Tigers preserve memories of O'Neal

Wednesday, December 26, 2007
Aaron O'Neal's empty locker sits in the Missouri locker room at Memorial Stadium Tuesday, Dec. 18, 2007, in on the Columbia, Mo. campus. O'Neal, a former linebacker for the football team, died three years ago after preseason workouts. (AP Photo/L.G. Patterson)

Missouri football players honor the legacy of their former teammate who died during a workout in 2005.

COLUMBIA, Mo. -- They shout his name after each practice. His game-day locker, never used, remains intact.

Aaron O'Neal didn't play a single down for Missouri, but the former reserve linebacker's picture is seemingly everywhere at the school's athletic training complex, from the main hallway in a public area to the coaches' private sanctuaries.

It's been nearly three full football seasons since O'Neal, a 19-year-old redshirt freshman, collapsed on the Memorial Stadium field during a preseason workout and died less than two hours later.

In a season of unrivaled success that took No. 7 Missouri (11-2) to the brink of the BCS national title game, the legacy of the player known as A.O. continues to loom large for the Tigers, who face No. 25 Arkansas (8-4) in the Cotton Bowl on New Year's Day.

A memorial for former Missouri linebacker Aaron O'Neal hangs outside the linebackers meeting room named for him during a meeting Tuesday, Dec. 18, 2007, at the school's athletic training complex in Columbia, Mo. O'Neal, who would be a junior this season, died three years ago after a preseason football workout. (AP Photo/L.G. Patterson)

"I think about him all the time," said assistant coach Cornell Ford, who helped recruit O'Neal after the player's record-setting career as a team captain and running back at Parkway North High School near St. Louis. "He's very much a part of everything we do."

The 6-foot-3, 220-pound O'Neal would be a junior now, an upperclassman and potential team leader whose unassuming demeanor and ever-present smile belied both a playful side and a quiet intensity.

"He would have been a big part of what we're doing now," Ford said. "We're having all this success, and he's not here. That's tough for us."

O'Neal started to struggle with conditioning drills about 45 minutes into the hour-long workout on July 12, 2005. Players wore shorts, T-shirts and cleats but no helmets or pads.

The former Boone County medical examiner cited viral meningitis as the cause of death. But the chairman of the university's pathology department and several outside experts suggested that sickle cell trait contributed to the player's death.

The hereditary condition is found in an estimated 8 percent to 10 percent of the U.S. black population. Sickle-shaped blood cells carry less oxygen and can clog blood vessels that flow to the heart and other muscles.

A wrongful death lawsuit by O'Neal's parents links the condition to his collapse, accusing Missouri coach Gary Pinkel, athletic director Mike Alden, team medical director Rex Sharp and 11 trainers and strength coaches of failing to recognize signs of medical distress they say could have prevented O'Neal's death.

The lawsuit has dragged through the courts since soon after O'Neal died. The university and O'Neal's family have unsuccessfully sought to settle the case before trial, according to a source familiar with the negotiations who requested confidentiality.

Instead, Pinkel and his staff face a 2008 offseason that could be as much about depositions, discovery and expert witnesses as spring workouts, recruiting visits and the chance to build on one of the school's most successful seasons in its history.

Pinkel and his staff have consistently said the lawsuit doesn't diminish the team's commitment to their fallen player.

"That's between the university and the O'Neal family," Ford said. "That's got nothing to do with us."

Ford said he is still hopeful that the legal dispute can be resolved by the start of the 2008 season, which would have been O'Neal's senior year. He still holds out hope that Lonnie O'Neal, Aaron's father, will attend a Missouri game in his son's memory.

"We're hoping this is all done so he can be a part of the program in [Aaron[']s] senior year," the assistant coach said.

O'Neal's parents have consistently declined comment since his death. In a written statement provided by his attorney, Lonnie O'Neal offered his congratulations -- "despite the pending adversary litigation" -- to the team for winning the Big 12 North division title and compiling the most regular season wins in school history.

"Lonnie O'Neal deeply regrets he and his son cannot share with each other the wonderful moments the team has enjoyed," the statement reads.

Pinkel, until recently known more for his gruff demeanor than his gentle side, has said that O'Neal's death caused significant soul-searching that convinced him to show more emotion and connect more deeply to his athletes.

Tiger players say the adversity has made the team stronger.

"It brought us all closer together," said receiver Tommy Saunders. "We realize that this could all be taken away from us."

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