Tom, left, and Jackie O’Neil aren’t just an adorable couple. They’re fierce Pokémon gym leaders, too. ABIGAIL HADDOCK/Keys Weekly

By Abigail Haddock

It’s midnight on the streets of Marathon, and a little red car is making its way to every mural, statue and landmark on the island. As the car leaves, the occupants seem to have left their surroundings completely unchanged. However, in the virtual world of Pokémon GO, Marathon’s Midnight Marauders, Tom and Jackie O’Neil, have left their mark.

The augmented reality app merges the real world with the incredibly popular Pokémon franchise. After choosing one of three teams to join, the game uses a phone’s GPS to track players as they move around in real time, offering them chances to catch Pokémon, interact with other players, collect supplies, and even challenge others for supremacy in battle hotspots known as gyms. 

Launched in 2016, the game became a social media phenomenon as players took to the streets (literally) in a quest to catch ’em all.

Tom and Jackie have lived in the Keys since 2003; they began playing the game almost immediately when it became an instant hit at launch.

Jackie is well-known for playing a unique set of 20 to 40 songs, from ’70s hits to Scottish music, before each show at the Marathon Community Theatre, and said her friends there first tipped her off to the game. 

“I started not too long after, because a couple people that I knew from the theater started and showed it to me,” she said. “Tom started playing Pokémon a month later because he kept hearing me talk about it. I was like, ‘You should play with me, so we can both be the same team and all!’” 

Now, Jackie and Tom have nearly caught them all, with almost 730 different Pokémon found. The pair are night owls, and they found that 2 a.m. was an excellent time to go catch Pokémon and win battles at gyms while their opponents around town were sleeping. 

However, over the years, the game has changed for the O’Neils. “It’s really not the same as it was,” said Jackie, recalling the community aspect that drew her to the game in the first place. 

“When we first started playing, the first two years or more, when there was something big to take down, like a Legendary Pokémon at a gym, somebody would put out the word and we’d all go. There would be all these cars there, and everyone’s children and dogs. And then COVID came and ended that. … Everyone would jump in their car and go someplace, then go ‘OK, let’s go to the next one!’ and a whole caravan of cars would go.” 

“We’d even have people bringing brownies and other food,” added Tom. “We had parties and a half.” 

Recently the O’Neils have been putting aside the “midnight” in Midnight Marauders in favor of walking around Crane Point with its many Pokémon hotspots. Approaching a Pokémon GO gym, Tom counted down for Jackie to join in and defeat a newcomer, and in 15 seconds Tom and Jackie had won the battle for their team, the yellow “Team Instinct.” 

The O’Neils combined their hunt for Pokémon with a search for real life animals, complete with names like Red the snake and Twofer the green heron. The couple are true animal lovers, as evidenced by the fauna that form the highlights of their travel stories. Having visited all seven continents, they had stories about everything from penguins to moose. 

When asked about their favorite travel destination, both listed Kenya. “I remember one night hearing this sound of breathing coming from the bathroom, and when I went to look, there were zebras right outside,” said Jackie 
While a walk in Marathon will (probably) result in more raccoon sightings than zebra, the O’Neils’ enthusiasm for wildlife, virtual and real, is contagious. And if you play Pokémon GO, look out for those Midnight Marauders.

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