The wildly bearded man is 23, the beard somewhat blond at the mustache and otherwise brown, and there are waves of easy-going of curls throughout, the length of hair if stretched straight coming close to 10 centimetres. It is seven months of growth, urged on all along the way by friends.
“The longer it got, the more encouragement I got,” kicker Hugh O’Neill said.
Wally Buono, general manager of the B.C. Lions, doesn’t quite get the mass of hair on the face of his young kicker. O’Neill, at the start of his third CFL season, will on Friday for the first time kick a ball in a regular-season game, emerging from the long shadow of hall of fame-, and currently injured, Paul McCallum, who, at 43, is two decades older and the elder statesman of the entire league.
“It’s not like, what do you call it, aesthetically pleasing,” Buono said with a chuckle.
But O’Neill’s beard is just another peculiarity in the decades of weirdness Buono’s watched first-hand in three-down football.
After a practice this past week, ahead of the Lions’ trip to face the Calgary Stampeders on the road Friday, the team that ejected the Lions from the postseason last year, Buono counselled O’Neill as he set off for an extra kicking session. A downpour of rain had just ended, the sun emerging.
“Hugh, don’t overkick, don’t overkick,” Buono said.
“Don’t worry,” O’Neill said, smiling and turning, his smile bright and not entirely obscured by the mane of hair on the face of potentially the Lions next mainstay, in a tradition that stretches back through McCallum back to Lui Passaglia.
O’Neill, raised in Edmonton, starred at the University of Alberta before being drafted 11th overall in the second round of the CFL draft in 2011. He served two seasons quietly in Vancouver.
The new plan had been to employ O’Neill on punts and kickoffs while McCallum would continue on for field goals, still accurate, though not quite as deadly as recent years.
In the first preseason game, against Calgary, O’Neill, kicking field goals, was 5-for-5 in inclement conditions, topped by the game winner with barely a minute remaining. Then, McCallum tweaked his groin in warmup ahead of the second exhibition game last week. O’Neill didn’t get a field-goal attempt but punted six times for a solid average of 45 yards.
O’Neill is just one piece of a new-look, though not entirely overhauled, Lions.
Gone are the likes of Geroy Simon, and in are names such as Emmanuel Arceneaux, returned from an NFL sojourn. And at centre, like at kicker, upstart Matt Norman takes the position as veteran Angus Reid aches with a bad back. On defence, Solomon Elimimian (currently nursing a slight injury) and Adam Bighill could be a tremendous force in the middle of the field at linebacker.
There are questions, though of the offensive line, and the defence’s at-times weakness on big plays. The Lions went a CFL-best 13-5 last year, aiming to repeat as champions, but failed in the West Division final, at home. Now, the West is stronger than it was a year ago. There is considerable competition for the Lions.
Amid the fray, O’Neill is calm.
“He’s just so easy-going,” said Don Sweet, a Lions kicking consultant and former star kicker in Montreal and teammate of Buono’s in the 1970s. “No pressure. Just go out and do what you do. Kickers nowadays take too much stress into the games. It’s just a game.”
O’Neill, before he kicked full-time, was a linebacker, like Adam Vinatieri, the Indianapolis Colts kicker who is among the all-time greats, who initially made his name taking down Herschel Walker on a kickoff return and has always said of his primary trade it is about “how you handle pressure,” down to controlling one’s own heart rate.
“I just try and pretend to myself I don’t even really care what happens,” O’Neill said after his extended practice this week. “I just out there and do my thing. I’m focused on my kick but, at the same time, I’m not focused on what the repercussions are. It’s just one kick.”
And so the Lions roam to Calgary, hungry to get back to the championship they fell short of a year ago. McCallum is likely back next week, but O’Neill’s on-field seasoning begins.
The team as a whole, with the host of young faces, is led by veteran quarterback, Travis Lulay. The loss to Calgary last November stung but the Lions remain confident.
“There was disappointment but that didn’t change the fact we were 13-5 and that didn’t change the fact that we did a lot of great things both offensively and defensively and on special teams,” Buono said. “But we lost the game, which was at that point the most important game of the season. We should all take a little bit of blame in that. But that doesn’t change our expectations.
“And that doesn’t change what we think about our football club.”