O'Neal Applying Lessons From Junior High

Linebacker Andre O'Neal, signed earlier this month, didn't think about the NFL until late in college and didn't even think about playing football until two coaches used the sport to keep him out of trouble.

#96 Andre O'Neal
Position: Linebacker
NFL Years: 2
Height: 6-1
Weight: 234
D.O.B.: 12/12/75
Hometown: Decatur, Ga.
College: Marshall
Acquired: Free Agent 2001

Vikings linebacker Andre O'Neal didn't spend his entire childhood dreaming about playing in the NFL.

In fact, he didn't spend much of his childhood playing football at all.

As a kid growing up in Georgia, O'Neal played endless pick-up basketball games at the local YMCA and at the area boys and girls club. But his compass was broken, his direction wayward.

"There was no structure before I was in eighth grade," O'Neal said. "I never had to be anywhere at a certain time, or a place to be at a certain time. So as a teenager, I was getting involved with other people and following some people and getting into any and everything."

Translation: O'Neal needed direction. If someone didn't assist O'Neal and lead him down a different path — a better path — then he probably wouldn't have turned into a success. Who knows what would have happened, O'Neal occasionally wonders.

Someone did step in. Actually, two people stepped in.

A couple of football coaches saw this teenager drifting in unfavorable social circles and attempted to steer him in the right direction, give him a slight nudge.

OK, a shove.

"I had a couple of coaches that pretty much forced me into playing football in the eighth grade," O'Neal said. "They saw that I was on the right path as far as academics were concerned. However, in the neighborhood, they saw that I could stray away and get caught up into other things. So they thought they should get me interested in extracurricular activities. They pressured me into it, so I went out for football and I had fun."

O'Neal's been having fun ever since.

Within a year, he was playing high school football for Cedar Grove High. Despite not having played organized football until eighth grade, it was clear O'Neal possessed the tools and desire to be one of the best. By the time he was a senior, O'Neal had elevated to the top of the pack and was one of the team's biggest leaders.

"My coaches told me that if I'd keep my grade-point average up and do halfway decent, I might get a college scholarship," O'Neal said.

Cedar Grove had been struggling most of O'Neal's senior year, but thanks to a late-season rally it qualified for the playoffs. Cedar Grove got routed in the first round of the playoffs, but simply advancing to the postseason was considered a milestone for the school, considering preseason expectations weren't exactly high.

There was no hardware to exhibit in the trophy case that season. No awards or ribbons or medals. Hardly any publicity at all. But during that season, O'Neal felt, he came out of his cocoon and evolved into a leader. It was a growing experience he'll never forget.

"During my senior season it felt like I had a job and this was my first big, responsible role I had to play," he said. "It felt like everything was on my shoulders. I put myself first regarding responsibility and said that was the year when I had to get things done for the team. Everything was on my shoulders, so I had to get better and help the team be better."

Cedar Grove's season ended by being on the receiving end of a blowout. But it was clear that O'Neal's football career was only beginning.

O'Neal's phone rang all year long from Division I-AA schools. Even Division I Tulane showed mild interest in O'Neal. But Marshall University, at the time a tiny Division I-AA school in West Virginia, managed to influence O'Neal enough to lure him to sign on the dotted line.

Because it was a I-AA school, O'Neal's signing wasn't highly publicized. So recruiters kept calling and inquiring. "When I played in the North-South (high school all-star) game, I had already committed to Marshall," O'Neal recalled. "After the game, someone from Georgia came over and asked me if I committed to anyone yet and I told them they were kind of late now."

Good thing for Marshall.

It was with the Thundering Herd that O'Neal began to make his mark, becoming a better and better college linebacker. At first, Marshall was a I-AA program. But early in O'Neal's collegiate career the Thundering Herd opted to go Division I and joined the competitive MAC.

"The program was geared toward excellence," said O'Neal, a two-year college teammate of Randy Moss. "Whatever the organization had to do to get players to go there, it would do. It's geared to be a Division I team."

It was geared to be one of the best Division I teams.

Many laughed each week in 1999, when undefeated Marshall would climb up the national polls. At 11-0, the Thundering Herd routed Brigham Young University 21-3 in the Motor City Bowl. O'Neal, Doug Chapman, Chad Pennington and the rest of the Herd ended their season in perfection, but not atop the polls.

"Marshall University is a small university, but we won a lot of games," O'Neal said. "Everywhere we went we were booed. … People considered us the underdog and laughed at us."

But O'Neal and the Herd got the last laugh.

During O'Neal's senior season in Huntington, W. Va., he was already attending graduate school, continuing his academic pursuit. Even though his team went undefeated, he, too, realized the scope of college football. There were hundreds of players considered better than he was. So naturally he didn't even consider life in the NFL.

Football helped give him direction and offered assistance in high school. Thanks to scholarships, it even allowed him to go to college and pursue a degree. But that's where the road ended, he figured. And it didn't bother him a bit.

"Playing in the NFL was the last thing on my mind, really," O'Neal said. "My main focus was that when I leave Marshall, where was I going to go to start a successful business?"

Other people had other plans.

"My coach came to me and told me they were talking about me being drafted and that NFL teams were looking at me," O'Neal said. "It wasn't a lifelong dream to play in the NFL, but if the opportunity came up, I'd love to do it.

"That's when I got panicky. I wasn't panicky until I found out that I could possibly be drafted. The first day (of the 2000 draft) came, and when we got to the second day, we got a few calls from the Chiefs and a few other teams. After I found out the Chiefs wanted me it was like, ‘Wow.'"

The Chiefs didn't draft O'Neal, but they signed him as a free agent. He became the only rookie free agent to make the Chiefs' opening-day roster. He played in 10 games and recorded 14 special teams tackles.

More valuable than the special teams experience was the benefit of practicing next to veterans like Marvcus Patton, who had so much to offer the rookie. "I was able to work around a linebacker like Patton, a senior guy who was a proven veteran," O'Neal said. "Playing alongside guys like him when you're a rookie, you notice that these guys were professional all the time, and that's something I want to be like."

In just his second NFL season, O'Neal was released in early October by the Chiefs, then signed with Green Bay, only to be released by the Packers after just two games. That's when the Vikings called.

O'Neal, a linebacker, will first play on special teams. "Right now, I'm learning all I can," he said. "I want to help this team be successful. That's my goal here."

His goals with the Vikings are goals that would never have been set if it weren't for a couple of anonymous football coaches who simply tried to help out a kid.

"Almost everything I've learned, I've learned from football," O'Neal said. "That was a benefit from it all. I grew up so fast. I grew up and learned responsibility, accountability. Actually, I really enjoyed that part of it and I still do." VU

WIFE: Tonia
DAUGHTER: Akira, 6
TOUGHEST PLAYER EVER FACED: Randy Moss in practice at Marshall
FAVORITE CAR: Jeep Wagoneer
BEST FOOTBALL MEMORY: Senior season at Marshall, being ranked eighth in the nation
FIRST JOB: Worked at flea market when he was 10

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