Long before Ben Roethlisberger excelled at quarterback for the Pittsburgh Steelers, Neil O’Donnell shone brightly for the black and gold in the early-to-mid 1990s.
O’Donnell took over starting quarterback duties from Bubby Brister at the end of the memorable Chuck Noll era in 1991.
O’Donnell became new Steelers head coach Bill Cowher’s starter for the next four seasons. His strong play under center helped Pittsburgh reach the postseason for four straight years from 1992 to 1995.
The pinnacle of O’Donnell’s 14-year pro football career was leading the Steelers to Super Bowl XXX against the Dallas Cowboys. Pittsburgh had a chance to win its first Super Bowl title in 16 years.
Unfortunately, O’Donnell threw two costly second-half interceptions that sealed Dallas’s 27-17 win.
Nevertheless, Neil O’Donnell’s 12,867 passing yards during his six-year tenure in the Steel City currently ranks fourth all-time in franchise history.
Despite O’Donnell’s fiasco in Super Bowl XXX, his 2.1 interception percentage remains one of the best in league history. No wonder Neil O’Donnell is a member of the Steelers Hall of Honor.
This is Neil O’Donnell’s memorable gridiron journey.
Neil Kennedy O’Donnell was born to parents Jack and Barbara in Morristown, NJ on July 3, 1966. O’Donnell comes from a large brood—he is the youngest of nine siblings.
According to The New York Times’s Tom Friend, football ran deep in the O’Donnell bloodline—all of Neil’s four older brothers played football.
Michael, the oldest O’Donnell brother, played wide receiver for the Penn State Nittany Lions. Steven was a quarterback for the Michigan Wolverines and Duke Blue Devils.
Peter O’Donnell was a tight end for the New Hampshire Wildcats. Matthew, the brother who preceded Neil, played linebacker during his high school days.
Neil would eventually follow in their footsteps on the gridiron. When the O’Donnell family gathered at the dinner table, their conversations revolved around football.
Both of Neil’s parents have graduate degrees. His father, Jack, a Philadelphia, PA native, played football. He earned his bachelor’s degree from West Chester University and his master’s degree from Temple University, per The Washington Post’s Dave Sell.
Neil’s mom, Barbara, earned her bachelor’s degree from Immaculata University and her master’s degree in institutional management from Columbia University.
— Madison HS Athletics NJ (@DodgerAthletics) December 11, 2016
Jack ran his own auto dealership, O’Donnell Buick, during Neil’s formative years in the Garden State.
Jack taught his five sons the value of hard work by asking them to clean cars at his local auto dealership. If any of them needed money, they had to earn it the hard way.
Jack O’Donnell was also one of the reasons why a restaurant and a gym flourished in the local neighborhood. With his assistance, the owners of Poor Herbies and Michael B. Fitness got their businesses off the ground.
Neil O’Donnell attended Madison High School in Morris County, NJ. He played football for the Madison Dodgers.
Whenever the Dodgers reached the state title game, Jack told Neil to invite his teammates to the O’Donnell residence. Neil could not believe what his dad told him.
“My father would be the first one to say, ‘Why don’t you invite the whole team back to the house?’ I’m going, ‘Dad, uh, there’s eighty-five guys here. Does Mom know this?'” Neil told The New York Times some 15 years later.
Jack O’Donnell was a dedicated father in every sense of the word. He never missed any of Neil’s football games from the time his son was nine years old until he suffered a stroke during Neil’s third year with the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1992, per Friend.
Neil O’Donnell eventually committed to Bobby Ross’s Maryland Terrapins and evolved into a legitimate NFL quarterback prospect in the next phase of his gridiron journey.
College Days with the Maryland Terrapins
Neil O’Donnell attended the University of Maryland from 1986 to 1989. He suited up for Maryland Terrapins head football coaches Bobby Ross and Joe Krivak.
Neil had one goal from the moment he first stepped on the University of Maryland campus in the summer of 1986—to graduate in four years.
“Coming out of high school, I didn’t know if I would be a starter, but one of my goals was to graduate in four years no matter what I had to do,” O’Donnell told Sell prior to his senior season at Maryland in August 1989.
O’Donnell, a general studies major, even took two classes every summer so he could graduate on time. He put in the work, passed all his classes, and eventually achieved his goal of earning his bachelor’s degree.
Ken Baron, Neil’s advisor, told The Washington Post that he never let his guard down and slacked off as many student-athletes did back in the day. He was determined from the very beginning.
Jack O’Donnell warned his youngest son prior to his freshman season in the fall of 1985 that if he didn’t have decent grades, he would go back home to New Jersey and study at a community college.
That warning struck fear into Neil’s heart. It motivated him to hit the books every day.
With pick 70 in the 1990 NFL Draft, the #Steelers selected Neil O'Donnell, QB, Maryland.
He posted an elite #RAS with good size, good speed, great explosiveness, at the QB position.
He went to the pro bowl in 1992. pic.twitter.com/vJb9l4VEKe
— Kent Lee Platte (@MathBomb) June 7, 2019
Neil O’Donnell redshirted the 1986 NCAA campaign—Ross’s final year as Terrapins head football coach. Ross, who went on to coach the NFL’s San Diego Chargers and Detroit Lions, went 5-5-1 in his last season at College Park, MD.
O’Donnell took over starting quarterback duties for the Terrapins in 1988 and 1989. He had a combined 4,076 passing yards, 22 touchdown passes, and 15 interceptions during that two-year timeframe.
Maryland went 8-13-1 in O’Donnell’s 22 starts for Krivak. The Terrapins never played in a bowl game in O’Donnell’s final two seasons in College Park, MD.
Neil O’Donnell would eventually join the Pittsburgh Steelers during a critical point in franchise history. Before long, he became Steelers head coach Bill Cowher’s first starting quarterback and a vital cog in Pittsburgh’s postseason runs in the mid-1990s.
Pro Football Career
The Pittsburgh Steelers made Neil O’Donnell the 70th overall selection of the 1990 NFL Draft.
One of Neil’s first priorities when he turned pro was hiring an agent who could represent him. One of the shortlisted candidates was the highly-touted Leigh Steinberg.
Unfortunately for Steinberg, he had to go through the proverbial eye of the needle known as Jack O’Donnell.
Jack, who had always been a hands-on father, never let up even though Neil was already an NFL quarterback. The former grilled Steinberg during a 60-minute interview for the right to represent his son.
“By the time I’d finished that interview, I could’ve been confirmed for Secretary of State,” Steinberg told Friend in January 1996.
Neil O’Donnell’s first few years in the National Football League coincided with the twilight of Chuck Noll’s legendary pro football coaching career.
O’Donnell sat out his entire rookie campaign as a backup to starter Bubby Brister in 1990. The former suited up for 12 games and started eight for Pittsburgh the following season.
O’Donnell had 1,963 passing yards, 11 touchdown passes, and seven interceptions in his second pro football season in 1991. It was a glimpse of his potential as an NFL quarterback.
O’Donnell remembered Noll teaching him the virtue of humility when he scored his first pro touchdown against the New York Giants during the 1991 NFL season.
O’Donnell scampered for yardage when he couldn’t find an open receiver downfield. He eluded Giants tacklers and then spiked the ball with gusto when he reached the end zone.
A giddy O’Donnell then made his way to the sideline. Noll approached him, grabbed his facemask, and told him in no uncertain terms to act like he’s been there before, per The New York Times.
O’Donnell took Noll’s words to heart from that point forward. It was one of Neil’s fondest memories of Noll’s final year as head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Although Neil and the Steelers fought back from an early 20-point deficit, they lost to New York, 23-20. To make matters worse, his father Jack was watching the game near the 50-yard line.
The Steelers averaged eight wins per season in the last two years of the Chuck Noll era from 1990 to 1991. They missed the postseason each time.
Jack O’Donnell had a stroke in the summer of 1992. Neil skipped the preseason and showed up at the hospital with his eight siblings.
Despite Jack’s predicament, Neil’s mom Barbara begged Neil to report back to the Steelers. Being the dutiful son that he was, Neil complied and went back to the new coach, Bill Cowher.
Neil O’Donnell was also Pro Bowl bound in 1992.
— Old Time Football 🏈 (@Ol_TimeFootball) March 11, 2022
O’Donnell played his guts out—he dedicated every single down to his ailing father. Before he knew it, he had led Pittsburgh to an impressive 6-2 win-loss record after a thrilling 21-20 win over Warren Moon’s Houston Oilers.
While Neil’s Steelers teammates tried to continue their impressive start, he purchased a motorized wheelchair for his dad the day after they beat Houston.
To Neil’s dismay, his dad Jack had several strokes that week. Consequently, he could not watch his son walking down the aisle with his future daughter-in-law Leslie later that month.
With the no-nonsense Cowher righting the ship, Pittsburgh went back to its winning ways in the mid-1990s.
The Steelers averaged ten wins per season with Neil O’Donnell as their starting quarterback in 1992 and 1993. They won one division title and made the postseason each time during that two-year stretch.
O’Donnell had a combined 5,491 passing yards, 27 touchdowns, and 16 interceptions in his first two years as Pittsburgh’s starting signal caller. He earned his first and only career Pro Bowl selection following the 1992 NFL campaign.
Unfortunately, the Steelers never made it past the AFC Divisional Round from 1992 to 1993. However, that was about to change in the next two seasons.
While O’Donnell was thriving in Cowher’s system, he was going through some rough patches in his life off the gridiron. His father Jack passed away in the summer of 1994.
Neil O’Donnell took his frustrations out on the gridiron. He had 2,443 passing yards, 13 touchdown passes, and nine interceptions in his 14 starts in the 1994 NFL season.
With O’Donnell under center, the Steelers had a gaudy 12-4 win-loss record in 1994. It was Pittsburgh’s best showing since the team last won the Super Bowl with Chuck Noll as head coach in 1979.
O’Donnell led the Steelers to the AFC Championship Game against the San Diego Chargers at Three Rivers Stadium on January 15, 1995.
O’Donnell squared off against Bobby Ross, his first college coach with the Maryland Terrapins, in that game. Ross was already in his fourth season as Chargers head coach.
Neil O’Donnell played hard trying to lead the Steelers to Super Bowl XXIX. He completed 32 of 54 passes for 349 yards and one touchdown against the Chargers.
Regrettably, O’Donnell’s efforts fell short as San Diego batted his desperate fourth-down pass down and made it incomplete.
Neil O’Donnell’s pent-up emotions spilled out after that gut-wrenching home loss to the Chargers.
“He cried and let out the tears,” Steelers backup quarterback and Neil’s friend, Mike Tomczak, told The New York Times in 1996. “The loss of his father and the loss of the game had a lot to do with it. He really let go, he really let go. Right there in the locker room.”
Leslie, O’Donnell’s wife of two years, told Tomczak that Neil continued weeping the moment he got home.
Bill Cowher, the legendary Steelers head coach who led the team to victory in Super Bowl XL, thought Pittsburgh never would have made it to the AFC title game against the Chargers without Neil O’Donnell.
“One thing I’ll say about Neil O’Donnell, everyone talks about the Super Bowl and this championship game, we never would have been there without him,” Cowher told The Athletic in the fall of 2020.
Despite their crushing loss to the Chargers, Neil O’Donnell and the Steelers were vindicated one year later.
O’Donnell had 2,970 passing yards, 17 passing touchdowns, and seven interceptions in his final year in Steelers black and gold in 1995. For his efforts, his Pittsburgh teammates voted him team MVP that year.
O’Donnell led Pittsburgh to its second consecutive AFC Championship Game appearance. This time around, they faced Jim Harbaugh’s Indianapolis Colts. Ironically, both O’Donnell and Harbaugh had the same agent, Leigh Steinberg.
It was a field-goal kicking contest for the most part until the Colts’ Floyd Turner and the Steelers’ Bam Morris scored touchdowns in the fourth quarter.
The game came down to the final seconds as Harbaugh’s desperate Hail Mary pass to Aaron Bailey in the end zone slipped through the latter’s fingers amidst a sea of Steelers defenders.
Pittsburgh beat Indianapolis, 20-16. Neil O’Donnell, who completed 25 of 41 passes for 205 yards, one touchdown, and one interception, was going to play in Super Bowl XXX.
“Too bad he cannot be here with me,” O’Donnell said (via The New York Times) one week before the big game. “But my dad’s upstairs at the best seat in the house.”
In the days leading up to Super Bowl XXX against Barry Switzer’s Dallas Cowboys, the Steelers were looking to reclaim lost glory—they were hungry for their first Super Bowl title since the 1979 NFL season.
Alas, Neil O’Donnell fell apart in the biggest game of his life.
With the Steelers trailing the Cowboys 13-7 in the third quarter, O’Donnell threw an interception to Dallas defensive back Larry Brown. When Brown picked off O’Donnell’s pass, it seemed as if he were the intended receiver—there were no Steelers receivers within his immediate vicinity.
Brown promptly returned the interception all the way to the Steelers 18-yard line. To make matters worse for O’Donnell, Cowboys running back Emmitt Smith scored a touchdown several plays later.
Fortunately, the Steelers clawed their way back in the fourth quarter. Behind Norm Johnson’s 46-yard field goal and Bam Morris’s one-yard touchdown run, Pittsburgh trimmed the deficit to three at 20-17.
Just as the Steelers were in a good position to win their fifth Super Bowl title, lightning struck twice for Neil O’Donnell.
With the Cowboys’ all-out blitz converging on O’Donnell, he rolled to his right in an attempt to find an open receiver. Alas, he threw another interception to Brown, who, in turn, took the ball to the Steelers’ seven-yard line.
Smith’s four-yard touchdown run iced the game several plays later. The Cowboys won, 27-17.
Although O’Donnell completed 28 of 49 passes for 239 yards and one touchdown, his two second-half interceptions proved costly. Super Bowl XXX was also Neil O’Donnell’s last game with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
O’Donnell tested the free-agent waters in the offseason and eventually signed a five-year, $25 million deal with the New York Jets just over a month after losing to the Cowboys in Super Bowl XXX.
According to Sports Illustrated’s Peter King, the Steelers’ max offer for O’Donnell was $3.75 million per season.
O’Donnell initially did not want to leave Pittsburgh. He told his agent, Leigh Steinberg, he loved it in the Steel City and did not want to leave his head coach, Bill Cowher.
However, O’Donnell wanted to go over the Jets’ and Steelers’ offers again. He agonized over that decision for the next four hours.
Steinberg then suggested that O’Donnell, his wife Leslie, and their family friend Bob Bryant put the decision to a vote. O’Donnell quickly shot that down and told his agent he was going to sign with the Jets, per King.
O’Donnell’s 12,867 passing yards in six seasons remains the fourth-most in Steelers franchise history. O’Donnell also became the second-winningest quarterback in team history behind Terry Bradshaw at the time the former left Pittsburgh in 1996.
Ben Roethlisberger and Kordell Stewart have eclipsed Neil O’Donnell’s win total since then. In addition, no other quarterback has worn O’Donnell’s number 14 since he last played for the Steelers in the 1995 NFL season.
Sadly, Neil O’Donnell never lived up to the hype as the New York Jets $25 million man.
O’Donnell joined the Jets after a disastrous 3-13 season under head coach Rich Kotite in 1995. He lost his first six starts in the 1996 NFL campaign before sitting out the rest of the season with a shoulder injury. O’Donnell’s backup, Frank Reich, took over quarterbacking duties for the rest of the season.
The Jets continued their freefall with an abysmal 1-15 win-loss record in 1996. It was the worst showing in their 37-year franchise history.
Jets management fired Kotite and replaced him with Super Bowl-winning coach Bill Parcells prior to the 1997 NFL season. O’Donnell, eager to make up for lost time with the Jets, had 2,796 passing yards, 17 passing touchdowns, and seven interceptions in 14 starts for Parcells that year.
Regrettably, O’Donnell fell out of favor with Parcells as the season wore on. The latter eventually tapped Glenn Foley to start in O’Donnell’s place late in the season.
Although New York won nine games during Parcells’s inaugural season as head coach, it wasn’t enough to punch a ticket to the postseason. The Jets failed to reach the playoffs for the tenth time in the past 11 seasons.
The Jets eventually released Neil O’Donnell in the summer of 1998. New starter Vinny Testaverde passed for over 3,000 yards as the Jets won 12 games and reached the AFC Championship Game that year.
O’Donnell told CBS News that there were no hard feelings between him and the Jets. He also added that the media exaggerated his tenuous relationship with Parcells.
O’Donnell signed a four-year, $17 million deal with the Cincinnati Bengals in July 1998. He had 2,216 passing yards, 15 touchdown passes, and four interceptions for second-year Bengals head coach Bruce Coslet that season.
Despite O’Donnell’s best efforts, Cincinnati floundered with an atrocious 3-13 win-loss record in 1998. Since joining the NFL in 1970, the Bengals had missed the postseason 22 times in the past 29 seasons.
Neil O’Donnell’s tenure in the Queen City was short-lived. The Bengals released him at the season’s end in favor of rookie signal caller Akili Smith.
O’Donnell then signed with the Tennessee Titans in the summer of 1999. He spent his final five pro football seasons serving as Steve McNair’s backup in the Music City.
Tennessee averaged 11 wins per season under head coach Jeff Fisher from 1999 to 2003. The Titans made four postseason appearances and won two division titles during that memorable five-year stretch in franchise history.
The pinnacle of that memorable run was reaching Super Bowl XXXIV against Kurt Warner’s St. Louis Rams at the end of the 1999 NFL season.
Neil O’Donnell first retired after the 2002 NFL campaign. However, Fisher and the Titans management convinced him to return for one more season due to injuries McNair and Billy Volek had sustained in 2003.
O’Donnell finished his memorable pro football career with a bang. He started the season finale against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and finished the game with 232 passing yards and two touchdowns in Tennessee’s 33-13 win.
#Steelers Career Passing Leaders:
1. Ben Roethlisberger – 56,545
2. Terry Bradshaw – 27,989
3. Kordell Stewart – 13,328
4. Neil O'Donnell – 12,867
5. Bubby Brister – 10,104#SteelersNation #HereWeGo #SteelersStats #NFLTwitter #SteelersFans #SteelersCanada pic.twitter.com/JS5ssNvZwI
— Black and Gold Nation (@B_GNation1) March 30, 2020
O’Donnell retired for good following the 2003 NFL season. He had 21,690 passing yards, 120 touchdown passes, and 68 interceptions in his 14-year NFL career.
Neil O’Donnell had a penchant for taking care of the football during his time on the NFL gridiron. In fact, his 2.1 interception percentage currently ranks him 18th in NFL history.
Neil O’Donnell and his family currently reside in the Nashville, TN area. He worked as a Titans sports analyst for local television station WTVF from 2005 to 2007.
O’Donnell became a member of the Steelers Hall of Honor in the spring of 2022.
According to a press release from the Pittsburgh Steelers (via Steel City Underground’s Joe Kuzma), the team encouraged its fan base to put O’Donnell’s Super Bowl XXX performance behind them and focus on his contributions to the team during his six-year tenure in the Steel City from 1990 to 1995.
“Neil’s contributions to the organization far overshadow one bad game. While he made a business decision to leave Pittsburgh following Super Bowl XXX, that’s not something we should hold a grudge against him for.”
O’Donnell has been working for FieldTurf, a company that manufactures artificial turf sports fields, in a sales capacity since 2006, per his official LinkedIn page.