A man down: Missing Jake O’Neill

Central Academy archers honor fallen teammate

By Kevin Spradlin

* March 21: ‘Take the shot you came to make’
* Jake’s obituary

MILLSTONE — Marla O’Neill sat at a picnic table under a clove of pine trees and, behind the protection of her stylish sunglasses, she talked about Jake.

“Before his head injury,” O’Neill began.

Marla knew two versions of her son. Before and after.

“He was a funny kid,” Marla said of her son, who played football since the age of 6 and was a lifetime hunter. “He liked to joke, he liked to make people laugh and smile. He was very outgoing. He was very intelligent. He had aspirations to become a doctor.”

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com Kannon Baker dons his Central Academy for Technology and Arts team shirt during the orienteering portion of the District 6 Youth Hunter Education Skills Tournament at Millstone 4-H Center in Ellerbe.

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com
Kannon Baker dons his Central Academy for Technology and Arts team shirt during the orienteering portion of the District 6 Youth Hunter Education Skills Tournament at Millstone 4-H Center in Ellerbe.

That’s what set him on the path of enrolling at the Central Academy for Technology and Arts (CATA) in Monroe. There, he played for the school’s football team for two years and joined the archery team. Fellow archers competed on Saturday in the 37th annual District 6 Youth Hunter Education Skills Tournament at Millstone 4-H Center in Ellerbe.

Jake was expected to be there. But Jake took his own life at the age of 17 on Thanksgiving Day 2014.

“All of a sudden, one of their teammates just disappeared,” Marla said. “They know he’s supposed to be here today. I’m not a very good replacement.”

But fellow archers and those who knew him had Jake on their minds throughout the day. And on the back of their team uniform shirts, centered at the top around a cross was a statement of honor: “Fly High Jake O’Neill.”

“I don’t even know half of these kids’ names,” Marla admitted, “but I love them.”

Jake O'Neill

Jake O’Neill

CATA advisor Shelly Pentecost supported the students’ gesture. His teammates, she said, “wanted to put (that saying) on the shirt.”

Generally speaking, there are two ways to handle losing a son from suicide. Sweep it under the rug, put your head down and act embarrassed if it’s ever brought up in public. Or talk about it. Marla, a behavioral analyst, has chosen the latter. She thinks it helps many more than only her.

“When something like this happens, when somebody takes their life, it doesn’t just affect the family,” Marla said. “It affects the whole community. Everybody needs a process of grief.”

The diagnosis

The O’Neill family traveled to a day. The appointment with the neurologist was for Michael, Jake’s younger brother. Michael had shown signs of what the family believed to be autism. It was 2012. The doctor went through a standard series of questions.

Jake answered “yes” to many of them. He was the high school football team’s quarterback.

“He played with his head,” Marla admonished after the fact — and before. “There were a couple of times, he took a hit … but he’d get right up.”

This period of time coincided with Jake having “a lot of sleep problems.”

It was a problem that had gone on for some 15 months.

“When you don’t sleep … it’ll change who you are,” Marla said.

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com Marla O'Neill, center, poses for a group photo after CATA "B" finishes up the orienteering challenge on Saturday at Millstone.

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com
Marla O’Neill, center, poses for a group photo after CATA “B” finishes up the orienteering challenge on Saturday at Millstone.

A holistic doctor performed a battery of tests. By Spring 2013, Jake was on a regimen of som 18 vitamins each day. Like most teenagers, Jake was acutely concerned of how his condition affected his social standing.

“I think, in his mind, he thought, ‘this is not normal,'” Marla said.

Jake began rebelling. He’d spit out his vitamins in the trash can. His parents would find them spit back out in water bottles.

“That summer, things went down hill really quickly,” Marla said.

Marla said family members and high school friends all saw the improvement Jake had made while taking the vitamins. She claimed it helped with his memory and focus. He didn’t see it, and when he rebelled, his progress regressed.

“He used to just go off,” Marla said, “zero to 100 in six seconds, just screaming and yelling, threatening to take his life. You know, that is really scary as a parent. It became apparent to me I needed to act fast.”

Jake was taken to the Amen Clinic in New York City. In March 2014, Jake was diagnosed with three brain injuries. Doctors were unable to tell what caused them or when, but the worst was in his temporal lobe. That’s the part of the brain responsible for logic and reasoning, and helped explain Jake’s sudden outbursts.

The Amen Clinic is another holistic medical center. The doctors there put Jake on a regimen similar to what he’d originally been prescribed — more than a dozen vitamins.

“In a lot of ways, Jake was his own worst enemy,” Marla said.

Jake continued to work against his own improvement and ended up committed for more than seven weeks in the summer of 2014 in a long-term residential treatment center. It was not unexpected.

Life with Jake, Marla said, was a series of “hills and valleys … all the time,” but nothing the doctors didn’t forecast.


Two weeks before Jake committed suicide, “he had been doing better than I had seen him doing in three to four years,” Marla said.

Thanksgiving was approaching. Across the country, that generally means one thing to many people: Hunting season. Jake wanted to go.

“We had some reservations, but we let him go because he was doing so well,” Marla said.

A few nights into the hunting trip, though, Jake called home. He was stressed. He wasn’t doing well. Marla knew it was time for him to come home. It was dark already and raining, but Marla told Jake to drive on home.

“He wasn’t home by midnight,” she said. “By 1:30 (a.m.), I knew he’d had to have gotten home.”

Marla checked in with Jake’s girlfriend. Then his best friend. No word from Jake.

2 a.m. came and went. Marla began calling the State Highway Patrol, looking for any information on traffic accidents.  Nothing.

At 3:59 a.m., Marla sent him a text message. It was, she said, “a mother’s poem.”

At 4:06 a.m., Jake reached out for the first time. It was a text message, and included a threat to take his life. Eight minutes later, he sent another text. Then Jake committed suicide.

“I know at least he got to see the last thing I had to say to him,” Marla said.

It was a message of love and hope. Marla later learned Jake, known for having a lead foot, had been pulled over for speeding — 81 mph in a 65 zone. Evidence was later found that Jake had attempted a U-turn and run his vehicle into a small ditch.

“What I think happened,” Marla starts …

She figures Jake had had enough. That the brain damage kicked in, and he couldn’t see a way out of his predicament.

“What he used to say to me all the time was ‘fuck my life,'” Marla said. “The doorbell rung at 7:45 that morning … it forever changed my life.”

Fly High Jake O’Neill

Marla said it was the students’ idea to honor Jake on the back of their uniform shirts. Not everyone had it; just the ones who knew Jake as an archer or through another activity.

“For them, that is a way they can be supportive of each other,” Marla said. “Going through the grieving process is very important to anybody that cared about him.”

Marla had long planned to be at Millstone on Saturday and watch the CATA archers compete. But she expected Jake to be there, too.

“I knew today was going to be hard for me,” she said. “I wanted to see what he would have experienced today.”

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