PITTSBURGH (NewsRadio 1020 KDKA) – On Saturday against New Mexico, Pitt freshman running back James Conner ran in a touchdown and then pointed to the sky. He wasn’t doing a celebration dance; instead, he was dedicating the touchdown to his best friend, Alyssa Josephine O’Neill.
On Sept. 4, 2013, Alyssa died suddenly and tragically from an epileptic seizure. She was a McDowell High School graduate, competitive cheerleader, and freshman at Penn State Behrend studying to be a pediatric nurse. Her dream was to be a nurse at Children’s Hospital.
However, Alyssa’s story doesn’t end there. Since her death, a movement of people paying it back has gone worldwide. #AJO and the color purple (Alyssa’s favorite color) have become a rallying cry on social media to spread awareness of epilepsy, and people are doing all kinds of acts of kindness in Alyssa’s name.
KDKA-AM’s Larry and John talked to James Conner as well as Jason and Sarah O’Neill, Alyssa’s parents, about the outpouring of love and support they’ve seen since their daughter’s death.
“It meant so much to our family to know that she was loved so much by us, but by the community and her fellow students,” says Sarah O’Neill.
One of those outpourings of love happened last Friday night, McDowell High School students decided to wear the color purple at their football game to honor Alyssa. On the way to Alyssa’s viewing, her mom and dad heard about this and went to the game. When the O’Neill family walked in to the stadium minutes before opening kickoff, the stadium fell silent. The students, all wearing purple, gave them a 15 minute standing ovation and presented the family with a flag they made that simply read “AJO” in purple,
The night was so moving that the AJO theme has now gone viral, and while the family is happy it is raising awareness for the Epilepsy Foundation, they just want AJO to represent a kind act. On social media, people are taking pictures of the initials AJO and posting them to Instagram, Twitter or Facebook, and the AJO photos are now showing up around the world. Simply use the hashtag #AJO to join in.
“What happened to Alyssa was a horrible, tragic accident,” says Sarah O’Neill. “I don’t mean to bring awareness to frighten people, but just to let people know that it can happen.”
As for James Conner, he was notified of Alyssa’s passing before practice on Sept. 4. With permission, James was picked up in the middle of the night and returned home for his friends funeral and carried her casket to her final place of burial. During Saturday’s game, he wore purple along with “AJO.”
“It was really tough,” says Conner. “I wrote on my wrist (AJO), and those two touchdowns were for her.”