When Zach O'Neil chose Massachusetts Maritime Academy, one of his goals was to build friendships through soccer, an approach that had paid dividends at Scituate High School. Little did he know that one of the closest relationships he would build would come with Thomas Shmid, Buccaneer men's soccer's youngest member.
Shmid will not appear on a playing roster, but his story is bigger than any told on the pitch. Thomas was born with mitochondrial disease, an inherited condition which prevents energy from being created on a cellular level. It creates extreme exhaustion and makes daily activities very challenging.
However, the Academy's partnership with Team IMPACT, Thomas was officially signed to the team and take part in activities as part of the Quincy organization's mission to improve the quality of life for children with chronic health conditions through sport.
"When I came to Maritime as a freshman, there had already been this connection with Thomas," expressed O'Neil. "He's a local kid from Marshfield, his father is a Maritime grad ('99) and got in contact with us. He already had a built this strong relationship with cadets Mathew McDonough, Mick Rouette, and others. I got to know him through them. He comes to practices and games when he can. He tells his mom that he wants to 'hang out with the guys'. He's even just come down on occasion to hang out with us.
"As a freshman, I realized he lived close to me so it felt like a perfect fit. I had an opportunity to reach out to him, and it's easy because he lived nearby, so I would go over and play Minecraft and Wii and built a little relationship with him."
In the autumn, the men's soccer and lacrosse teams took part in the MitoAction Energy 5K. As we profiled in September, almost 80 past and present Maritime athletes took part, including both teams. Freshman Ben Paine (soccer, baseball) took first, but it was MitoAction who earned the prize, as MMA raised $3,700 for the foundation.
"The past three years that I have been here, [men's soccer has] put together a team called 'Thomas's Team' and we all run for him. His mom and/or Dad will run and they will push him in the jogging stroller and he will use get out and walk the last bit. It's a pretty great moment. That really inspired me to think what else I can do for him. It's good to know that the whole team is behind him. He comes down here, but it's good for us to go up there and for him to know the whole team is behind him."
Until meeting Thomas, O'Neil had never completed a charity fun or put together a fundraising campaign, but as his sophomore season wore on, the Scituate resident knew he wanted to do more.
"There were a bunch of different charities that I was thinking of. As I was getting closer to coming back to school, I was thinking that I wanted to do something more personal. I went to his house and asked his parents [Abby and Adam Shmid] whether I could run for them and do something directly for Thomas. So they put me in touch with Mito Action and set me up with a fundraising."
As usual, the Academy has stepped up to support one of its own.
"Fundraising has been great. I put the link [26.2 for Thomas] and who I was running for out on Facebook and a people have been constantly sharing it. I am a Squad Leader here and reached out to my freshman and they have raised a couple hundred dollars.
"My father is a firefighter in Cambridge and he got them to post on the Firefighter's Union website. Thomas' mother is also doing a fundraiser for Mito Action on Cinco de Mayo as well."
O'Neil had an early connection with Mass Maritime and a chance meeting changed his career path.
"I have had a ball on my feet since I can remember. I started playing youth leagues when I was four, maybe even three. I grew up playing with all my friends—that's where I made all my friends. I wasn't the captain in high school—there were 11 of us seniors and we all grew up together. My senior season was amazing. We went on a 17-game winning streak. We lost, I think, Sep 10, and the next loss was our last game in the playoffs.
"I actually met Coach [Greg] Perry when I was 12. I was playing his son. At that time, I wanted to join the Navy as my Dad was Navy. [My parents introduced me as] they thought [MMA] might be a nice medium between Navy and a regular degree. We had a brief meeting and looking back I thought, 'Now I have something to work towards.' I applied to other schools, but I knew this was where I wanted. I wanted nothing more than to play for this team and lead this team.
O'Neil was named one of the 2018 captains by Perry during the annual "Break-Up Dinner" and, in that role, help lead spring practices. With large class loads, Buccaneer teams tend to be young, putting more pressure on the captains. Only four of 11 players from O'Neil's first year remain.
"I always just seem to do better with my coursework in season. When I am more under a time crunch, I seem to get my work done more. Playing a sport here is my way of forgetting about everything else—all the constant [noise] on the other side of life. Being able to get away for a few hours and lace up the boots is my way of getting away. I'd much rather do that than take a nap or play Xbox."
The Emergency Management major, like most Maritime students in their last two years, has earned a leadership role. O'Neil is a squad leader, with this role making soccer pre-season practice quite the commitment.
"Being squad leader adds a lot more responsibility. I came back three weeks before school. The first week is kind of a training, the freshman then come in. Me and seven other juniors were selected as freshman leaders. We had 69 freshman up from 4:45 a.m. to 10:30-11 each night, [preparing] them ready for the culture shock. It was a very valuable experience, something that other schools don't offer.
"I got them up, did a bit of yelling to get them ready, then snuck out for soccer practice, then came back for more yelling and then lunch, snuck out for more soccer practice, and then finished up the day with home. It was well worth it!"
Working unusual hours in a uniform will pay off for O'Neil, whose interest in public service remains strong. The Scituate native has witnessed first-hand the need for emergency preparedness after this March's nor'easters tore past his mother's [Lynn Dunn] house.
"Our house is a mess, our back yard is a beach and our basement is swimming school. We had some problems in groundwater seeping in as we tried to drain it.
As part of his degree, O'Neil completes placements ("co-ops") in the field and family history has only further sparked his interest.
"This past winter was my first co-op. I had the opportunity to work with the emergency management agency for the town of Hanover, working with the Comprehensive Emergency Management Plan, which the state requires all states to have, which helps them prepare for everything from a terrorist attack to a winter storm. They don't really have an agency—it's really just the fire chief. My office was in the fire station. I had to do a lot of independent research on my own. I got some really great experience.
"My Dad [Bryan O'Neil] is a teacher for the fire academy and was a coordinator for South Shore Academy, so a lot of the guys knew my Dad. I got talking to them during lunch and they asked whether I had any interest in fire and I told them that's exactly what I wanted to do, so they asked if I wanted to go on calls with them. I would work in the office on the document until the sirens went and then would go put out fires.
Whether O'Neil is literally or figuratively putting out fires, the experience in real world emergency management, which included riding along during this winter's first nor'easter on his final day, is one that has further stoked his fire.
"When I first applied to come here, I wasn't 100% set on being a firefighter, but I felt like studying it would get me a taste and I knew I wanted to do something on those lines. I also have an interest in counterterrorism. I want a job where I don't know what I'm doing every day. Ultimately, I'd like to work with my Dad in Cambridge.
You can support O'Neil and Thomas at the MitoAction fundraising page [link]. We will also be offering updates on our Twitter as O'Neil and Kaylene Murphy run the Boston Marathon. Make sure to bookmark www.mmabucs.com and get the inside scoop on Facebook and Twitter @mmabuccaneers. Plus, check out our new Instagram @massmaritimebuccaneers!
Gabriel Fidler, Sports Information Associate