By Shane Igoe
Special to Page 3

"Even if we play so far above our heads that our noses bleed for a week to 10 days; even if God in Heaven above points his hand at our side of the field; even if every man, woman and child joined hands together and prayed for us to win, it just wouldn't matter because all the really good-looking girls would still go out with the guys from Mohawk because they've got all the money! It just doesn't matter if we win or if we lose. It just doesn't matter! It just doesn't matter!"

Jerry O'Connell
Who needs Philip Rivers when you can have "Cush"?
-- Tripper Harrison (Bill Murray)
"Meatballs" (1979)

Who would have thought these campy words would inspire a starry-eyed six-year-old from New York City to propel himself onto the national stage of both sport and film?

On the big screen, you may know Jerry O'Connell as Vern, the meatball-sized kid in the 1986 hit movie adaptation of Stephen King's "Stand by Me;" or as "Cush," the brash quarterback who disses Jerry for that rat, Sugar, in "Jerry Maguire;" or even as boy-genius, time-traveling Quinn Mallory from TV's "Sliders."

But what you may not know is that the real-life Jerry O'Connell is a gifted athlete and one-time nationally-ranked fencer who placed seventh at the Junior Olympics, and was subsequently recruited to lead New York University's highly-regarded sabre fencing squad of the early 1990s.

Despite his athletic success and nostalgic classics, O'Connell remains a down-to-earth guy who remembers the '86 Mets and reveres the movie "Meatballs."

In 10 Burning Questions, he offers fencing pointers (skewering the likes of Orlando Bloom and Darth Vader), acting anecdotes, and even pokes a little fun at himself.

1. How did you get introduced to the sport of fencing?

Jerry O'Connell: I grew up in New York City, so sports like football and baseball were tough to come by because you couldn't find too many diamonds and fields. Both of my parents worked, so to keep me off the streets, they took me to fencing once a week. When it came time to apply to college, the movie "Goodfellas" had just come out and I was a big Scorsese fan, so I really wanted to go to NYU film school. I had been to the Junior Olympics for fencing and did really well, placing seventh. The NYU fencing coach, Steve Mormondo, who was at the Olympics himself, approached me and asked where I wanted to go to college. I said, "NYU." It was the only school I applied to and where I happened to go.

2. The swords of fencing are the foil, the epee and the sabre. What's the difference in terms of competition?

For foil, the only target you can score points on is the torso, crouch, chin, and neck. In epee, everything is a target -- from the tip of your toes to the last hair follicle on your head. And for sabre, everything from the waist up is a target -- even your head.

Now, epee and foil swords have a point at the end of their blades. To score, you have to actually register that point against a special metal jacket and a light goes off. In sabre, there is no point, so there's a lot of slashing.

Keeth Smart
If anybody is crazy enough to make a movie about fencing, Jerry O'Connell's your man.
Sabre is really swashbuckling, "Pirates of the Caribbean" stuff. It's really tough for me to go see "Pirates of the Caribbean" and watch these guys fence with swords. I'm like com'on ... I could spank these guys! Why did (Jerry) Bruckheimer give this role to Orlando Bloom? Com'on, he sucks!

2b. What is the difference between fencing gear, a beekeepers suit, and a straight jacket? That's some intimidating garb.

Yeah it's a lot a gear. Luckily when you go to college, they pay for the gear, so you don't have to go it alone. It can be expensive.

Everything has to be white and you can't have any skin showing. Socks and boots have to be pulled up to your knees. Fencing is sort of trying to stay aristocratic. I'm waiting for it to make the move tennis made a few years ago, where competitors don't have to wear white all the time. Fencing can afford to spice things up a bit.

3. Who do you like in the Olympics? What countries look to be USA's toughest competition?

All of these the guys who are in Athens right now ... I grew up fencing with them. I read about Cliff Bayer and Keeth Smart, who will probably win a medal over there. And of these guys were guys who I beat up on!

It's tough because fencing is predominately a Hungarian, Russian, Polish ... an Eastern European sport. Training is hard-core. Everything is real old-school and it's all about work ethic.

Going to the fencing stalls for four-to-five hours a night, five days a week was part of me. But, not anymore. I'm not going to kid you though. There is a part of me -- it's a crazy long shot -- that thinks, 'Wow, I would love to have a comeback.'

(Editor's note: The United States won it's first medals in fencing in 20 years on Tuesday. Mariel Zaqunis took home gold and Sada Jacobson won the bronze in the women's sabre competion. )

4. Another performer, Neil Diamond, also attended NYU on a fencing scholarship. In your opinion, which is Diamond's gold standard: "Sweet Caroline," "Cracklin' Rosie," or "I am, I said"?

Yeah! I see him at all the alumni events. Hmm ... actually, I have to go with "Coming to America." It is a karaoke classic. If you throw that on, everybody is dancing.

But it's funny. I went to a couple of fencing alumni meetings and found myself sitting right next to Neil Diamond! It's hysterical. And you know, I don't know when it happened, but the two most famous NYU alum -- out of their fencing program -- are me and Neil Diamond. I mean, who'd have thought that I'd be rubbing elbows with him. My mother is very proud! I have a picture of him and her.

Jerry O'Connell
Jerry O'Connell looks more like a Yankee fan doing a Babe Ruth impression in "Stand By Me."
5. Did you have any sports idols growing up?

I've got to tell you, being in New York in 1986 (when the Mets won the World Series), just changed everything. It was a life-changing experience. Honestly, if you were a kid between the ages of 10 and 15, and you lived in New York in 1986, you really believed anything was possible.

6. Who would win in a sword fight: Jerry O'Connell or Darth Vader? O'Connell or Inigo Montoya from the "The Princess Bride"?

Aw, dude, I would whoop Darth Vader! I mean, honestly, I would have him calling me his Daddy! He'd be taking off his helmet going (in a Darth Vader voice) "Jerry, you are my father!"

As far as Inigo, you know what, he had a pretty good motivation factor. Actually, I talked a lot of trash in fencing and a lot of people didn't like me because of it. Fencing is a dignified sport, and oftentimes when I scored a big touch I'd say, "You killed my father prepare to lose!"

People did not like trash talkers in fencing. I actually had a lot of yellow cards against me, and a few touches awarded to the other side. Most people in fencing are pretty dignified and classy, so I'd throw something in when I scored a touch. I'd be like, "Get the (bleep!) out of here. Get that stuff outta here."

7. In "Stand By Me" we witness an infamous puking scene. Did you ever get butterflies before a match or do you get a nervous stomach before performing?

I'm sure. I still get nervous. Honestly, I always think about that "Meatballs" scene -- when Bill Murray gives the "It just doesn't matter" speech. I swear to you, a lot of people rent "Hoosiers" and look for that clapping scene, or "Rocky" to watch him running up the steps, but I go right to "Meatballs." That speech ... that always helped me out.

8. You starred in Mariah Carey's "Heartbreaker" video. Who is tougher to work with, and who is the bigger diva: Mariah Carey or Kangaroo Jack?

Rebecca Romijn-Stamos
These days, Rebecca Romijn is Jerry O'Connell's leading lady.
I've got to tell you that "Kangaroo Jack" has made me popular. Now, all of the guys I work with don't want to hire a Princess Bell or the Teletubbies for their kids' birthday parties, they expect me to show up as Kangaroo Jack. So I get to make a little extra cash on the side.

9. As Frank Cushman you played a hotshot, young QB who held out for the big bucks in "Jerry Maguire." As a New York Giants fan what do you think about Eli Manning's $20 million signing bonus? Is he worth it? And who should start, Manning or Warner?

If you want to talk breeding, Eli Manning is worth every penny. I mean, Peyton is "the man" and a lot of people believe that, pound-for-pound, he's the best quarterback ever. I've been watching a lot of the preseason, and I don't want to offend the Manning family, but in his first year, I would throw Warner in there first and see how he does. Warner tends to be a little injury prone. So we'll see if he makes it through the season until Eli's ready. The great thing about Warner is that he doesn't care if he's the one holding a headset, he just wants to win. It's going to be an exciting year for the Giants.

10. You just wrote and produced your first film, "First Daughter," which comes out next month starring Katie Holmes. Which first daughter is your favorite: Jenna or Barbara Bush?

Yeah, it comes out September 24th. I love both those girls. They're the reason I wrote that script. I mean, I looked at those two girls and I thought, 'I would love to party with those two girls.'

And then I met them at a party, and they were both so nice and cute -- they really are -- and I thought it'd be great to write a script. In fact my first script was actually about two sisters and it got a little too "Bush" like, so I just made it about one daughter. It was pretty exciting though. And it was a lot of fun being in those casting sessions and getting to choose between Katie Holmes and a bunch of other girls.

Good times, good times.

Shane Igoe is a writer/producer. His first book entitled "Taking the Hill: 100 Presidential Pitches from Opening Day 1904-2004" debuts next year. He can be reached at sigoe@youie.com.