Say what you will about Wal-Mart:
Killer of small-town American business; questionable labor practices; those annoying greeters ... but their chicken wings are great. That, at least, according to Arkansas State fullback Oren O'Neal.
|Oren O'Neal spends most of his time on the field blocking. (Getty Images)|
Of course, when you've got no money, no career and no prospects, chicken wings in bulk can look like filet mignon.
"They would last you for days if you spaced your money out," O'Neal said. "I ate the same thing every night."
That was summer 2003. O'Neal already had been at the school two years as a faceless walk-on. Sleeping on the floor of teammate Ramon Williams' apartment, doing odd jobs, working out and stretching a chicken-wing dollar, Orenthal James O'Neal -- yes, he was named after O.J. -- was determined to get that scholarship.
What's hardship when you're so familiar with X-rays that uranium is jealous? When doctors have punctured your chest, removing the fluid equivalent of two liter-bottles of Coke?
"You will have to show me a better story of a walk-on," said Arkansas State team physician Brock Harris.
Son of a preacher man
That's saying something. There a million walk-on stories. In a lot of ways, they are the lifeblood of college football. Dikes need thumbs, leaky pipes need duct tape, and coaches need these unpaid, under-skilled laborers. They shore up a program.
There's really no downside for management. If a guy works out, fine. If not, next man up. Kind of like being a Wal-Mart greeter.
The idea here at CBS SportsLine.com was to find the best walk-ons and their stories. College football producer J. Darin Darst canvassed virtually every I-A program. O'Neal's story was the most compelling. By far.
Walk-on of the year? Walk-on of the decade, considering he arrived on campus in 2001.
The 240-pound fullback was recently awarded a sixth year of eligibility by NCAA. The son of a preacher, he was diagnosed with chylothorax in 2001. That's a leaking of the thoracic duct into the chest area.
Diagnosis was the easy part. In the summer before his freshman season, O'Neal had trouble breathing. The pain in his chest was so severe he had to sleep sitting up.
The hard part came after a procedure to drain two liters of fluid. The stunning part: O'Neal still wanted to play football.
You see, folks with chylothorax are lucky to be alive. It is fatal in 10 percent of the cases. Sometimes it's congenital. If not, it is usually related to blunt trauma or a malignancy.
"I would suppose if you saw a motor vehicle accident, you'd see chylothorax," Harris said. "As far as people walking around with it, I've never seen it before. I've been practicing 19 years."
There was no history of the affliction in the family. O'Neal hadn't been in a car accident or suffered an injury anyone could recall.
It seems O'Neal has this tolerance for pain, though. He doesn't feel it like you or me. Doctors have cut on him, drained him. Coaches have run him ragged. Opponents have smashed him.
"He always has been pretty resilient," said Oren's father, Lawrence, pastor of Holy Benton Church of Christ in Stuttgart, Ark. "I know in his junior year, he thought he had suffered a hip pointer. He played through the whole season, was out there in pain. We didn't know until later how bad it was. Part of his bone had broken and his muscle was hanging."
'Grossly abnormal ... always'
Oren O'Neal was going to play. That much was for sure. As a 225-pound offensive lineman for the Stuttgart High Ricebirds, he'd shown more heart than dominance.
But it's hard to play football when you can't climb a set of stairs.
"That summer after I graduated from high school, I was getting ready to go to sleep at night, I couldn't breath," O'Neal said. "It's a good thing I caught it because I love playing football."
If he didn't catch it, well, the end is excruciating. Left untreated, chylothorax victims eventually suffocate.
But Oren was going to play (and live) so he underwent a procedure that cauterized the lining of his left lung so it would not leak.
"Grossly abnormal and will always be," Harris said of the post-op X-rays. "Removing the fluid doesn't make the X-ray normal, it makes it acceptable."
That was 2001. In 2002, O'Neal finally saw the field -- on the scout team. Then the money for school ran out -- or O'Neal thought it did. His father had worked for the Kroger grocery store chain for 29 years before being laid off. The 500-person congregation provided a foundation of faith, not necessarily for tuition.
"I guess everyone knows preachers don't make much money," Indians running backs coach David Gunn said.
During his ordeal, Arkansas State had changed coaches. O'Neal had the added burden of proving himself all over again for Steve Roberts.
"Oren is not one to speak much," said Roberts, who has been around for five of O'Neal's six seasons. "He did express that he was going to have to have a scholarship."
There's a big "why" factor to all this. O'Neal was receiving interest from Division II and NAIA schools. The military was an option.
But so was a basic human decency. One brother had played for Arkansas. Another was a manager in a construction firm.
In a family with five brothers, "I didn't want to be a burden to my parents," Oren said.
So he slept on Williams' floor and ate wings. Roberts got wind of it and got the idea the kid was something special, at least down in the gut where it counts.
O'Neal's high school coach had tipped the former staff that the kid was coming back in 2001. But he was awkward making the transition from high school lineman/linebacker to college fullback.
The position is a thankless job. It has evolved into a specialty position. Most teams have a fullback but use them only to block on short-yardage and goal-line plays.
O'Neal knew that, too. Even if he got the scholarship, even if he broke into the lineup, even if he somehow started, he'd hardly see the ball.
"To do that over the summer knowing that, 'If I don't make it ...', it was a great step of faith," Gunn said. "With faith goes action. He might have been the best football player in fall camp."
On the last day of fall camp that summer, Roberts called Lawrence O'Neal, then called Oren into his office.
"We would have struggled to get him there one way or another," Lawrence O'Neal said. "I think he was a little concerned because he didn't want to put pressure on."
Then a whole new kind of pressure began to build.
"It made me feel good but I wasn't relieved," Oren said. "I knew I still had to work. I didn't want anyone to think they wasted their money on me."
Aiming for two degrees, 6th year
O'Neal and the coaches really wanted that sixth year of eligibility in 2006. He has one degree in Industrial Technology and is working toward another.
There was no abuse of the system. In 2001, O'Neal was recovering. In 2002, he played on the scout team. Then for three years (2003-2005) he butted heads for real. In 34 career games, he has carried the ball only 49 times, scoring four touchdowns.
There has been the lung thing, the hip-pointer thing and hernia surgery that resulted from straining in the weight room, O'Neal says.
But you know what? Arkansas State won the Sun Belt last year, and if you pin Roberts against the wall, he'll tell you the Indians probably couldn't have done it without his special case.
Trainer Ron Carroll has been around the program 30 years. He watches after long series to see if O'Neal is laboring to catch his breath. Though no one is sure, some estimate the 22-year-old has lost at least 50 percent of capacity in that left lung.
"His recovery is as quick as someone with two normal lungs," Carroll said. "Usually when trainers talk and go to lectures, they talk about their cases. This has never been anything I've seen in any journal or presentation.
"Everything else being equal, everybody else should be able to beat him out. He'll outwork you."
NFL scouts are starting to sniff around. O'Neal has lined up at fullback and tailback in Arkansas State's multiple offense. At 6-2, 242, he is a horse as a blocker.
They like his size and blocking ability. They know his medical situation. They also know that O'Neal would benefit greatly from another year of competition.
"When we were treating Oren, it never occurred to me in my wildest imagination he would play football," Harris said.
Which was a problem when it got to that stage. The NCAA originally rejected the appeal for a sixth year. The school wrote letters, laid out the medical case in detail.
Then Harris sent the X-rays.
Remember "grossly abnormal"? Those X-rays might have saved O'Neal's career.
"A non-radiologist would look at this and see the gravity of the situation," Harris said. "It was a no-brainer."
Can you imagine, this kid who couldn't catch his breath -- playing basically with one lung? Oren can, especially when he flips on the TV on Sunday.
"When I watch the pros play ... they'll be out there loafing, taking it easy, so they don't lose any money, I guess," O'Neal said. "I knew I had to work harder than everybody else. There isn't a coach going to give a scholarship if you do everything average."