My early days as a sports-radio host were filled with contests and events. We gave away tickets, offered prize packages and did some fun things on air. In the summer of 2009, we dreamed up a calzone-eating contest at a local Italian restaurant to help raise money for charity.
I put out the call for participants. An email arrived not long after with a video attached. On my screen, the round face of Michael O’Neill appeared.
“Just look at me,” the 43-year old said into the camera, “I’m fat.”
He weighed 445 pounds.
The first time I saw him in person, my heart dropped. I thought to myself, “I’m going to hell for this.” Because as O’Neill climbed out of his Toyota Tercel in the parking lot and lumbered toward the restaurant entrance, everyone’s eyes followed him.
Before Kevin Duckworth died, he talked candidly about his battle with weight. He noted that some people have problems with mental health, alcohol, finances and narcotics. Those issues hide in plain sight. But Duckworth’s problem — weight — was apparent to the entire world.
“When I walk into the room,” he said, “my problem walks in with me.”
O’Neill, who stands 5-foot-8, grew up just beyond the grounds of Alpenrose Dairy. He rooted for the Trail Blazers and Oregon Ducks as a kid. He was in the same graduating class at Beaverton High as former NFL safety Anthony Newman.
O’Neill wasn’t always heavy.
“I was back and forth between being skinny and being 50 pounds overweight, but didn’t really hit obesity until my 20s,” he told me.
His father meant well, but shamed him and sent him to a series of fat camps. In public, O’Neill endured stares, jokes and snickers. He dreaded taking airplane flights, too, because he’d have to buy tickets for multiple seats and use a seatbelt extension.
A cascade of negative thinking.
He finished second in the eating contest in 2009. He wiped the sauce from his cheeks with a napkin, then headed back to the parking lot. I watched every step, ashamed that I hadn’t thought more carefully about putting a guy with a life-threatening weight problem in the spotlight.
I didn’t sleep well that evening. Mike O’Neill was in trouble. We could all see it. The following morning, my wife urged me to ask if he wanted help.
“Do you think he’d be embarrassed?” I asked.
“Call him,” she shot back.
On the phone, O’Neill told me he dreaded going to restaurants that had chairs with arms on them. He couldn’t go see a movie, either. The theater seats wouldn’t hold him. His personal relationships suffered. His mother was worried.
He cried at one point.
“If I don’t do something,” he told me, “I know I’m going to die.”
That afternoon I recounted the story on the radio show. It felt like an insurmountable task. If we were going to do it right, O’Neill would require a physician, a nutritionist, a personal trainer and counseling. Also, he needed consistent encouragement and accountability.
A physician at Legacy Hospital, Dr. Erik McClain, called in a few minutes later and offered his services. A personal trainer at 24-Hour Fitness volunteered his expertise. Then, came a nutritionist, who raised her hand. The family that owns the Shoe Mill shoe stores pitched in and gave O’Neill a supply of athletic shoes.
The radio audience provided it. Every Thursday afternoon, at 3:45 p.m., Mike O’Neill called and reported his weight and talked about his progress. We stopped discussing the Pac-12, NFL and NBA for a few minutes and got real about weight.
“I’m down two pounds,” he’d say one week.
“I’ve lost four pounds,” he’d report the next.
O’Neill would later tell me that he was determined to come through for so many people who were counting on him. He refused to fail. Little did he know that, pound by pound, he was lifting the rest of us up.
After six weeks, he’d lost 25 pounds.
At three months his weight dipped under 400 pounds for the first time in years.
Less than three years later, Mike O’Neill weighed 186 pounds.
I called O’Neill in the spring of 2020 to check in. Gyms were closed due to the pandemic. He’d started an outdoor walking course. He was taking a daily one-hour walk. And when the gym re-opened, O’Neill was among the first back inside.
“I wear a mask,” he said. “You get used to it.”
O’Neill drives a taxi and works nights. He had filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola get in his cab once. Another time, actor Dennis Quaid hopped in. There have been numerous NBA players in his taxi over the years, too. And every once in a while, someone gets in, talks with him for a spell, and says, “Hold on… are you THE Mike who lost all that weight on the radio?!?”
“That’s me,” he tells them.
O’Neill’s total weight loss: 259 pounds.
On Friday, I checked back in with O’Neill. He told me he’s gained 65 pounds back. Anyone who has battled weight issues knows it’s a relentless fight. The night shift in downtown Portland is stressful. His habits haven’t been as steady. The pandemic left a lot of us not at our best.
“I’m still in the gym regularly but I need to stop snacking and ordering Door Dash,” he said. “It’s gotten pretty dangerous in the city and I am considering moving away from Portland. I’m hoping things get better.”
O’Neill liked that I checked in.
I need to do it more.
“I intend to lock back in and drop to a healthier weight in the next year,” he said. “You can post that.”
I just did, pal.
I met his mother a few years ago at a celebration we held for his weight loss. She burst into tears when we hugged. She personally thanked that doctor, the nutritionist, the trainer and an army of people who cheered her son on. I regretted putting Mike O’Neill in that blasted eating contest. But together — you, me and Mike — we found a way to make it a win.
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I know this is preaching to the Canzano Choir, so very briefly: THIS is why we are here. This is what John has created. A community. Not a clickbait “chat board.” Bravo, John. And bravo, Mike. We all are rooting for you.
John, what an amazing, uplifting story. Thank you!