Matt O’Neil, 34, played middle linebacker for the Big Blue back in the day.
These days he stands in the middle of the Blue Ox restaurant in Lynn as its chef/owner.
Like most middle linebackers he is in the middle of the action — and aggressive.
“I like to compete,” he says.
It’s afternoon, an hour or so before opening at the 191 Oxford St. restaurant.
There’s lots of dark brown wood that gleams and a view straight into the kitchen.
Out the front windows stand red-brick mill buildings.
Above, pressed-tin ceilings from more than a 100 years ago let people know they aren’t the first human beings to enter the place.
O’Neill is on the hoof. He heads from the kitchen and wedges through the bar. He’s into the open dining room. Slides to the side dining room then backs out.
He is in his white chef’s jacket and has a big neck.
You half expect him to drive a stray running back to the hardwood or call out a defensive scheme.
He does, in a way.
He confirms a bunch of reservations for the hostess, already waiting at the front facing the entrance.
He and one of the chefs go round and round briefly about whether or not to serve warm salads this night.
He huddles with an employee about the employee’s future working hours.
The place has energy and tradition and a bright clean look.
O’Neil takes a chair at a table under a painting of a blue ox and looks ready to relax. At least for a couple minutes in the restaurant where the family man works 80 hours a week.
It’s also the same room where he hosts his ESPN show, Cooking Coach. They are quick, straight forward segments. How to make warm cider, make a “S’more, make a pumpkin smoothie.
A friend from high school tagged him for that job and he likes it.
“It’s like what I do here,” he says. “I’m able to project my personality and be in front of people. That is when I am at my best.”
He likes cooking and running a business, too.
He learned about wine and food while on a Bates College study abroad program in Italy.
Later he got a glimpse of what restaurant life was like when he delivered soda to Martha’s Vineyard establishments.
He then studied culinary arts and went to work in top Boston restaurants learning from top chefs, he said.
He took on the restaurant business in Lynn with zeal.
Sort of like a middle linebacker plays the game.
How did he play?
“I was an animal — what do you expect?” he says.
Each day and night he is working to make his restaurant its best. A good value serving interesting American cuisine.
He works each day like it’s his last.
By the way, if he was going to eat his last meal it would be fresh raw seafood.
And he wouldn’t be too nervous to enjoy it, he says.