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.

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