O’Neil cheering on Pats, literally

By Rich Garven
December 5, 2010

Jillian O’Neil was a senior at Dean College in Franklin two years ago when a fellow student suggested the petite blond try out for the New England Patriots cheerleading squad.

O’Neil, a lifelong Worcester resident, has been dancing since the age of 4. She played field hockey and was a member of the dance team at Burncoat High, where she graduated with current Patriots defensive lineman Ron Brace in 2004.

Although energetic, enthusiastic, attractive and ambitious, O’Neil had zero cheering experience.

Still, it was only a short drive to the auditions at Gillette Stadium, and the thought of performing in front of 68,000 football fans was enticing. Plus, O’Neil and her family have always rooted for the Patriots, just from their home.

You know the rest.

jillian-oneil“It’s awesome being in the center of the action and doing what I love to do — perform and dance,” the easygoing O’Neil said Friday during a phone conversation, which is the Patriots’ preferred means of communication with their cheerleaders.

The job is also a lot of work.

O’Neil and her 24 colleagues meet two nights a week to practice. Home games make for long — but enjoyable — days. And there are all sorts of charity and promotional appearances.

“Technically it’s a part-time job,” O’Neil, 24, said. “But it’s a full-time commitment.”

O’Neil doesn’t go around telling people what she does for work on weekends. However, it frequently seems to come up in casual conversation.

The reaction and ensuing responses are typically the same.

“A lot of people, the first thing they’ll say is, ‘Really?’ ” O’Neil said with a laugh. “Then they ask, ‘Do you know Tom Brady? How long have you been doing it? Do you get along with the girls on the team? Do you travel to away games?’ ”

The answers: no, three years, yes and no.

Sean and Lisa O’Neil have, um, cheered on the oldest of their four grown children through every hip-shaking, hand-waving routine. They haven’t missed a home game since Jillian first made the cut in 2008, something she has had to do each year since there are no guaranteed spots.

“They’re very supportive,” O’Neil said. “My dad is protective, but he’s always been supportive.”

O’Neil earned a bachelor’s degree in dance from Dean — where she also minored in psychology — a month after joining the Patriots. She started taking classes in elementary education at Worcester State University in September with the goal of becoming a teacher.

The chance to travel courtesy of the Patriots was one reason O’Neil took a couple of years off from school. She has taken full advantage of her opportunities, including going to the Dominican Republic twice and Aruba for swimsuit calendar shoots.

Last year, O’Neil was part of a contingent that included four of her fellow cheerleaders, their coach and five NFL players on a 10-day goodwill trip to the Persian Gulf to visit U.S. Navy troops.

“It was a chance to go over there and thank them for all they’ve done for us,” O’Neil said. “It was definitely rewarding and very eye-opening.”

The group flew from Boston to Amsterdam to the tiny island nation of Bahrain. From there, they made a number of one- or two-day trips, including to a base in Djibouti and aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt.

They departed the famed aircraft carrier via a catapult takeoff that still gets O’Neil’s heart racing.

O’Neil has trouble sleeping on planes and hardly shut her eyes on the flights over. But after all those morale-boosting performances and meet-and-greets, that wasn’t a problem on the way home.

“We were exhausted, so it was much easier to sleep,” she said.

It was off to China for an NFL promotional tour in late January/early February. There were stops in Guangzhou, Beijing and Shanghai.

O’Neil and her fellow cheerleaders performed at the “Bird’s Nest,” the stadium that gained fame during the 2008 Summer Olympics, walked in the snow on top of the Great Wall, and through Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City.

Football isn’t particularly popular in China, but these ambassadors of the sport were.

“I was nervous to go at first, but I’d love to come back,” O’Neil said. “The Chinese people were very nice, very kind, and very welcoming.”

This is O’Neil’s third season as a Patriots cheerleader, meaning it’s her last per team policy. She is obviously rooting for the wonderful experience to end with a victory in the 2011 Super Bowl in Dallas on Feb. 6.

However, being the superstitious type, O’Neil didn’t want to go there. But even though the good times on the sideline are coming to an end, she’ll remain a Patriot in spirit for the coming year.

Flip open the 2011 Patriots cheerleaders’ swimsuit calendar to January and you’ll find O’Neil warming that long, cold month.