TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- The scene unfolds in roughly the same fashion each time one of his teammates is asked about the real Nick O’Leary.
First, there’s the subtle smirk. There’s a story there, some amusing anecdote that springs to mind immediately. The smirk evolves into a wry grin, followed by a shake of the head when the teammate remembers that O’Leary only lets the curtain be pulled back so far. Then the answer arrives, bland and boring, as if O’Leary had scripted it himself.
Nick’s just a normal guy.
Nothing to see here, folks. Just the typical grandson of a world famous golfer who arrived as the most significant recruit at his position Florida State has ever signed, who blossomed into a star and served as his quarterback’s favorite red-zone target on an offense absolutely bursting with weapons.
If that’s a story worth telling, it won’t be O’Leary gushing details.
“He’s not in to being out there,” said QB Sean Maguire, O’Leary’s roommate. “That’s just his personality.”
Among strangers, O’Leary’s personality might best be compared to a bouncer at a biker bar. He’s a brooding behemoth, masked in a scraggly red beard and hair spiked with sweat. He’s not much of a talker, but he’s a mammoth presence.
What’s best known is O’Leary’s pedigree. He’s the grandson of Jack Nicklaus, a tidbit offered with all the subtlety of a jackhammer by virtually every broadcaster who’s called one of his games. O’Leary says he doesn’t mind the constant reminders, but he’s not interested in living off grandpa’s reflected spotlight.
A better window into O’Leary’s psyche is the motorcycle accident, when he did battle with a Lexus and won. The daredevil act was caught on a bus’ security camera and is replayed routinely as further evidence of O’Leary’s toughness. And he is tough.
On the field, the 6-foot-3, 250-pound O’Leary means business -- like the game against Clemson when he hauled in a short pass from Jameis Winston, steamrolled the Tigers’ safety, then rumbled another 15 yards to set up a touchdown.
In his third year as FSU’s starting tight end, he’s made enormous strides in his blocking. He’s racked up more yards and touchdowns in 11 games in 2013 than he had in his previous two seasons combined. He’s picked up a first down on 65 percent of his targets this year, tied for the best rate among tight ends in the country.
“He’s like a silent assassin,” Jimbo Fisher said.
But what about those sly grins from teammates? Surely they know something the rest of the world doesn’t. There must be something more there, some depth of character that rarely shines through the surly public persona, right?
“He’s a simple guy, and he enjoys simple things,” said Jack Daniels, O’Leary’s high school coach. “He loves football. He loves to be outdoors. He loves to be around his friends. There’s just not much more to him.”
O’Leary joined Daniels’ team at Dwyer High School in West Palm Beach midway through his high school career. He’d transferred from a much smaller school, looking to showcase his skills against stiffer competition.
Daniels remembers the day he met O’Leary -- this big kid from a famous family, carrying himself with a self-assured swagger that could easily rub you the wrong way if you didn’t really know him.
“He struck me as being pretty cocky,” Daniels said.
But the coach soon understood that it wasn’t arrogance. It was determination. No one wanted success more than O’Leary. The kid could’ve had anything he wanted by virtue of his grandfather’s fame, but O’Leary didn’t want anything he hadn’t worked for. Practice was a constant competition.
“We pushed each other,” said Gerald Christian, O’Leary’s teammate at Dwyer, who now plays at Louisville. “We’d go all practice without a drop.”
Still, the drops happened. Daniels remembers a game O’Leary dropped three passes in a row. The next morning -- a Saturday --O’Leary was back at the school, out on the practice field, catching balls. He had to get better.
That’s what made life so tough at Florida State. In high school, he could flub a play then get another shot on the next snap. At FSU, his mistakes lingered.
In last year’s win over Miami, O’Leary caught the first pass of the game, attempted to hurdle a defender, and fumbled the ball away. He didn’t catch another pass for two weeks.
“The most disappointing thing for him,” Daniels said. “All he wanted was another chance to make up for the fumble.”
O’Leary learned from the mistakes though. He’s been as sure-handed as anyone on Florida State’s roster this year. He’s caught a team-leading 79 percent of his targets, and he hasn’t fumbled once. Mistakes happen, but O’Leary never backs down.
“When a fight breaks out in practice, if it’s his fight, I’ll run over and help him,” center Bryan Stork said. “If it’s mine, he’ll run over and help me. It’s good to have him on my side. I wouldn’t want it any other way.”
But really, O’Leary’s not a fighter. He just wants people to think he is. He was born into privilege, so he’s developed a hard shell, a tough-as-nails, country-boy air so no one can accuse him of being soft.
Beneath the hardscrabble exterior, though, there’s a gentle side. Maybe.
“Nick is like a little teddy bear,” Kelvin Benjamin said. “Everybody thinks Nick’s mean because he’s got that ‘Duck Dynasty’ beard going. You get to know him, and he’s a very cool cat.”
Getting to know O’Leary isn’t easy though. He’s not particularly interested in letting the rest of the world into the sanctuary he’s created, but he knows the spotlight is getting brighter.
“I guess it comes with winning,” he said.
With each win, O’Leary’s legend grows. He set the school’s all-time record for career touchdown receptions by a tight end two weeks ago. Winston slathers him with praise often. The quarterback also let slip that O’Leary booted a 53-yard field goal in practice last week. There’s really nothing O’Leary can’t do.
Well, almost nothing. He’s still not much of a talker.
Quizzed on his improvement this season, O’Leary suggested his rapport with new tight ends coach Tim Brewster has been a key.
“It was tough at the beginning,” he said, “but once we got to know each other and know how people like to be treated and all that, we grew a great relationship where we can talk about anything.”
Suddenly O’Leary realizes he’s said too much. His relationship with his coach is for insiders, not for the masses.
So he found common ground with his outspoken coach?
“Yeah,” O’Leary says.
And the relationship has been rewarding?
“We’re good,” he says.
And now that he’s having so much success, perhaps those broadcasters won’t need to mention his grandfather?
“I don’t care,” O’Leary said. “I don’t listen to the game.”