Born: July 3, 1966
Neil Kennedy O’Donnell was born July 3, 1966 in Madison. Neil’s four older brothers played for local coaching legend Ted Monica and won state championships. Mike O’Donnell was an All-State quarterback who went on to play for Duke. Coach Monica had retired by the time Neil enrolled at Madison High School, but mentored him throughout much of his young football life. Neil was the skinny brother, but that didn’t keep him from trying to compete with his siblings. His father, Jack—who owned a car dealership in nearby Morristown—nicknamed him Super Babe.
Neil developed a rifle arm and a take-no-prisoners brand of toughness by the time he reached Madison High. He was the star of the Dodgers varsity as a sophomore and junior, but the team won just three games in those two seasons. Neil went out and recruited his friends who had quit the team to rejoin him as a senior. Neil showed up after the summer with more than 25 pounds of new muscle and willed the team to a respectable 4-2-3 season in 1985.
Coach Bobby Ross of Maryland liked everything about Neil, even though he lacked the stats and honors of other high school stars. He red-shirted the 1986 season and became the Terrapins’ starting quarterback in 1988. In two years at the helm he threw for more than 4,000 yards and 22 touchdowns. The Terps went 4–6 and 5–7.
Neil was selected by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the third round of the 1990 NFL Draft. He sat on the bench behind Bubby Brister as a rookie and won the starting job midway through 1991. In 1992, Neil threw for 2,283 yards and 13 touchdowns as the Steelers finished 11–5. That performance was worthy of a Pro Bowl pick. Neil was perhaps the most conservative passer in the league during his prime years. He rarely attempted a throw that he was not completely certain he could complete. The result was a solid passer rating but fewer points than the fans would have liked to see. Neil was criticized for dumping the ball to his running backs on 3rd-and-long instead of airing it out.
The proof was in the pudding, however. In 1995, Neil led Pittsburgh to the AFC Championship and a berth in Super Bowl XXX across from the Dallas Cowboys. The Steelers lost to the Cowboys 27–17, as Neil threw a pair of second-half interceptions that led to scores. Needless to say, Neil took a lot of heat for the defeat, although his receivers did not have good games.
Neil decided to test the free agent waters and “came home” to the Jets. A shoulder injury ruined his first year, but in 1997 he had a solid season and led the Jets to a 9–7 record. Neil was traded to the Bengals in 1998 and lasted one year before he was released to make room for Akili Smith. He spent his final five NFL seasons with the Tennessee Titans as Steve McNair’s backup. In 2004, Bill Cowher tried to lure Neil back to the Steelers after Tommy Maddox went down for the year. Neil declined, so Cowher turned to young Ben Roethlisberger...and the rest in history.
Although Neil is remembered for throwing interceptions in his lone Super Bowl appearance, throughout his career he was rarely picked off. He threw 3,229 passes and only 68 resulted in turnovers—a 2.1% mark that ranks among the very best of all-time.