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."