Dann O’Neill admitted he could have chosen from dozens of personal trainers or workout specialists in preparation for the NFL Scouting Combine on Feb. 20, and the ensuing NFL draft in late April.
But in the end, O’Neill stayed loyal to his Grand Haven roots.
The former Buccaneer and recent Western Michigan University graduate has been enduring through grueling two-hour daily workouts five days a week for the past three weeks overseen by 2004 Grand Haven High School graduate Matt Wilber.
“I know Matt. I’m comfortable with Matt and he knows what he’s doing,” O’Neill said inside Powerhouse Gym in Grand Haven on Thursday, before the pair started the day’s workout. “Yeah, there’s all these fitness buffs out there that have read all the books, and I’m not saying they don’t know what they’re doing, but they don’t have a master’s degree in exercise science like Matt does.”
Wilber obviously knows his way around a weight room, having at one time worked as a strength and conditioning intern with the University Michigan’s football, wrestling and softball teams.
“Everyone always asks me about (Michigan quarterback) Denard Robinson,” Wilber said. “I can honestly say he was one of the nicest guys I worked with. He just had that ‘aww shucks’ type of personality.”
Wilber received his undergraduate degree from Grand Valley State and during that time, he learned the ropes from another O’Neill, Dann’s father Jim, who at the time, was Grand Haven’s strength and conditioning coach.
Wilber went on to receive his master’s from Western Michigan University and maintained a passion to develop and get the most out of athletes physically.
Fortunately, an opportunity at his high school alma mater arose after Jim O’Neill stepped down to accept another job offer.
“He sent me a text around midnight asking me, ‘Do you want the job?’” Wilber said. “I was like, ‘of course.’
“Athletics have been apart of my whole life, and Grand Haven has given so much to me,” continued Wilber, who wrestled and played football at GHHS. “The opportunity to give back or help out in any way was something I really valued.”
Aside from working with hundreds of students at GHHS, Wilber has also started his own professional training company, Lakeshore Elite Fitness, which he operates out of Powerhouse.
One of his first truly “elite” customers was the 6-foot-7, 320-pound Dann O’Neill, who, upon the completion of his senior season at Western Michigan University, earned first-team all-conference honors in the Mid-American Conference as an offensive tackle. As one of the best senior linemen in the country, O’Neill was also recently selected to play in the East-West Shrine game on Jan. 19 in St. Petersburg, Fla., one of several college all-star games that draws the eyes of NFL scouts.
“When the invitation came through, it was just exciting,” O’Neill said. “I consider it almost like a business trip, because there’s going to be a ton of pro scouts and coaches there. It’s just going to be saturated with NFL people.”
O’Neill is hoping to become the second Grand Haven graduate to be drafted into the NFL in as many years, joining former WMU graduate John Potter, who was selected by the Buffalo Bills in last April’s draft.
But to realize that dream, O’Neill realized he needed to get in better overall physical shape, especially during the winter months.
In preparation for a potential invitation the NFL Scouting Combine, O’Neill has already booked upcoming sessions at Protex Sports Training in Arizona, which will better prepare him to conquer the drills at the Combine and WMU’s pro day, including the 40-yard dash and agility drills such as the vertical and broad jumps, a 3-cone drill and shuttle run.
“(The training in Arizona) is run by a guy named John Ellsworth, who’s actually a (Central Michigan University) graduate,” O’Neill said, referring to WMU’s arch rival. “No comment on that.”
Before traveling west, O’Neill has relied on the help of Wilber to build strength and produce more of a chiseled finish product for scouts to evaluate.
“In regards to Dann and his pro day, he wants to test really well, so it’s different working with him than a typical high school athlete,” Wilber said. “The goals are different, because he’s got a shorter time frame.”
Although O’Neill calls the sessions “hell,” he also said the results through three weeks have been eye opening.
One improvement has been with his 225-pound bench press, which NFL scouts value to determine a lineman’s strength. O’Neill said he’s topped out at 19 repetitions and was hoping to hit 21 on Thursday.
“By the combine, I’m hoping to be able to do around 30,” he said.
“The average for a lineman there is what, 24-25?” Wilber asked O’Neill and got a nod.
Wilber has relied on workouts he’s been introduced to by Jim O’Neill and also followed in Ann Arbor.
“I thought they’d have some kind of revolutionary type of training (at Michigan), but really, the basis of it is the same of what I’ve been learning at Grand Haven,” he said. “The only difference is, Michigan has an athletic budget of millions of dollars, so they’re able to do basically any type of training they want.”
O’Neill has extremely long arms, which is a trait ideal for NFL tackles, but he also realizes he has to develop more power in those arms and throughout his upper body.
“It’s crucial for me,” he said. “In college, you can get away with having just average upper body strength, but you get to the NFL and face defensive tackles like (New England Patriots’) Vince Woolfork, who has just a disgusting amount of strength. You’ll be exposed in a hurry.”
Wilber has tested O’Neill in what he calls strength days and endurance days on the bench.
In one session, O’Neill’s program will start with one rep at 90 percent of his maximum bench press weight, rest for a minute, and proceed to lift lower weights until he reaches “a forced rep,” where he struggles even to lift the bar off his chest.
“It’s torture,” O’Neill said. “I literally can’t move my arms, so (Wilber) has to do all the lifting for me.”
Wilber and O’Neill split their Monday through Friday routines at Powerhouse and Grand Haven High School, where most of the running will occur. O’ Neill has done a lot of short-distance sprinting, and what Wilber calls “modified suicides,” to simulate the explosive bursts that O’Neill needs as a lineman.
O’Neill’s 40-yard dash time, which is another critical aspect at the Combine, is a respectable 5.1 seconds. To maintain that time, or become even faster, Wilber has implemented a strict diet and has also introduced O’Neill to pre- and post-workout supplement shakes. O’Neill says they taste like “powdered B.O.”
“(The diet) is basically nothing that I enjoy eating and everything I don’t really enjoy,” O’Neill said with a grin. “I prefer a double-wrap burrito from Chipolte.”
“It’s a lot of lean proteins like fish and chicken. No red meats,” said Wilber. “In sports performance, proper nutrition is one of the key components. You eat the way you want to perform.”
O’Neill believes with the tremendous sacrifices he’s making now will ultimately pay off in helping achieve his long-awaited dream.
“I feel like it’s working,” he said. “I mean, I can actually see the outline of my abs starting to form, which is pretty good for a 320-pound guy. I was standing in the mirror the other day and saw this huge vein sticking out of my arm. I was like, ‘Yeeeaaah. Sweet. I haven’t seen that since I was 270 pounds wrestling my junior year in high school.”
The NFL Draft begins on April 25.