James O’Hagan grew up loving the New York Jets. He wore Jets jerseys, attended games and dreamed of one day playing for the green and white.
But life works in a funny way.
O’Hagan, who went to Seaford High School, became a star on Long Island. This 6’3” beast is hard to miss, with a lengthy reddish-orange beard, weighing just more than 300 pounds. In high school, he dominated on the field, earning a spot on the University at Buffalo’s football squad.
“I was a real believer he could make it to the next level when he was in 11th grade,” Robert Perpall, Seaford High School’s football coach, said. “He had a tremendous love for the game. There’s a lot of things to overcome. He loves football, but he’s good at it.”
Perpall knows a thing or two about what makes a good football player. He’s been coaching for 50 years, 25 of them with the Vikings.
When O’Hagan started high school, his talent was unquestionable. Immediately, he became a starting tight end, as well as a lineman on the defensive side of the ball. His recipe for success was quite simple.
“You have to work real hard,” O’Hagan told the Observer. “You have to put your best foot forward every day and keep on grinding. You have to prove yourself any way that you can.”
O’Hagan entered the 2019 NFL Draft after four successful seasons with the Buffalo Bulls. His leadership skills excelled on and off the field, making him one of the top centers in the NCAA throughout his college career.
Unfortunately, the Seaford native went undrafted, and no one knew what would happen next. Hours after the draft ended, the New York Giants called. O’Hagan finally had a chance to make it in the NFL.
Fast forward to the summer and O’Hagan has been hard at work. He’s been impressing coaches during training camp, and is earning some playing time during the Giants’ preseason games, starting with the first match of 2019 against the Jets, of all teams.
When he took to the field, it was his time to prove he deserves a spot on the Giants’ roster.
“I wasn’t thinking about doing anything spectacular,” O’Hagan said less than a week after his preseason debut. “I was thinking of doing my job to the best of my ability on every play. It helped that it was in the third and fourth quarter, so the game already was underway. You have a sense of what they’re doing on the field because you’re playing situational ball, and we were winning. But I was more excited to prove to the team that I’m a good player.”
And O’Hagan did just that. He is currently third on the depth chart, behind fellow centers Spencer Pulley and Jon Halapio. The chances of making the team were originally slim. However, working with veteran quarterback Eli Manning, rookie Daniel Jones and second-year head coach Pat Shumur has given this Long Islander the shot he’s been looking for.
“I have a million questions for them, and they’ve helped me quite a bit,” O’Hagan said. “It’s a lot of technique stuff, learning how to read some fronts and things like that. Center is a really complicated position because you have to control the five offensive linemen and even the tight end at times. The biggest thing has been learning the game as a whole. They’ve been around the league for a while, so it’s an honor to learn from them.”
With the respect O’Hagan is showing to the team’s elders, the dream of making it past roster cuts remains alive and well. His dominance on the field and willingness to learn is exactly why Perpall knew this is one kid who could go far.
“He hates to lose,” Palpall said. “He’s the kind of guy who can make it to the next level. He was going against guys his own size or bigger and he was dominating them.”
Though roster cuts will continue until the season begins, this Giants rookie aims to make sure people know who he is.
However, O’Hagan might not have become a professional football player. In high school, he became a New York State wrestling champion, battling opponents on the mat, just like he did on the football field. Eventually, he had the option of going to college for either sport, but chose football due to his passion for it, as well as the opportunity to one day play on an NFL field.
“It would be amazing,” he said of making it onto the Giants’ roster. “It would be a dream come true.”
As O’Hagan looks to become one of just a few from the area to make it to the NFL, he can’t help but remember what life was like while growing up.
“It’s a small town, so everyone is pretty much friends with everyone,” he said. “I had a lot of different friends, hung out with them, lifted weights and played football. Seamans Neck Park was one place I went to when I was a kid, and Cedar Creek was another one I went to, too.”
Even if O’Hagan doesn’t make the final cut, he knows his hard work has indeed paid off, leading him to do something that will always make his parents proud of him.
O’Hagan said, “It’s hard to explain to people what it’s like to play in the NFL unless you’ve played in the NFL.”