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O’Leary seeking success on own terms

The resemblance is striking. Take a photo from 1962, when Jack Nicklaus won the U.S. Open for his first major title as a rookie, and you can see the same features – the round face, blond hair, brush cut and steely blue eyes that suggest he means business – when looking at Nick O’Leary today.

O’Leary acknowledged during Bills rookie camp that the questions get old and tiresome after a while. He’s 22 years old and has been asked about his grandfather since he can remember. He loves the subject, Nicklaus, from where his own first name comes, but he could do without the repetitiveness.

There’s no escaping Nicklaus’ fame.

“I don’t think I ever will,” O’Leary said. “I’ll be here doing what I’m doing, and his name will always come up. And I don’t have a problem with that. I love him. He’s my grandpa, and he’s the greatest golfer to ever live. It’s just how it’s going to be.”

O’Leary has a close relationship with his grandfather, who won a record 18 major championships and remains one of the biggest names in golf. The two live a few miles apart in Florida. Nicklaus missed only one game during his grandson’s career at Florida State, which won a national championship in 2013.

You know plenty about Nicklaus. There’s no need to rehash his career, but there’s no ignoring the connection, either. For the most part, Nicklaus has respectfully declined interview requests about his grandson. The Golden Bear deserves credit for stepping back and allowing O’Leary to carve his own career.

“He’s just my grandpa,” O’Leary said. “To everybody else, he’s Jack Nicklaus. That’s it. He’s my grandpa.”

Still, nobody should ignore certain qualities in his DNA. O’Leary, the son of Nicklaus’ daughter, Nan, grew up in a competitive household with three brothers and a sister. His father, Bill, played tight end for Georgia when Herschel Walker led the Bulldogs to national prominence.

With big names come big expectations. The only way to meet them is by performing on the field at the highest level.

Peyton Manning was known as Archie’s kid before becoming one of the best quarterbacks in NFL history. Grant Hill was Calvin’s kid when he was building his basketball career. Kids today are too young to remember Bobby Bonds and Dell Curry, let alone Nicklaus winning the ’86 Masters at age 46.

O’Leary was a multisport athlete, and a Dolphins fan, as a youth. He also played basketball, baseball and lacrosse and didn’t play organized football until sixth grade. He was hooked on the physical aspect of the game. As you might expect, he also played golf. He plays to a scratch when given enough time to practice, which is rare these days.

“Any time you have that lineage, it can’t hurt,” Bills coach Rex Ryan said. “The big thing is the competitiveness in those guys. It seems to go through families regardless of the sport. Look at Grant Hill with Calvin Hill. I’m sure it’s a positive thing, how you practice, all that stuff.”

The best way for O’Leary to break away from his grandfather’s fame is to make a name for himself. And that’s what he’s intent on accomplishing while starting his NFL career with the Bills. Buffalo grabbed him after he slipped to the sixth round after a terrific career at Florida State.

He faced the same questions in Tallahassee when he first arrived, but they faded when he started producing. He was a two-time finalist for the John Mackey Award, given to the top collegiate tight end, before winning it last year. He had 48 catches for 618 yards and six touchdowns last season and was a first-team All-American.

To be sure, we’re not talking about some soft, entitled country club kid here. In fact, he’s fortunate he’s alive after surviving a nasty motorcycle accident from which he was thrown 100 feet and managed to walk away.

O’Leary is 6-foot-3 and 252 pounds. He has big legs, broad shoulders and the strong hands of a bricklayer. He was known for his toughness and work ethic at Florida State. Well, that and catching everything in sight.

“The big stage is probably not that big for him,” Ryan said. “Obviously, with his grandfather being Jack Nicklaus – he was decent under pressure, I’d say – we hope he’s close to that. We think he is. He was a guy they went to on third down.”

O’Leary came off quiet and unassuming, perhaps guarded, while getting comfortable with his surroundings during rookie camp. He measured his words and kept his answers short. It’s possible that he didn’t want to say the wrong thing and make a bad impression.

The one thing that became abundantly clear, however, was that he wanted his no-nonsense approach to speak for him. He has an old-school way about him. He doesn’t wear gloves, for example, like most tight ends and receivers. He insisted on participating in the NFL Combine despite a hamstring problem.

It might explain why he slipped in the draft. He was projected as a third- or fourth-round pick but fell to the sixth round, 194th overall. O’Leary opened some eyes on his first day of rookie camp when he reached behind with his left hand and corralled an underthrown pass down the seam.

“I’m motivated to show people what they were missing,” O’Leary said. “I’m happy to be here now and do what I need to do to help this team.”

The Bills grabbed him with the idea they can groom him into an effective player and give them another dimension. He should give them an extra option in the passing game when they run double tight-end sets.

O’Leary suffered a partial hamstring tear in the blowout loss to Oregon in the national semifinal. He played through the injury during the game and wasn’t completely healed while performing in front of NFL scouts. He ran a 4.93 in the 40-yard dash, slow for a tight end.

“The 40-yard thing probably set me back a little bit,” he said. “I mean, I wasn’t going to go out there and run routes full speed and not run the 40. Then, they think I’m scared of something. I ran it how I needed to run it, and you deal with it and move on. It’s not in my control.”

O’Leary certainly can control where his career goes from here. He could be in the right place. The Bills’ quarterback situation remains uncertain. They’re expected to move forward with an offense that relies on the running game. The tight ends are expected to play a major role in their short passing game.

And let’s not forget another connection.

O’Leary played for two seasons with EJ Manuel, who will have a chance to start under a new coaching staff. Their chemistry could make for a smooth adjustment.

If it happens, fans will be talking about Nick O’Leary and forget that he’s Jack Nicklaus’ grandson. Who knows? Maybe someday people will meet Nicklaus and ask if he’s Nick O’Leary’s grandfather.

email: bgleason@buffnews.com

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