Cody O’Neill had no idea, back in March, that he was about to take the ride of his life.
O’Neill thought he had just caught a bug from his 2-year-old daughter Emersyn, who was getting over a cold. Either that, or maybe bronchitis.
When over-the-counter medication did nothing to help, and O’Neill had spent three nights sitting up in bed, unable to properly breathe, he went to see a doctor.
A chest X-ray revealed that his heart was dilated. An electrocardiogram showed that his heart was working at about 20% of what it should have been.
Medical personnel diagnosed that O’Neill’s heart had been attacked by a virus – not the coronavirus, which was spreading in the U.S. about the same time. In July, O’Neill, a 2009 Marian Central graduate and former football player and wrestler, had a defibrillator and pacemaker installed, but he still experienced problems.
Eventually, O’Neill was airlifted from Sioux Falls Sanford Medical Center in South Dakota on Oct. 31 to Northwestern Medical Center in Chicago. On Wednesday, O’Neill, 29, received a new heart, undergoing six hours of transplant surgery.
Tom O’Neill, Cody’s father, said his son was in good spirits Thursday, talking, and that nurses even helped him out of bed to sit in a chair.
“You never realize. You hear about it every day, people having this kind of stuff and you never think it’ll happen to you, but …,” Tom O’Neill said. “One thing they said about Cody, if he never played football and wrestled, he probably would have been dead now. All those years of working out and keeping himself in shape helped him out.”
Cody O’Neill, who was a sophomore on Marian’s 2006 Class 5A state runner-up team, went on to play on the offensive line at South Dakota. He coached offensive line at Montana State University Northern, then moved to the same position at South Dakota School of Mines in Rapid City in 2017. O’Neill and his wife, Kelsey, are expecting their second child in January.
“The doctors and nurses, and the care given here at Northwestern has been unbelievably tremendous,” O’Neill said on Tuesday. “I couldn’t have been luckier than to be transferred here from Sioux Falls Sanford in late October. Their biggest thing is to stay positive and, they’re pretty confident. You hear them talk about everything and this is what they do.”
O’Neill had been told that something could happen at any time. His size – 6-foot-3, 290 pounds – posed some problems with a match, as he not only needed the proper blood match, but a heart big enough to support his body.
Former Marian offensive line coach Steve Spoden cranked out one NCAA Division I lineman after another from 2006 on.
O’Neill was right in the middle of that run. He started as a sophomore in 2006 with Bryan Bulaga (2007, Iowa) and Sean Cwynar (2008, Notre Dame). O’Neill played at D-I South Dakota, starting 23 games his junior and senior seasons and earning All-Missouri Valley Football Conference honors as a senior.
“Cody was a good kid then, and he’s a good man now,” said Spoden, now an assistant coach at Crystal Lake Central. “He was constantly picking my brain asking how he could get better. He’s a real easy guy to root for.”
In a recent post on his Facebook page, Spoden said that O’Neill may have needed a new heart because he gave so much of his to others.
“(Former Marian player) Ryan Hickey was talking to me about how Cody went out of his way to make him feel comfortable as a freshman,” Spoden said. “(O’Neill) was hard-nosed, he’d get after you on the field, but he’d help anyone off the field.”
Former Marian player Jack Gilleland played center on the 2006 and 2007 teams, next to O’Neill at guard.
“I always thought him being a younger kid who stepped up like that spoke a lot to his character,” Gilleland said. “He had high expectations (on him), he always seemed to meet them. He seemed older than he was. He was one of the younger guys, but you could always count on him. He was reliable and did his job. He was a great teammate.”
A WAY TO HELP
When Gilleland recently saw a Facebook post from another former Hurricane, Liam Kirwan, about a GoFundMe page for the O'Neills, he could not believe it.
“It was kind of surreal,” Gilleland said. “It struck home. The fact that his GoFundMe is up to 50 grand in a couple days kind of says a lot too. There must not be a lot of people who have bad words to say about Cody.”
Kendall Simpson, Kelsey O’Neill’s cousin who lives in Minneapolis, set up the GoFundMe page to help the O’Neills with expenses in the upcoming months. The page set a goal of $100,000 and was at $63,644 as of Thursday afternoon.
Last week, a group of Marian students gathered on at George Harding Field and stood in the shape of a heart, making heart shapes with their hands, to offer support to O’Neill. A picture was taken and sent to him.
SEASON CUT SHORT
In late August, O’Neill had four liters of fluid removed from around his heart. It was becoming apparent something more needed to be done. He was told his heart function was down to 15%.
O’Neill coached two games with South Dakota School of Mines in its abbreviated season because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but eventually he was sent to Sanford.
When Sanford was not able to offer the kind of treatment he needed, O’Neill was transferred to Northwestern and it was determined that he needed a transplant.
O’Neill felt scared, but fortunate.
“They’re one of the most well-known hospitals in the country for heart transplants,” he said. “I have all the confidence in the world in them. One of my leading cardiologists is a huge (Las Vegas) Raiders’ fan, so every time he comes in we’ll talk medications and all that stuff, then we talk football before he leaves. They’ve done a good job making me comfortable and getting me through this.”
O’Neill appreciates all the support from people who have texted, sent cards or donated through the GoFundMe page. He is optimistic about his future.
“Their goal is to get me back to (normal),” O’Neill said. “I’ll have weekly visits back here. Then, after two months, bi-weekly visits. After the sixth month, it’ll go to once a month. As we move on, once a year or every other year. They expect that I can go back and continue to try to live as normal of a life as I possibly can. There will be some restrictions on taking care of the heart that’s given to me.”
Tom O’Neill looks forward to celebrating his son’s 30th birthday in May, and Cody’s new lease on life.
“He competed in the biggest game of his life yesterday,” Tom O’Neill said.