Dylan Nguyen/ Daily Collegian
Dylan Nguyen/ Daily Collegian

High school quarterback to collegiate lacrosse midfielder

How Shane O’Leary’s transition from his family’s football legacy allowed him to become one of UMass’ most versatile athletes

May 17, 2022

From the time Shane O’Leary took his first steps one thing was certain: he was an athlete.

Whether it was hitting baseballs, shooting baskets, or throwing a football; even shy of his second birthday, O’Leary could be found in the backyard with some sort of ball in hand.

“He has always had a knack to do anything that he picks up,” said O’Leary’s father, Jim O’Leary.

O’Leary’s natural athleticism was something that certainly was not a freak occurrence. The O’Leary Family has deep roots in athletic dominance that only seem to blossom to new heights as generations progress. Shane’s father, Jim was a star quarterback at Salem High School, later going on to hold the career rushing record for a quarterback at Northeastern even after sustaining a career ending knee injury his junior year.

The O’Leary brothers were destined to catalyze this line of success quite literally from the signature of their birth certificates. Shane and his two brothers were each named after acclaimed quarterbacks: Brett as in Favre, Shane (Matthews) and Peyton (Manning.)

This foundation for greatness was fostered by The O’Leary’s environment. Shane’s reality as being the dreaded middle child, coupled with his home being the neighborhood epicenter for pickup games left him with no choice but to fight to prove his ability.

“I was the middle kid; it was always competitive,” O’Leary said. “We grew up playing literally seven sports in the backyard, with other kids coming over to play with us too. It pushed all three of us to where we are today.

And that it did. All three brothers went on to become accomplished three sport athletes in high school. Shane’s point of focus after transferring to Governor’s Academy was in football, ice hockey, and lacrosse; captaining in the latter two. The experience at “Gov’s” is what he attributes much of his development to.

“At Gov’s they try to make you play as many sports as you can, and I was fortunate enough to play three there. That was huge for me,” O’Leary said.

It was at Governor’s that O’Leary had a full circle moment. On the football team, O’Leary had his father, Jim as his coach and younger brother, Peyton, as one of his teammates. After years of backyard passes, competitions, coaching sessions, three-fourths of the O’Leary men were on the same field, on the same team, all striving for the same thing: to win.

When it came time to consider his college career though, being an all-round athlete caused a hindrance of sorts. For the first time in his life, O’Leary couldn’t just be an athlete. He had to be a specific one, committed to a singular team. To the unassuming eye, one would only deduce O’Leary would go on to play football at the next level. O’Leary had standout performances at cornerback position, before transitioning to be starting quarterback in his final two seasons at Governor’s. At the end of the day however, O’Leary’s heart was elsewhere.

Dylan Nguyen/ Daily Collegian

“Honestly. I was looking at all options, but lacrosse stood out the most to me, I really liked the team aspect of lacrosse. I came to UMass, and of all the coaches that recruited me, the UMass coaching staff really stood out to me.  I don’t regret my decision at all,” O’Leary said.

O’Leary’s stray from football was not only the path that he took, but nearly the one his younger brother, Peyton took as well . Peyton himself a talented football player, caught for 403 yards and five touchdowns to help Governor’s football to a 7-2 record in his final season.

However, Peyton went on to initially commit to the Massachusetts lacrosse team, nearly marking a second brother duo to their roster, following suit with Kevin and Mike Tobin. In the end though, it was a preferred walk on offer from Michigan’s football team that resulted in Peyton decommitting from UMass and pursuing his lifelong dream of becoming a Wolverine.

O’Leary’s decision is one that comes with not only his satisfaction, but that of his family’s. Having immersed his children in sports at such a young age, Jim’s support in accordance with Shane’s passion allowed for the perfect storm for him to pursue the sport of his choice, at the highest level. The testament was the same for all of the O’Leary boys. There was no question of their deep ties to football, and nothing would change that.

“I think Shane had an opportunity to play anything he wanted in college. I think he could have played football; I still think he could play football. He’s just that kind of athlete … in the long run, he saw his potential in lacrosse at a high level. It is a great sport for him; he can run, he’s got great endurance, he’s tough. I think Coach [Greg] Canella saw that in Shane too because of his three-sport mentality and his toughness,” Jim said.

Ultimately it was this versatility that has given O’Leary an edge on the lacrosse field. Though only seeing playing time in one game during his freshman year at UMass, the season was one riddled with COVID-19 and all the difficulties that came with it. This time on the sidelines was something O’Leary took to his own benefit, not allowing his lack of contributions to the scoresheet serve as a reflection of his own ability.

“Last year was a really big learning year for me and I wouldn’t take it for the world. I didn’t really play much, but I took what I learned watching the older guys into the summer, and here I am,” O’Leary said.

Now having finished his sophomore year, and redshirt freshman season, O’Leary proved just that. In the season’s fourteen games, the midfielder added substantial offensive depth, lending his speed and premiere hand eye coordination from football and hockey to his lacrosse game. O’Leary notched 16 points, 58 shots, and his first career hat trick in this season alone. His place as fourth on the team’s leading scorers list is significant accomplishment for any player, never mind being one of the two underclassmen on that list.

Regardless of this individual success, the central goal for O’Leary has never been being the best athlete. And UMass hasn’t changed that mindset in the slightest.

“I just want to be the best teammate I can possibly be. Each day, each offseason. I want to be able to push the kids around me to be their best selves. I want people to say that I was a really great teammate when they played with me in college,” O’Leary said.

This “team first” mentality was especially important this year, being the first season since the brunt of the COVID-19 limitations have lessened.

Dylan Nguyen/ Daily Collegian

“Last year obviously had a lot of restrictions on being able to hang out,” O’Leary said. “A big thing with lacrosse is that stuff off the field really matters. Being able to hang out with each other and really form a good relationship with one another is what really matters when Saturdays come around.”

The character of O’Leary is something not only evident while talking to the midfielder, but to those who know him.

“Shane is a great leader. His work ethic, and his enthusiasm can rub off on a lot of people and a lot his teammates. I think he puts a lot of his personal stuff off and is really a team guy,”  Jim said.

It is this work that O’Leary has long put into all aspects of his life, that is now being recognized from a wider audience. The Colonial Athletic Association (CAA) named O’Leary to their All-Rookie Team, a 10 member list highlighting the most promising lacrosse players throughout their league.

Though the immediate future of the team is unclear, one thing is for certain: O’Leary is not just a player or athlete, but an individual who is set to make a long-lasting impact on this program.

“In playing a lot of sports, aspects of each have really tied into lacrosse for me. That is what helped me become an athlete, and hard worker,” O’Leary said.

“I really am thankful for that.”

Shanti Furtado can be reached at [email protected] and followed her on Twitter @shantifurtado.

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