South Pittsburgh Reporter - Serving South Pittsburgh Since 1939

Arlington fan serious as a heart attack about the Steelers


January 31, 2006

Terry O'Neill

Arlington resident and life-long Steelers super-fan Terry O'Neill could become part of Super Bowl lore if his beloved team wins the big game this Sunday.

The 50-year-old O'Neill made national headlines when he had a heart attack during the infamous Jerome Bettis playoff fumble at the goal line in Indianapolis on Jan. 15. Fortunately, Ben Roethlisberger saved the Steelers by making an unexpected tackle that prevented what could have been the most shocking and depressing defeat in the team's 73-year history.

O'Neill, a heating/cooling/ventilation engineer for a downtown hotel and office complex, is now resting comfortably at home after firemen and paramedics saved his life on that fateful late Sunday afternoon while watching the televised game at Cupka's Bar on 28th Street in South Side.

Although he is under his doctors' orders not to become stressed-out while recovering at home, O'Neill plans to watch his beloved Steelers in their quest to win “One for the Thumb” this Sunday in Super Bowl XL.

O'Neill returned to Cupka's to watch most of the Steelers' AFC championship game victory in Denver exactly one week after his life-threatening experience.  The South High alumnus recently spoke to free-lance writer Dave Assad about his whirlwind experience that has temporarily turned him into a celebrity almost as large as the Steelers players.

Here are some of the things he had to say about his experience and his love for the Black and Gold.

“I did not have a heart attack per se. My heart just quit beating completely. For all intents and purposes I died. Suffice it to say, I had a pre-existing medical condition that was causing me an awful lot of stress which is very bad for the heart. I've had a bad prostate that is very painful and it's been going on for a few years.

“What happened was, I was just sitting there watching the game and I was already getting a little bit ticked off with some of the dubious calls by the refs, particularly the one against Randle El and the one against Polamalu. On the Polamalu call [that negated an obvious Steelers pass interception], I could feel myself getting kind of flushed. It had never happened like that before and I just kind of blew it off as just part of the excitement and then when I saw the ball pop out from Jerome [10 minutes later], I turned to a friend and said something like, ‘He's a pro, he can't do that?' or some weird statement like that and by that time I was already blacking out. I saw the ball being carried down the field and all I thought was ‘Oh my God.' I saw the Colts player with the ball going down and I guess I went down there with him. Ben's tackle was the last thing I remember until I came to in the hospital.

“But I don't blame Jerome for this. I got to meet him out at the Robinson Mall the other night and he was really feeling bad about what happened. I just told him, you had nothing to do with it. I had a bad heart and that was that. Fifty-year-old men can have heroes and he's one of mine. He's outstanding on and off the field. He's a great person and I felt bad that he felt bad about the whole thing.

“I'm sure I'm not the first guy who fell off his stool down there [at Cupka's] so my friends thought I was goofing off. But one of the paramedics looked at me and said, ‘Terry's turning blue.' So if you're going to have heart failure you might as well have it where there's a fireman and where there's a guy who teaches CPR training to the EMS crews. I couldn't have been in better hands.

“Originally I went to [UPMC] South Side and I eventually ended up at the Presby Cardiac Ward that same night. I was given my pacemaker on Thursday that week and the next day I was sprung from the hospital. I went to the same place [to watch the AFC title game]. My wife Diane was with me and my daughter. The firemen were there too and I figured if I was going to watch that game I might as well be around the same guys who saved my life. I stayed there for awhile and when it looked like we were going to win, I just got up and went home. The firemen are old friends of mine and watching the game with them is like watching it with your brothers. I wouldn't have watched it anywhere else.

“I go to the original Cupka's where the older crowd hangs out, not the one on Carson for the young kids. But later in the day after the Steelers won the AFC championship, I walked into Cupka's II looking for Richie [Cupka, the bar owner] and as soon as I walked in you would have thought, ‘My God' the Lord had just walked in there. It was embarrassing. I was actually signing people's [commemorative] shirts, but all I did was fall over.

“Rich and a friend of his, Larry Ennis, have made up a black shirt that reads, ‘Cupka's I, a heart-stopping experience.' It's got a football logo on it with the date of the game against the Colts with my name on it. Rich and Larry got together while I was in the hospital and made those shirts up and part of the proceeds are going to a [charitable] heart organization, but I'm not sure which one.

“I enjoyed getting a chance to meet Jerome. I was invited out there at the mall. He's a very gracious and nice guy. Again, when I showed up there, you would have thought Moses walked into the place. There's a crowd of people around Jerome and all of a sudden I could hear a bunch of people saying, ‘There he is. There he is' as the crowd parted like the Red Sea as I walked up to Jerome. He motioned for me to come up there which made me feel pretty good.

“I've been to my share of Steelers games in my life although not as many as I'd like to. I couldn't go to any this year with my job as a stationary [infrastructure] engineer [working the 3 to 11 p.m. shift which includes weekends]. By city law, there always has to be someone on site where I work because of the high-pressure steam that's required in a big building like that. My job gets in the way of allowing me opportunities to go ballgames and things like that, but I am a monster fan. I see the Steelers definitely winning the Super Bowl and I won't feel sorry for the Seahawks when they get their heads handed to them.” 


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