Wednesday, June 20, 2018
Colleges

Every leap is one of faith for USF triple jumper

TAMPA — Chronologically, recent USF graduate Matthew O'Neal will wake up Friday a year older. When he rises Saturday, he might be ageless.

Immortality seems a hop, step and jump away for this 6-foot-2, 160-pound package of hops and wholesomeness. If, as many expect, he wins the men's triple jump Friday — his 22nd birthday — at the NCAA Championships in Eugene, Ore., O'Neal's celebration will be about as radical as the Hallmark Channel.

Some chicken Alfredo would be nice, he says, topped off by an ice cream sundae. Forget alcohol. On a campus of roughly 42,000, O'Neal's an outlier all the way.

He says he never has tasted it.

"It would be just another opportunity to give God glory, really," said O'Neal, trying to become USF's first national champ (in any sport) since Jon Dennis won the second of his back-to-back 5,000-meter outdoor titles in 1993. "That's how I see it."

If the Bulls' coaches and compliance honchos chiseled in unison, many say they couldn't carve a more model USF ambassador than this Jackson, Miss., native, who has glided to unprecedented lengths amid grief (he lost his dad to a sickle cell condition eight years ago).

"He's an exceptional athlete but he's an even greater person," Bulls jumps coach Kiamesha Otey said.

"I love him," said men's soccer coach George Kiefer, who had O'Neal on his team for three seasons before O'Neal chose to focus on the triple jump year-round. "He's a great man."

Career or character, both seem too good to be true in the case of USF's 2016 recipient of the Lee Roy Selmon Award (prerequisites: integrity, academic excellence, compassion, etc.).

His triple jump origins have been well chronicled.

As a freshman distance runner at Callaway High in Jackson, he was summoned out of the blue to try the event at the city meet and placed in the top five. After some YouTube tutorials and practice in his backyard (Callaway had no jump pit), he ultimately set his state's Class 5A record (49 feet) as a senior.

He enters the NCAAs as a five-time All-American (indoor and outdoor), with a career-best effort (and school record) of 55 feet, 9.75 inches achieved at the recent NCAA East preliminary in Jacksonville. His mom, Valeria, was among a handful of relatives who made the 9 1/2-hour drive from Jackson to watch.

Those are just the leaps and bounds. It's the grounded O'Neal — and few say they've met a more grounded individual — that really jumps out at you.

He certainly astounded Andy Chasanoff, longtime sports coordinator for Paralympic Sport Tampa Bay. Chasanoff, whose group has benefited from the volunteer work of dozens of USF athletes, initially had no idea the tall, nonchalant guy who periodically showed up was a school record holder and Olympic Trials qualifier.

"Then I looked him up," Chasanoff said. "Oh my god, he's the most accomplished guy on their team. Never said a word. He was the most humble person that has come through. … And I thought, 'Man, that's the person I hope my kids get to be like.' "

O'Neal graduated last month with a 3.08 GPA and a degree in management information systems. He received a C in exactly two college courses, both of which had titles spanning eight syllables (managerial accounting, database administration). While a practicing teetotaler, he also says he never has taken a drag of a cigarette.

In addition to his work with local paralympians, he has logged hours at the Boys & Girls Clubs, and has dished out water to runners at the Miles for Moffitt distance races that raise funds for cancer research. He sings in the choir and designs fliers at Seffner's New Life Tabernacle.

"I think the one thing that is so big and resonates so much with Matthew is his faith," Otey said. "He puts God first in life in every aspect of it. … You don't see many college kids who have that sort of faith and that live it every single day."

But even the most devout have their smudges, inconspicuous as they may seem. Surely some flaw lurks within this choir-Bull. If not a vice, then surely a habit, right?

Well, he did get a parking ticket on campus once. Other than that …

"Hmm," Otey says, pausing to ponder the question, "Matthew definitely moves at his own pace, I will say that.

"We stopped somewhere (after the East prelim) to get something to eat. Everybody's out of the car and we're walking over to the place. We're like, 'Where's Matthew?' Matthew's still at the car. We don't know what he's doing."

Alas, the kid's a slacker. Bet here is, USF will give him a pass.

Right into its hall of fame.

Contact Joey Knight at [email protected]. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.

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