He shared Apartment 325 with Richard, defenseman Matt Dunn and short-stick defensive midfielder Zach Goodrich. O’Nei’s Café invited customers for coffee and smoothies. “ESPY nominated!” the sign on the door read.

Attackman Matt 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 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.

“As I get older, I put less pressure on myself,” O’Neill said. “If I could tell my 14-year-old self anything, I’d tell him, ‘You’ve got to let go. You’ve got to let loose.’ The game’s becoming more fun for me.”

Canada had no answer for O’Neill on opening night. Nor could the Canadians contain him 11 days later, when O’Neill scored five goals (on eight shots) to lead the U.S. to a 10-7 victory and its 11th world championship. His bag of tricks included a high-to-high leaner from the left alley, a near-pipe snipe, a runner down the alley, a twister from the right side and a rollback into a crank shot across the top. All five unassisted.

“He leaves me speechless,” John Danowski said. “I didn’t see that coming.” 

Danowski spent the previous month reconditioning players for international rules, which reward a more conservative offensive approach. But at the team’s final practice before the gold medal game, he appealed to the playmakers.

“If you find yourself thinking, ‘Should I or shouldn’t I,’” he said. “You should.”

With 2:26 remaining and the U.S. nursing an 8-7 lead, O’Neill went for the jugular. He dodged the right side, rolled back and scored on an overhand rocket.

“It’s the beauty of being so young. You kind of don’t know any better,” said Matt Danowski, who was co-captain of the 2018 U.S. team after narrowly missing a roster spot several times during his playing career. “He was just thinking, ‘I got my hands free at 10. I gotta let this thing ride.’”

A month to the day after receiving the Tewaaraton from Schreiber’s father, Hall of Famer Doug Schreiber, O’Neill collected the spear-shaped World Lacrosse MVP trophy — his  beard a little thicker, his eye black denser. A generational talent, indeed.

“This is Brennan O’Neill, the best player in college lacrosse, a child prodigy in our sport, the only college kid on the men’s national team,” Richard said. “You have all these built-up expectations. And he does not carry those things with him. He is simply himself. He is Brennan O’Neill, a kid from Long Island who loves to do what he does.”

 THE SUMMER OF BRENNAN: In a span of 41 days, O’Neill won the Tewaaraton Award, was named World Lacrosse MVP and attended the ESPY Awards as a Best Male College Athlete nominee. 

LONG ISLAND BECKONED ONCE MORE. O’Neill stayed in California for 11 days after the gold medal game to attend the July 12 ESPY Awards in Los Angeles. He and his mom got a hotel in Beverly Hills and toured Hollywood. O’Neill was a Best College Athlete nominee in the red-carpet event at the Dolby Theater, where he met PLL co-founder and U.S. team legend Paul Rabil for the first time. He’s expected to be the No. 1 pick in the PLL College Draft next year.

But O’Neill could not wait to get back into the gym. He told Ukonu winning the world championship and MVP honors cloaked him in the confidence to lead Duke to an NCAA championship as a senior next spring.

“He wasn’t doing a victory lap about the gold medal,” Ukonu said. “It’s about next Memorial Day already.”

O’Neill has watched the replay of the gold medal game several times. He usually skips forward past all his goals to see Pannell launch the ball high into the air as time expires and the team celebrates. 

“It gets more special every time. It doesn’t age,” O’Neill said. “It’ll never lose its value — that win, that game and that experience.”

And no one can ever take it away.


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