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The Student News Site of Texas A&M University - College Station

The Battalion

The Student News Site of Texas A&M University - College Station

The Battalion

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‘Wake ‘em up’

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FILE

Senior defensive back Leon O’Neal‘s new perspective on gameplay and positive attitude has become about more than just football. 

When the world is watching, the most important set of eyes is one’s own.
Senior safety Leon O’Neal Jr. made a name for himself by combining lock-down defensive gameplay with an infectious, positive attitude. Since entering the spotlight that comes with playing on a top-10 A&M squad, O’Neal has used his voice to preach a message of hard work, overcoming adversity and setting national standards.
Before he could use football to build a platform, currently standing over 26,000 strong on Twitter, O’Neal said he used the sport to “save” himself.
“Football has been a way of life for me off the field more than on the field,” O’Neal said. “The guidelines, principles and discipline that you have to go by with football are applied to life. When I was young, I struggled with what I wanted to do. Football gave me that pathway to figure out who I am.”
For O’Neal, this “pathway” ultimately led to a constant presence on the field with the Aggies. The Cypress native, now entering his fourth season wearing maroon and white, has played in every single A&M football game since moving to College Station in early 2018. During this time, O’Neal recorded 103 tackles, 11 passes defended and four interceptions, returned for a total of 77 yards.
Along the way, O’Neal further expanded his reach by intentionally making a statement any time he stepped onto the field. For example, the color orange — typically frowned upon by Aggies — was embraced to celebrate Halloween by O’Neal through the use of neon gloves during A&M’s Oct. 31 game against Arkansas in 2020. O’Neal said these decisions are based on a commitment to always strive for the top.
A&M head coach Jimbo Fisher, one of the highest authorities on collegiate football, said there are few athletes as prepared to compete as O’Neal. This readiness to succeed stems from an “it-factor” built upon a total passion for the game, Fisher said.
“One thing you can never doubt about Leon — he loves to play ball,” Fisher said. “He loves to work out, he loves to get [prepared] to play, he loves being at Texas A&M. You never see [a bad attitude] with Leon. He’s always going hard. You’ve got to have those guys that you can see, every day, that they love what they’re doing. His leadership in that role has been big.”
As the player who “spends the most time with [O’Neal],” junior safety Demani Richardson said he has seen firsthand the influence O’Neal has on the rest of the team. This came in the form of setting an example for others while boosting squad morale.
“When he’s up here [in Kyle Field], he’s about business, but he’s always trying to keep a smile on people’s faces,” Richardson said. “He lifts the team up, and [that energy] is always contagious. I try to talk and pick people up as much as he does. We all need that.”
However, this combination of leadership and passion does not exist without struggles, O’Neal said. At one point, the safety began “idolizing [himself] too much,” saying he lost focus of his original priorities. This impacted both his playing ability and his personal relationships with friends and family.
After some “self-searching,” O’Neal said he used the lessons learned in football to develop a new life motto: “Wake ‘em up.” This slogan, which has found its way into the player’s personal branding and social media handles, represents the opportunity for self-introspection and character development, he said.
“‘Wake ‘em up’ is a lot of things,” O’Neal said, “We’re all trying to chase something, but it’s more than that. It’s waking yourself up and looking in the mirror. That’s exactly what I did two years ago. I looked in the mirror and said, ‘Hey, I’ve got to be a better man and a better person.’”
Because of the coach’s demanding role of overseeing the entire team, Fisher said he isn’t there to witness every personal struggle faced by each of his players, including O’Neal’s recent “transformation.” Instead, Fisher said he focuses on the positive, tangible changes that come as a result of everything “behind the scenes.”
“What guys do on a team, a coach knows parts of, but you don’t always know [everything],” Fisher said. “There’s inner-workings, and Leon has really matured. He’s really done a great job of creating energy with his leadership. That’s the part I’ve seen.”
Since overcoming his personal struggle, O’Neal has been able to focus on making the upcoming season his best yet. After feeling “snubbed” by the Aggies’ omission from the College Football Playoff following the 2020 season, O’Neal said he is determined to compete at the level of an athlete leading a championship-contending team.
Richardson said he sees this determination and “willpower” from O’Neal every time the two train together. More often than not, O’Neal is the one driving the workouts and pushing him to his limits, Richardson said.
“He’s crazy about working hard,” Richardson said. “We’ll box at 7 a.m., then go do a track workout, then we have another lift with the team in the afternoon. My best ‘Leon O’Neal memory’ [has been] this entire summer and his work ethic.”
For O’Neal, this work isn’t in pursuit of recognition or fame. Instead, he does it to improve his own self-identity while helping his team succeed.
“You want to prove [your worth] to the world, obviously,” O’Neal said. “But if you get caught up in the lights and the glamour of that, you’ll never get where you’re trying to go.”
O’Neal will next face the aforementioned “lights and glamour” of Kyle Field on Saturday, Sept. 4, when the Aggies open their 2021 campaign against the Kent State Golden Flashes. As a leader of a defensive unit widely expected to lead the nation in many competitive statistics, all eyes will be on the senior and his ability to build upon the success of 2020.
Finally returning for another “full-energy, full-capacity” campaign with the maroon and white, O’Neal said he is ready to make the upcoming season “his year.”
“I have to wake up myself before I can wake up the world,” O’Neal said. “Well, I’m here now.”

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