John O'Neill would have made the perfect poster boy for Towson State football in 1990.
The Tigers relied on an abundance of rookies last year, and while O'Neill had distinguished himself as a defensive back in 1989, he was a first-year starter on the other side of the ball, lining up at fullback.
Towson State was additionally plagued by injuries, as knee surgery alone ended the seasons of five players. O'Neill tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee in the first game, shortly after the Tigers had come out of their halftime meeting at Rhode Island, and his seasonal totals stayed at six carries for 26 yards.
Towson State begins anew to morrow night (7 p.m.) at Minnegan Stadium against Boston University (0-1), and coach Phil Albert hopes that O'Neill will again be a symbol. If his teammates display the kind of resolve the senior from Atholton High did in the last 11 months, the Tigers are bound to improve on last year's 2-9 mark.
"An injury like John suffered last year would have been a devastating blow to most persons," Albert said. "In tests before last season, John was the best-conditioned athlete on our team, and he had really prepared himself for the switch back to fullback.
"Once he made the decision to have the surgery, he dedicated himself just as seriously to rehabilitation. He's able to help us in any capacity we ask of him."
O'Neill underwent surgery last Oct. 1, shortly before a month-long ordeal in which the future of Towson State football was debated. It hardly cushioned the experience.
"The most frustrating thing for me was watching the games," O'Neill said. "You begin coming back, and then you hear the program might be lost . . . That'll get you down."
Sitting still was not easy for O'Neill, a law enforcement major who excelled in both football and baseball at Atholton. He quietly racked up solid numbers as a junior while taking a backseat in the publicity department to Mark Carper, The Evening Sun Athlete of the Year in 1985-86. As a senior, in 1986-87, he was Howard County's Player of the Year in both football and baseball, rushing for 1,185 yards and 13 touchdowns, then hitting .580. He received All-Metro honors in both sports.
O'Neill has 10 siblings, and one of them, Dennis, hopes to play football at Towson State after transferring there this year.
After a redshirt season, John was a reserve fullback in 1988, then switched to strong safety in 1989. He led the Tigers with two fumble recoveries and had 36 tackles, but Albert needed him at fullback, and he returned there the following spring.
"My favorite part of football has always been carrying the ball," O'Neill said.
Towson State just hopes he gets more chances to do so this fall.