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Headline: and Sealed (Finally)
By Gary Housteau
(From 2005 Recruiting Issue)
On national signing day, Jamario O'Neal of Cleveland Glenville High School had so much to be thankful for.
He was surrounded by his family and most of his closest friends on a day when 11 other of his fellow Tarblooders signed their national letters of intent. A lot of time has passed since O'Neal was first offered a football scholarship to The Ohio State University, and a lot has certainly changed in his life since then. But on Feb. 2, 2005, O'Neal felt like he was certainly standing in the right place at just the right time in his life.
"It was meant to be this way. I'm truly blessed," said O'Neal shortly after the official signing ceremony that was hosted by the high school that morning to honor and promote all their young student-athletes. "I couldn't even sleep last night. I was really excited to come to school and sign my letter-of-intent."
"And to know that I'm going to Ohio State, to a great program and a great school, I just feel great right now."
The big smile he flashes that morning makes it quite obvious that O'Neal truly believes that attending Glenville the past two years has made a substantial difference in his young life.
"It really has had an impact on me," he said. "I've learned about life and about being a man and working hard. And I think that is what's going to carry me through college."
Prior to him coming to Glenville, however, O'Neal was doing just fine on the football field. But he might have been having a little trouble tackling life in Mansfield. O'Neal lost his mother when he was in the sixth grade and that, too, made a huge difference in his even younger years.
"Yeah, I think her death had a big impact on me also. Me and my mother were real close," he said. "At one point in time (after her death), I wasn't getting my grades, and I think that's the reason why. But I'm not going to say that as a reason"
That's around the time that his father, Walter Jefferson, began making an impact in his life.
"Then my father came – well, he was always around, but he really got into my life then," O'Neal said. "He stayed on me and taught me about things, and he really started getting on me when it came time."
One of those times came when O'Neal was still at Mansfield High School. In early August 2003, O'Neal was preparing for his junior season when he got involved in a serious incident with the law. It was a serious enough offense that there was a chance that his scholarship situation with Ohio State could have been on the line because of it.
O'Neal, who certainly wasn't a troubled kid at the time, knows that he should have never allowed himself to do what he did to be involved in that kind of a situation.
"I think I was just young and I made a silly mistake," he said with a tone of contrition in his voice. "I just look past it now because I'm more mature now, and I think before I act."
He wouldn't even let himself pass the incident off as simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
"Oh no. Actually they were younger than me, and I should have been the role model," he said. "But I think I've learned a lot from that situation. I went from almost being nothing to being something now, so it was a great deal."
It is an event in O'Neal's life that he regrets and yet is extremely grateful for at the same time.
"I always thought I was going to graduate from there, but now I'm kind of glad that I didn't. I don't think I would have been prepared for college and for life had I kept going in that direction," said O'Neal, who meant no disrespect to Mansfield in saying it. "I think it was a great move to come from there to here. Now my family is just bigger, and I'm just ready for everything."
He's now a full-fledged member of the Ginn family. Ted Ginn Sr. and his wife Jeanette assumed legal guardianship of O'Neal and brought him into their Cleveland home, where he has resided for the past 18 months. But he paid a deep price in order to turn his life around. He missed most of his junior season on the gridiron while his transfer to Glenville from Mansfield was being approved by the OHSAA.
"It was hard for me," O'Neal said. "It hurt when I was out there watching my peers play and I couldn't be out there. I knew I wasn't going to play right away because of the little decision that the people down in Columbus had to make. I really didn't think that I would miss almost the whole year. I just thought I was going to miss a couple of games. But I played two or three games at the end of the season plus a playoff game, and I made an impact as soon as I came in. And that was my goal."
In his very first game back last year, O'Neal caught a midrange pass from Ted Ginn, Jr. and raced with it 51 yards, untouched, down the sideline for a touchdown.
"There really wasn't any rust," he said. "I knew I had gotten better because I was still working out when I couldn't play. But as soon as I got back on the field, it was like I had always been playing so it was great."
And his track career at Glenville last spring certainly didn't suffer. He injured a hamstring at the state finals, but he was an integral member of the back-to-back state championship track team. Individually, O'Neal placed fifth in the 100-meter dash in 10.88 seconds, while teammate and fellow OSU signee Freddie Lenix was third (10.87). O'Neal, who also ran a leg on the state champion 4x200 relay team, was clocked as fast as 10.69 in a qualifying race.
"It's been a great experience to be with them," O'Neal said. "I traveled across the country, and I got as much exposure as I could and got some accolades, and I got better because of it. It was great."
Back on the gridiron in his senior campaign, O'Neal continued to get better as the season went on. He seemed to really hit full stride around midseason and finished out the year with a flurry in the playoffs on defense as Glenville reached the Division I state semifinals and finished 12-2. Big hits, interceptions and big kick returns became commonplace for O'Neal, who returned a punt 95 yards for a score in the state semifinal loss to Canton McKinley.
"I started off kind of slow, but by the end of the football season, I think I had an impact on my team, and now the younger kids have something to shoot for," O'Neal said. "I think I'll give myself a ‘B' on the season. Most of the time, we didn't play the whole game because we were blowing teams out. But overall I didn't do as good as I thought I would or wanted to."
O'Neal talks softly, but he carries a big stick, as they say. Contact defines him now.
"I like to cover and I like to hit. That's what I do," he said matter-of-factly. "I remember when I couldn't hit, but then after my tenth grade year it just came natural to me. That's what I think I'm great at."
No one knows for sure yet if O'Neal will play safety or corner at the next level, although he was recruited Ohio State as a cornerback despite playing almost all of the past two years at a safety position.
"At Ohio State, they have a boundary corner and they have a cover corner, and if you're a boundary corner, you've got to be able to cover and hit," he said. "So, I think I can do that or I can play safety. It really doesn't matter to me what position I play. I just want to get on the field and help my university."
Like Ted Ginn, Jr., O'Neal really means it when he says that he will play anywhere to help his university. He would love to make the same type of immediate impact that his brother has at Ohio State. Neither Ginn Sr. nor Jeanette treat Jamario any different as their son Ted or their older daughter Tiffany.
"Jamario has fit in very well with our family. He's a part of the family actually, and it's just been a wonderful experience for all of us," Jeanette Ginn said. "He's my son, and that's just how I view it and that's how I see it. There's no difference in any of my children, they're all the same. Tiffany, Ted Jr. and Jamario – I love them all just the same."
According to Mrs. Ginn, it was a no-brainer to take Jamario into their home. She just knew it was the right thing to do.
"From the very beginning, it wasn't even a thought; it was just ‘This is what we're going to do,' " she said. "And, once we made that decision as a family, that was what we were going to do. First we accepted him into our family, and then we accepted him into our hearts. So once we did that, it was no problem. I treat him the same way I treat my other children; there's no difference at all. Jamario is just our baby right now."
Mrs. Ginn is very grateful that she's had such an opportunity to have made a positive impact in Jamario's young life.
"It gives me a wonderful feeling that I can be a mom to him and, not take his mother's place, but just to step into his life and give him the things that a mother would give to a son of his age," she said. "And I just think I've done a good job with that. As a matter of fact, just a couple of weeks ago I told him, ‘I would just hope that your mom would be proud of me that I have tried to do what I think she would have done for you.' At that point we were just both kind of emotional."
The deep-rooted feelings between O'Neal and Mrs. Ginn are obviously mutual. In fact, he actually paid her the highest possible compliment.
"When I call her my mother, I mean it," he said. "She acts just like I came out of her womb, and I love her. She's like my real mother."
In a strange way, O'Neal has now come full circle in his life. He now has the mother that he so sorely missed at one time, and he has the scholarship offer he was once promised that he almost lost.
"It was junior day and I was in the 10th grade, and they offered me and I accepted it," O'Neal said of the day (Feb. 22, 2003) that he committed to OSU. "Coach Tress offered me. It was at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center."
O'Neal still remembers that day fondly now.
"(Tressel) said, ‘I'm going to let you know that we want you to come to Ohio State,' " O'Neal said. "Right away, my grandmother asked if it was an official offer, and he said, ‘Yeah,' and I told him that I was going to take it. So it didn't take much because I knew where that was where I wanted to go."
And now, he's officially there. And now, he's bigger, stronger and faster than he was when Tressel first offered him that scholarship. And he's a lot smarter now, too.
"I'm looking forward to my future. I think my future is really bright," O'Neal said. "I'm promising that when I go down there that I'm going to work as hard as I can to get a starting job and just be a total student. I know that everything isn't just about sports."
O'Neal couldn't possibly be any happier than he was on signing day.
"I can't wait to go down there and put on that Scarlet and Gray," O'Neal said. "Everybody has seen what Ted can do, and next year I have to prove to them that I can do the same thing. I just feel real special today because I know that I'm going to school to do what I like to do and that's play football. And I'm happy that my family is here and they support me."
He still misses his mom, though.
"I miss my mother every day," O'Neal said. "I know she's still watching me, and that's what keeps me going."