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WOODSTOCK — Connor O’Neill’s passion is football.

The Cherokee County middle-schooler hopes to get his first taste of high school football next season when he enrolls at Etowah, but in many ways, he’s already ahead of the game.

O’Neill, who trains with Joe Ellis at Fury Academy in Woodstock, recently competed in a Nike SPARQ combine at Lassiter High School.

With more than 160 middle-school athletes from six states in attendance, O’Neill was in his element, ranking in the top five for overall performance. Standing 5-foot-11 and weighing 170 pounds, he impressed coaches and onlookers with his first-place performance in the powerball toss.

“It was pretty nerve-racking because that was the first combine that I had ever done,” O’Neill said. “There were so many people there. I didn’t know if they were watching me, but I was hoping they were because it was a great opportunity to get myself out there. It was fun showing what I could do.”

Much of the credit for O’Neill’s solid performance can be given to the training he had done under Ellis, according to O’Neill’s father, Kyle.

“We got to the point where I couldn’t teach him much more as his father,” Kyle O’Neill said. “We set things up with Joe and he started working out with him about three months ago.”

Ellis uses various methods to mold young athletes by making them faster and stronger, while also building their potential to be explosive in competition. With loud music pumping during a recent workout at the training facility, Connor O’Neill used resistance training.

“We do performance-training for a lot of different athletes,” Ellis said. “Some of the things we have done with Connor is weight-training — high-intensity to build explosive power. It’s about teaching him how to utilize those muscles to their advantage. We do lower-body, upper-body, speed work, a lot of footwork. But what really separates Connor is his heart.”

Ellis said his philosophy is that, on a given day, an athlete reaches 80 percent of their potential. His goal is to get that remaining 20 percent out.

“We want to show them what they can do when they reach their potential,” Ellis said. “We want them beyond their limit. Connor has been training for three months and he is already kicking butt. He has a bright future.”

Recently, O’Neill was paired with Elijah Hamilton, a cornerback from Blessed Trinity Catholic High School in Roswell. With Hamilton being a year older, O’Neill was challenged at a higher level.

“When I started training, I was weak,” O’Neill said. “I’m strong now. I’m proud of myself. I’m just glad that I started at Fury because, if I hadn’t, this probably wouldn’t have happened.”

Ellis is the one that recommended O’Neill attend the Nike combine, which was free for participants.

O’Neill goes to training sessions several times a week, with each lasting about 90 minutes. When he isn’t training at Fury, he will often work out with his father.

While O’Neill’s ultimate goal is to get a scholarship to play at Nebraska for all of his efforts, he’s trying to stay focused on the next step.

For now, that’s making the varsity team at Etowah as a freshman this fall.

As a running back, O’Neill will have some competition ahead of him, but he isn’t intimidated by that. He hopes that by training hard while other players — particularly other middle-schoolers — aren’t working out, he can get an edge on the competition.

“My goal in training right now is just to get better,” O’Neill said. “Fury is a great place. Joe is a great coach and I consider him a second dad, but really, I just want to get better. When ninth grade comes around, I want to play at my full potential and try to get a spot on varsity. I’m not afraid. I would love to go play with them.”

O’Neill said his love of football and Nebraska comes from his father, who was a highly recruited player out of southern California during his own high school days. While an injury forced the elder O’Neill to give up football for track in college, Connor O’Neill hopes that by training right, he can play the game he loves for a long time.

“I’ve played football since I was 5,” O’Neill said. “I have always loved it. I love the adrenaline when you are playing, and the fans are watching. It’s just a fun sport to play, and I want to do that as long as I can.”

In addition to honing his football skills, O’Neill is also keeping his grades in check. While his official transcript won’t start until his freshman year of high school, he wants to have the building blocks in place to succeed so that nothing stands between him and college.

Read more: Cherokee Tribune – Student of training center carries lofty football goals