Thursday, April 26, 2018
Colleges

For USF's Matthew O'Neal, success is a hop, skip and jump

TAMPA — For most, triple jumping is more assignment than aspiration.

Slabs and sandlots aren't exactly teeming with prepubescents harboring dreams of bounding into sand on steamy May afternoons before a handful of observers. Even the most elite of those who land in pits don't often land on posters.

Similarly, Matthew O'Neal's orientation to the triple jump surfaced more out of duty than destiny. The bespectacled freshman honor student at Callaway High in Jackson, Miss., was content playing soccer and the trombone, and running distance events for the Chargers.

But on the day of the city meet, his coach found himself without a triple jumper. Next thing O'Neal knew, he was watching the competitors ahead of him to see how the jump was done.

"I didn't even know that it was an event initially," the 20-year-old USF sophomore said. "And I saw them jumping and everything, so I just kept watching them, and it was finally my turn."

O'Neal recalls placing fourth or fifth. Inspired by his debut, self-teaching followed. Because Callaway High had no jump pit, O'Neal studied the event's nuances online and worked on them in his back yard. Three years after that, he set Mississippi's Class 5A state meet record with a 49-foot effort.

Two years later, he's in contention for an NCAA title. The Bulls' outdoor record-holder (53 feet), O'Neal — whose 6-foot-1 frame might carry 160 pounds after a breakfast buffet — enters today's NCAA championships in Eugene, Ore., seeded fourth. (Senior high jumper Courtney Anderson is the Bulls' only other NCAA qualifier.)

"Matthew is not the type that's going to make an excuse. He's going to find a way to make it happen," said his mother, Valeria, a former Jackson State small forward. "He's not going to say anything. He's just going to go, and he'll observe and look. Like I say, he thinks."

Soft-spoken, cerebral and spiritual, the Bulls' most successful male athlete of 2013-14 also may be the most unassuming.

Last fall he appeared in 14 games as a defender on the soccer team, helping it win the American Athletic Conference tournament title and reach the NCAA tournament. In late March he established USF's outdoor triple jump record, then won his second outdoor conference title (52-7½) five weeks later despite a nagging thigh injury.

"He's not a slow guy, but when it comes to the triple jump, he likes to come down at a nice relaxed speed," said USF senior Shane Lewis, who finished second to O'Neal (50-5 1/4) at the conference meet. "Everybody asks him, 'Why are you jogging down the runway?' He likes to control his speed so he can control the jump and control every phase."

Six years ago, O'Neal, the third of Valeria and Major O'Neal's four kids, found his life disrupted by grief when his dad died suddenly at age 45. An autopsy revealed Major, also a former Jackson State basketball player, had a sickle-cell condition that enlarged his spleen, Valeria said.

Devastated, O'Neal, his mom and siblings mourned, then moved forward. For Matthew, that meant soccer, band, chess, schoolwork and running.

"Everybody stepped back into doing the activities they did," said Valeria, an IT procurement manager for the Mississippi Department of Human Services. "You think about that deceased person daily, but when you get back into doing your activities and actually continuing to live and to pursue goals and to be successful, it's really therapeutic for you."

By the end of his high school career, O'Neal had collected seven state track and field titles. He exited Callaway as the reigning 5A champ in the 1,600 meters, 800 meters and triple jump, and as one of the top 10 graduates in his class.

Today O'Neal will pray, think about his dad, stare down the runway and make his methodical trot toward the pit.

"Over the past five weeks I've been kind of tending to a thigh injury that happened a week before conference … and I've still been jumping kind of good," O'Neal said. "So I'm like, 'All right, when I can get this well and my body is back to 100 percent, I'll definitely feel good enough to do better than what I've been doing.' I definitely see myself doing a lot better."

Comments
The case for the Bucs and NFL draft prospect Derwin James

The case for the Bucs and NFL draft prospect Derwin James

The best weapon against the NFL's evolving offenses, Texas A&M's Jimbo Fisher said, is a defender who can do it all — someone who can cover a tight end, shadow a receiver or blitz the backfield."The way the game is played now on defense," Fishe...
Published: 04/25/18
ESPNís Rece Davis on hosting College GameDay from the NFL draft

ESPNís Rece Davis on hosting College GameDay from the NFL draft

When ESPN's Rece Davis heard about the idea for boosting the college football insight into the NFL draft, he didn't need any convincing."My immediate reaction was, this is a no-brainer," Davis said.Davis will spearhead the network's overdue look at t...
Published: 04/25/18
ESPN: Antonio Callaway tested positive for marijuana at NFL combine

ESPN: Antonio Callaway tested positive for marijuana at NFL combine

Former Florida Gators receiver Antonio Callaway's off-field struggles continue.ESPN's Adam Schefter reported Tuesday evening that Callaway tested positive for marijuana at the NFL's scouting combine.Former Florida WR Antonio Callaway -- who some cons...
Published: 04/24/18
Report: Florida Gatorsí Cece Jefferson out four months after shoulder surgery

Report: Florida Gatorsí Cece Jefferson out four months after shoulder surgery

Florida Gators defensive lineman Cece Jefferson will be out four months after having surgery on his right shoulder earlier this week, according to a report Wednesday evening from the Gainesville Sun.Jefferson, a 6-foot-1, 242-pound senior, injured th...
Published: 04/18/18
Florida has signed 15 quarterbacks since Tim Tebow. 10 have transferred

Florida has signed 15 quarterbacks since Tim Tebow. 10 have transferred

Tuesday evening's news that quarterback Jake Allen plans to transfer from the Florida Gators isn't a surprise.Allen, a former three-star recruit in 2017, was fourth on the depth chart. The St. Thomas Aquinas product didn't seem to fit new coach ...
Published: 04/18/18
Auden Tate will be the third FSU receiver drafted in 11 years. Why so few?

Auden Tate will be the third FSU receiver drafted in 11 years. Why so few?

When former Wharton High star Auden Tate hears his name called sometime next week, he'll join a surprisingly small group.Recent Florida State receivers drafted into the NFL.Over the past decade, only two Seminoles receivers have been drafted: Rashad ...
Published: 04/18/18
Police suspected FSUís Deondre Francois intended to sell marijuana

Police suspected FSUís Deondre Francois intended to sell marijuana

Tallahassee police suspected Florida State quarterback Deondre Francois possessed marijuana with the intent to sell it when they executed a search warrant on his home last week, according to an affidavit.The case — which culminated Thursda...
Published: 04/17/18
Florida State takes over No. 1 spot in 2019 recruiting rankings

Florida State takes over No. 1 spot in 2019 recruiting rankings

Even as Florida State was finishing its first recruiting class under Willie Taggart, the Seminoles were already talking about what they could do in the new staff's first full cycle, for 2019."I can only imagine having a year here to be able to recrui...
Published: 04/17/18
Former five-star back Khalan Laborn rejuvenated after FSU coaching change

Former five-star back Khalan Laborn rejuvenated after FSU coaching change

TALLAHASSEE – Florida State running back Khalan Laborn's breakout 140-yard output in Saturday night's spring game was a sign of what could be for the former blue-chip recruit.It was also a reminder of what almost wasn't for the Seminoles.With a...
Published: 04/16/18
New Orlando football team will welcome Steve Spurrier on Tuesday night

New Orlando football team will welcome Steve Spurrier on Tuesday night

Steve Spurrier will make one of his first appearances in his new role with the Alliance of American Football tomorrow in Orlando.The league will welcome Spurrier as the coach of its Orlando team at an event at Ember (42 W Central Blvd.) at an event f...
Published: 04/16/18