.....Advertisement.....
.....Advertisement.....

Super Bowl player has strong local ties

-A A +A
By Seth Whitehead

Super Bowl parties at Sue Miller's house have been pretty standard in recent years.

There's lots of food, lots of people, lots of mingling... and, oh yeah - there's a football game on TV.

As is the case at many get-togethers on America's biggest non-declared holiday, the big game has, on occasion, taken a backseat at the Millers' Shobonier residence during their annual Super Bowl bash.

Not this year, though.

"I'm not going to be playing cards or anything else once the game starts," Miller said.

Instead, Miller's eyes will be glued to her TV set from the opening kickoff to the final horn, as she roots on her nephew, New York Giants starting center Shaun O'Hara.

She'll have plenty of company - both at her home and around the region.

Several of O'Hara's cousins live in the area and will be in attendance to take in the game at Miller's abode.

Barbara McCart, O'Hara's another aunt on his mom's side, will be watching with husband Bob in Vandalia.

And O'Hara's grandparents, longtime Vandalia residents Ivan and Jeanne Witbracht, will be tuned in from their winter home in Texas.

O'Hara's mom, VCHS alum Lynn (Witbracht) O'Hara, will have the best seat in the house. She will be watching along with husband David O'Hara at the scene of the biggest game in their son's career.

It will be an opportunity to witness the culmination of Shaun's lifelong dream in person - and the couple can't wait.

"From the time you play pee-wee football, you dream of a chance to play in the Super Bowl," said David, who played football at Eastern Illinois, where he met Lynn.

"It's very exciting for us."

And it is very easy to root for Shaun O'Hara, even if you're not related to him.

His unlikely rise to the apex of his profession parallels that of his team's improbable Super Bowl run.

O'Hara knew what he wanted to do with his life from the time he was 5 years old.

"A friend was over to our house one time, and she asked the children what they wanted to be," David O'Hara said. "Shaun's response was, 'My name is Shaun O'Hara, and I was born to play football.'"

But even though O'Hara would go on to excel on the gridiron at the high school level, not many had Shaun's faith that he would fulfill his destiny.

The New Jersey resident persevered, however. He wound up walking on at Rutgers, going on to not only earn a starting spot, but be named an all-Big East first-team tackle by his senior year.

The naysayers still weren't totally convinced once the 6-foot-3, 303-pounder graduated, as O'Hara went undrafted out of college.

But he beat the odds again, signing a free-agent contract with the expansion Cleveland Browns in 2000, earning a permanent roster spot shortly thereafter.

O'Hara's NFL stock has been rising ever since.

He became a full-time starter at right guard and center in 2002 before settling into his role as a full-time center in 2004.

O'Hara's persistence was rewarded by the Giants when he signed a multi-million dollar contract with the franchise in 2005. He rewarded the Giants by being named a Pro Bowl alternate that year.

O'Hara has made his grandparents very proud, but not necessarily for the reasons you might be thinking of.

"We're more proud of the person he is than him being an NFL player," Jeanne Witbracht said.

O'Hara received the Giants' "Man of the Year" award in 2005, an honor bestowed on the player who exemplifies excellence on the field and in the community.

"He's always been a very good person," said Miller, who noted O'Hara is especially good with kids. "He's got a good heart, and it is in the right place."

Now eight years into his NFL career, O'Hara has established himself as a NFL mainstay, defying the odds at every stop.

"I think he believed in himself and his own destiny," his father said. "He's taken a road that not a lot of people have taken. He's worked, probably harder than most, to get where he is."

But early on in the 2007-08 season, the doubters hounded O'Hara again. Only this time, they were questioning the capability of his team.

The Giants struggled out of the gates to an 0-2 start, and some in the national media went so far as to predict a winless season.

But, lo and behold, New York bounced back to make the NFC playoffs as a wild card. The Giants have since pulled off three straight road upsets to advance to the Super Bowl, including an "instant classic" last Sunday in Green Bay that had his family on pins and needles.

"You just tell yourself 'breathe,'" said O'Hara's mom of watching that game.

Added Miller, "There was a lot of screaming going on when they won against the Packers."

And like most watching, Miller felt the Giants had missed their chance when they missed a short field goal at the end of regulation. But the Giants' kicker redeemed himself in overtime, and the rest is history.

"I think that was probably the second-most exciting part of game," said Shaun's father of the game-winning field goal, "the first being that we weren't there in that (bitterly-cold) weather. To see the field goal go through, you realized maybe they're a team of destiny."

O'Hara told his father after the game "that he's never been colder in his life.

"I think one of his comments was that he couldn't feel his feet after the third quarter," David O'Hara said. "But it all took backseat to having chance to play in Super Bowl.

"Pretty amazing."

The only downside of O'Hara's success is that it's put his aunt Sue in an awkward position.

A Rams fan since the franchise moved to St. Louis in the 1990s, her nephew's ascent to the NFL has compromised her allegiances a bit.

"I always joke that I may have to get a Rams and Giants jersey and cut them in half," Miller said. "But on Sunday, I'll have to go with my second choice."

Miller, a big football fan, is predicting a Giants victory. McCart, who along with her mother hadn't followed the NFL until O'Hara stuck with the Browns, is just hoping for a good game - and for her nephew to enjoy his just rewards on the big stage.

"The part that excites me most is that Shawn is such a nice young man, and none of this has changed him," McCart said. "I'm very glad this happened for Shaun, because it's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."