A 2003 Thanksgiving football tale

As the Northern Arizona University (NAU) football beat writer, this was a fun story to write, highlighting an ex-Lumberjack’s NFL rookie experience just before Thanksgiving.

PERSEVERANCE PAYS OFF FOR O’NEIL

November 28, 2003

Ed Odeven
Arizona Daily Sun

Twenty-two free agents showed up at the Dallas Cowboys’ training camp this past summer in San Antonio. Two of them are now on the Cowboys’ roster. Ex-NAU standout linebacker Keith O’Neil is one of them.

O’Neil had a splendid senior season at NAU in 2002, earning All-Big Sky first team accolades and a spot on Football Gazette’s All-America third team.

When he arrived in Dallas, though, the former Lumberjack was just another rookie, an undrafted free-agent one at that. He knew the odds of making the team were against him, but he didn’t back down from anybody.

“I went into the camp not knowing anything, from the defense, to the practice schedule, to what it was going to be like to play on this team,” O’Neil told me in a phone conversation earlier this week. “This year, I was trying to make the team. … Next year, I have to stay on the team.”

Will it get an easier next year?

“It’s going to be just as intense next year,” O’Neil insisted, “because I’m not a starting linebacker. I didn’t sign a big contract. Year to year, I’m going to have to fight my way.”

“You’re going to have to fight it out every day to stay in this league, but I’m up for that. I enjoy competition.”

He also enjoys playing for the ultra-competitive Bill Parcells, Dallas’ first-year head man who had turned around moribund franchises at every stop in his illustrious coaching career (New York Giants, New England Patriots and New York Jets).

“Playing for Coach Parcells has definitely been a great opportunity,” said O’Neil, whose father Edward starred as a Penn State gridder. “I’ve learned a lot from him about football and mostly the ins and outs that a lot of coaches, I think, overlook.”

Such as?

Parcells, O’Neil revealed, likes to point out the importance of playing all three phases of the game. For instance, if you score a special teams touchdown, “you’re going to win 83 percent of the time. If you score on defense, that team’s going to win 75 percent of the time. … He says things like that all the time,” O’Neil said.

Now that he’s had a few months to understand the aura of Parcells, O’Neil is just as impressed with his coach as many others around the league, and it’s no surprise that he’s developed a lot of respect for his boss.

“Being a rookie, I’d never played for another head coach at the professional level,” O’Neil said. “I really didn’t know what to expect. I knew he was one of the greatest coaches ever, and I think we are where we are because of him.”

Despite Thursday’s subpar effort, a 40-21 loss to the Miami Dolphins, the Cowboys are 8-4 this season and in the hunt for the NFC East title — certainly a far cry from their three previous 5-11 campaigns.

“I think coaching definitely had something to do with it,” O’Neil said. “I think a lot of us players not only don’t want to let ourselves down, but we’re playing because we don’t want to let (Parcells) down. I think half of us are probably scared, too.”

The 6-foot, 230-pound O’Neil, who wears No. 54, has been a mainstay on special teams for Dallas this season — he’s played every down on special teams. On the other hand, he’s only played one snap at linebacker.

Some players might sulk about such a situation. O’Neil simply vows to work harder.

“Right now I know my role: to be the best on special teams, ” he said.

It did take time for O’Neil to get adjusted to his role. He hadn’t been a special teams guy since his freshman and sophomore years at NAU. As a junior and senior, of course, he never left the field when NAU was on defense.

Now, he’s just happy to be contributing for a winning NFL team. Last Sunday he made a tackle on punt return coverage inside the 10-yard line against Carolina, pinning a Panther deep in Carolina territory. Another play that stands out in his mind was a tackle during the Monday Night Football game in Week 2 against the Giants.

“I couldn’t be happier for him, because he couldn’t be more dedicated to being successful,” NAU linebackers coach Greg Lees said Wednesday. “He’s just a guy that cares so much. You know over time he’s going to be successful.”

Reflecting on this season and getting the opportunity to play in the national spotlight on Thanksgiving, it’s no surprise that there’s a hint of satisfaction in O’Neil’s voice. After all, he’s living out his boyhood dream.

“It’s football and turkey, and just being able to play for the Dallas Cowboys on Thanksgiving is amazing,” O’Neil said. “I never would’ve thought a year ago I would be playing for the Cowboys.”

Just because he is a Cowboy doesn’t mean he now has a wild, extravagant lifestyle. Nope. O’Neil is being smart about his future. He bought himself a truck. He’s put most of the remainder of his salary in to a savings account.

“I don’t go out and party, believe it or not,” O’Neil said. “I come home and I’m tired. It’s work. It’s not that show on TV, ‘Playmakers.’ Especially for a rookie in my situation, I have nowhere to mess up. I go in every day focused. College was fun; this is work. I’m enjoying it. I love playing in the NFL, but a lot of people don’t realize it’s a business. It’s tough.”

And that’s the attitude you need to succeed — and remain — in the NFL.

Remembering Larry Toledo

Larry Toledo served as the first athletic director in Pima Community College history and worked tirelessly behind the scenes as a community leader in Tucson, plus as a film producer.

He was one of my favorite conversationalists, whether it was for a story or an everyday chat.

Just days after I returned to Tokyo from the London Olympics, Toledo died. It was sad news for all those who admired him, respected him and loved him.

His legacy lives on in his family and many friends, in the community and through those who carry on his work and ideals.

My brief thoughts on Toledo last August upon learning of Toledo’s death follow.

Larry Toledo was a terrific athletic director — passionate, smart, a real leader. And he always saw the big picture of how sports played an important role in a community’s identity and in the relationships that are forged from generation to generation because of sports. He cared deeply about people, about giving those born without a silver spoon a chance. He cared about academics about social justice, about hard work, about enjoying the company of people.

Many years ago, 1997 to be precise, I wrote a cover story for the Phoenix Suns’ Fastbreak Magazine on Horacio Llamas, the first Mexican-born player in the NBA. Toledo, front and center, was a terrific primary and second source, with all the tidbits and story angles I needed — and many more. Larry, former Pima hoop coach Mike Lopez and I had a great afternoon, telling stories and eating tortilla chips with salsa for the magazine interview. It didn’t seem like work, I’ll tell you that. We had a good rapport, but it extended far beyond my coverage of Pima Community College athletics. Larry always seemed happy to see someone pursuing their passions; for me, that was a career in sports journalism.

We lost touch over the past few years, but I had thought just the other day I should surprise him and send a postcard from London. He remained in my memory and I know in the minds of countless others. And I knew he’d get a kick out of that planned postcard.

Larry Toledo leaves a special legacy.

Remembering Bob Moran – reporter, mentor, friend to all

With Stanford and Arizona State competing in the Pac-12 football championship game over the weekend, my mind wandered back to my days as an ASU student and college reporter.

With fond memories, I recalled the late Bob Moran, who was a giant – a legend, really – for his one-of-a-kind personality, commitment to his craft and warm personality. He passed away on March 4, 2008, and I was thinking back to the sad news and what I wrote later that day (from Tokyo) in an online guestbook for him.

Here’s it is:

Few people touched as many lives as Bob Moran did. It was his God-given gift to make a good first impression and to make others smile.

Thousands knew him from his witty, thought-provoking, on-the-money stories and columns, first in the Arizona Daily Star and later at The Tribune. Others had the pleasure of meeting him at games, press conferences, practices … or in the newsroom.

He was a kind, intelligent, passionate journalist. He was quick to laugh, quick to offer encouragement, quick to share a story about yesterday or a game he might’ve seen 20 years ago.

As a college student/journalist at Arizona State University from 1996-99, I saw Bob on dozens of occasions at ASU football games and practices and weekly press luncheons. He always said hello; said hello to everyone. Never made it appear that he was a big shot, or wanted you to think he was a big shot. That wasn’t his style.

In fact, it seemed he went out of his way to make us “up-and-comers” feel welcome at the press table in the weekly luncheons or in the press box looking down from high above Sun Devil Stadium, even if we were surrounded by folks from CNN, Sports Illustrated or other big-name media outlets.

He was a man of laughter on those football Saturdays. Never was there a man who appeared to love his job more than Bob. Isn’t that a lesson we all can try to learn? As in this: Do what you love and love what you do.

It was always a learning experience to follow how Bob covered his ASU sports beat. We attended many of the same games, interviewed many of the same players and coaches. So what I wanted to know was this: How he used that information to construct quality story after quality story. It was like a textbook for me day after day, week after week. I hope I learned a thing for two from him that has helped make me a better writer.

I never met a journalist who seemed to enjoy conducting an interview, in person or on the phone, as much as he did. In fact, the interview coming up was always the one he looked forward to the most. And he always had another question to ask, one that couldn’t elicit a simple “yes” or “no” response. He was always prepared, knew what he was talking about, but always wanted to know more. And, boy, did he enjoy learning more!

He was, as has been noted by many, a consummate reporter. And, man, did he have a great memory. A third-and-1 QB scramble from the 1-yard line from one game could stir up memories of 10 similar plays from that season’s college football highlights show or a random season from any of the last 25.

Above all, Bob’s generosity, talent and wonderful personality will be missed.

But we’ll never forget you.

Rest in peace, Bob.