A 'little big man' always there for his mates

The AFL community mourns the death of 17-year-old Camden Haven Bombers player Luke O'Neill, after he was swept into flood waters on the mid-north coast.

Camden Haven Bombers Under-18s coach and North Coast AFL Board chairman Gordon Wiegold reflects on the life of Luke O'Neill.

By Gordon Wiegold

The one thing everyone will remember about the sporting Luke O’Neill, is that size never mattered to him.

Luke came to play for the Camden Haven Bombers in 2008 and one of his ex-rugby league coaches, Todd Clarke, summed up Luke’s fearless attitude.

“The prop forwards always pick young Luke out and run at him, and without fail, he picks them up and sits them on their backside,” Clarke said.

It was that attitude and determination that encapsulated Luke’s sporting prowess; whether it was touch footy, rugby league or Aussie Rules.

He was a gun at anything he turned his hand to.

He enjoyed playing the villain and then flashing that cheeky grin at his teammates as he stuck up for their interests.

He put family, friends and teammates all before himself.

In 2011, Luke was in trouble for a harmless prank and his High School coach, Darren Mearrick, was forced to suspend him for the next match.

This was a team scaling heights never seen before in local school Aussie Rules and Luke was a key member of it.

But protocols had to be followed and Luke eventually took his medicine to sit the game out – we thought that might be the last we saw of him in that school jumper.

Fifteen minutes before the game started, my phone rang and Luke was in a panic at the end of the line, he said: “Gordo, where’s the ground, where are the boys playing at?”

After setting him straight, he didn’t have time to reply and as the phone came away from his ear, I could hear: “Hurry up mum, they are at Stuart Park.”

He turned up and ran water for his teammates and he was back in the line-up the next game as they continued all the way to the State Final in Albury.

Luke played 22 games for the Camden Haven Bombers between 2008 and 2011 and was at training last week to support his best mate, Jed Seymour, after Jed had excelled at a Sydney Swans AFL Talent Combine recently.

Luke finished fifth in the Under-15s best and fairest votes and was also a top-five finisher in the Players’ Player votes in that same year – a nod to how much he was valued as a teammate.

He was also a member of the 2008 Under-12s premiership winning team, coached by Andrew Bagnall.

His value to the team in that high school State Knockout side was reinforced by his coach, Darren Mearrick.

“Luke had that ability to turn his skills towards whatever sport he was playing,” Mearrick said.

“He was like lightning and he was always willing to get under the skin of an opponent.

“I lost count of the tagging roles I gave him during that campaign on some of the best players in the opposition’s line-up.”

His assistant coach in 2011, John Sargeant, always had a soft spot for Luke’s tenacity.

“I know you are not supposed to play favourites as a coach but I found myself drawn to him every game,” Sargeant said.

“He had it all and he could turn it on when he needed to and he was always one to make sure that his mates were looked after, regardless of the situation.”

Regardless of whether you knew him as a sportsman or a community member, Luke touched everyone.

As sunlight rose and rescuers searched for Luke, an old football opponent turned up at 6.30am, having driven from Port Macquarie, knocked on a nearby door and said: “How can I help?”

Ex-teammates from his rugby league brotherhood formed guards of honour on Saturday morning and took a minute’s silence as the news filtered through.

Hundreds of friends gathered from all walks of life at the Laurieton United Services Club on Saturday, only hours after confirmation that their mate was taken far too soon.

The outpouring of emotion since, particularly on Facebook, shows the high esteem in which this young man was viewed.

While he was remembered for his tenacity and loyalty in his public and sporting life – those that knew him will never forget that grin.

Every time he pushed a boundary, you knew that grin was coming as his ‘get out of jail’ play.

Whilst it was the grin that we couldn’t resist, it was his love for those lucky enough to be afforded his friendship that truly helped make everyone a little bit richer.

The only appropriate way to sign off for now, is to say thanks to Luke for the gifts he shared with us.

He will continue to be an inspiration to his generation and all those that will have a little bit of Luke in their hearts and minds forevermore.

Photo by Bronwyn Sargeant - Luke playing for the Camden Haven Bombers in 2011.

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