O'Neal Enjoys his Return to the Sun Devil Family

The road may have been windy and unpredictable, but a fortunate job opportunity landed the former wide receiver on ASU's strength and conditioning staff. In this exclusive DevilsDigest interview, O'Neal discusses his journey back to Tempe, his role as a graduate assistant in the strength and conditioning department, and his thoughts on the upcoming Arizona game as a coach rather than a player.

After completing his eligibility at ASU, O'Neal traveled half way through the world for a job. "I was overseas doing some coaching and teaching in China," recalled the former JC transfer who played for the Sun Devils in 2000 and 2001. " I'm not fluent in Chinese but I can speak it. The people I lived with spoke English, but when I was out on my own, I had to tell the cab driver how to get home (smile)." Following his departure from China, he worked on completing his education degree. Nevertheless, it was clear to him that his career interests were in another field.

"I went back to Minnesota," he said. "Because I was going to finish my teacher certification and get my graduate degree. I also did some personal training on the side. Then, I had to go back to Kansas City because of my family. I was doing some personal training back home. But that wasn't satisfying for me because I wanted to work with athletes."

While searching for strength coaching jobs around the country, he came across an opening at Arizona State. "I called (ASU's strength coach) Coach Kenn about the job," O'Neal said. "And he asked me if I'd be interested working as a graduate assistant. It was a no brainier for me, so I told him I would. We talked back and forth making sure I understood all the things that came along with the job. Finally, he asked me ‘are you in or are you out?' We all know the answer to that one (smile)."

O'Neal exclaimed that the physical progress he made a few years ago in the team's conditioning program, as well as the familiarity with Coach Kenn and his methods, made the Sun Devil position that much more attractive. "I actually won the iron man award for my off-season work," he said. "So I think I know what to expect from Coach House (Kenn's nickname) and the program. I knew I could relate to the guys because I've been through that program, and be a good motivator. I knew this job could also help me focus on my career goals."

As mentioned, the former Sun Devil is removed just two years from the program. Thus, he personally knows the vast majority of players on the current team. Assuming the role of the coach over players he socialized with not too long ago was a challenge that had to be met. "It wasn't necessarily a hard transition," claimed O'Neal. "As soon as I came back, I did get a lot of respect from the players. Some of the guys I used to hang out with like R.J. (Oliver), Skyler (Fulton), Emmanuel Franklin didn't really understand that we couldn't hang out now."

"For two or three weeks straight they asked me to hang out," continued O'Neal. "At first they didn't understand the reason, but then they stopped asking because they finally understood that I was very serious about what I'm doing. They respected that and respected me."

Some may think that the football coaches are the only ones logging long hours each day. Fact of the matter is that O'Neal is burning the midnight oil as well. "I usually get here between 4:30 and 5:15 in the morning," he said. "There are a lot of things that need to be set up before the guys come in (to lift). We place certain weights around the room depending on what kind of lifts they're gonna do that day, make Met Rex shakes…we want them to go through their workouts fast and efficient."

As someone who was coached by Joe Kenn, and now works under him, O'Neal naturally has a very unique perspective on the Sun Devil strength coach. "When I first met him," he recalled. "I saw an intense character. I wasn't necessarily intimidated, but I was motivated. I didn't want him to think of me as a slacker. Coming in he really put the hammer on us."

"Now that I'm working for him," O'Neal continued. "I respect him very much. I received offers for other jobs, but I don't want to leave because I respect him and the job he does. He gave me this opportunity and I wanted to be loyal to him. He's a very driven and determined man, but he's a very cool guy when it comes to it. I believe every word that comes out of his mouth."

Coming back to the school he played for just a couple of years ago, showed the former wide receiver how much he missed the commradity. Nevertheless, that commradity is somewhat different than before. "Now that I'm back I love it," he said. "But at the same time I'm not really in it (as a player). There's times right now, where the guys go in a huddle and break out after practice and I want to do the same. You forget you're the coach sometimes. There's not much age difference between me and those guys, and you want to hang out with them. But at the same time, I remember that I have to hold myself in a different light than those guys."

With the U of A game fast approaching, O'Neal cannot help but get caught up with the extreme intensity of the rivalry. The win over Arizona in the 2000 season is dear to his heart, and he recalled his feelings prior that that contest. "With all the hype my junior year (his first year at ASU), I was actually scared to play. I was nervous, but I ended up being the offensive player of the game."

On the other hand, he stated that the agony of defeat is even stronger when it's your archrival that has just beaten you. "My senior year we had that disappointing loss. Coach Koetter uses that to motivate guys. The guys that weren't there at the loss don't understand – it was disastrous to ASU football. Losing the game and embarrassing ourselves getting into a fight after the game…I want more than anything to win the game."

The 2003 season is obviously one of underachieving. O'Neal offered his viewpoint on the football year that will come to a close on Friday. "After putting in 75-100 hours a week," he said. "It's very frustrating when you see these guys work so hard. I see games now in a whole different perspective. It's disappointing that you can't get those guys to understand some of the things I know. Things I wish I knew then, and that I know now. All you can do is come to work every day and play hard for the next week. That's what we try to instill in these guys, and we'll keep on pushing." O'Neal added that the off-season conditioning program is nearly planned out for the team, and will be implemented aggressively at the conclusion of the 2003 campaign.

Now that O'Neal is in this role, he has no doubt that he would like to continue this line of work, which may lead him to other opportunities in the college athletics arena. "Me wanting to be a personal trainer, work with athletes, and having an opportunity to work in a Division I school is great. Athletics is where I want to be as far as the career path. I eventually want to be an Athletic Director. That's something I'm very interested in."

Donnie O'Neal is grateful for the chance he has been given to pursue his dream, and the fact that he gets to do it in his old college stomping grounds is just an added bonus. "This job gave me an opportunity to do a lot of bigger things than I did before," he said. "It's good to be back at ASU where people knew me, and it was an easy transition. They have been good to me, but there might be other opportunities for me, so I can't limit myself only to ASU."

Nevertheless, no one should ever question if he still does bleed maroon and gold. "I'm a true Sun Devil because I played here and now I work here."

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