O'Neal, a former NFL football player, grew up in southeast Arkansas and was drafted by the Oakland Raiders in the sixth round of the 2007 NFL draft.
What Oren O’Neal learned firsthand is how you cannot let football determine your value in life because life after football can be a difficult and harsh reality.
O’Neal, a former NFL football player, grew up in southeast Arkansas and was drafted by the Oakland Raiders in the sixth round of the 2007 NFL draft.
Returning home for a weekend for local rallies which sparked after the death of George Floyd, O’Neal who currently resides in Dallas, TX, traveled back to the cusp of the Delta to support the movement of change and unity in the community he grew up in, Stuttgart, AR.
“I hate that it had to take so much death and violence for people to look at themselves to see that some things are going to have to be done differently,” said O’Neal. “It is a weight that you have to overcome just to get to the base level through basic growth here. I’ll like to see this weight removed from these babies here, especially these black babies. Nobody should have to deal with that all the time and then having to deal with the everyday struggles that all human beings have to deal with.”
Graduating from Stuttgart High School in 2001, O’Neil was a talented athlete who walked on at Arkansas State University. He was sidelined by a rare lung disorder and had part of his lung removed but he didn’t let that end his football career.
Determined to play in the NFL, Oren worked hard to make it back on the team earning him a scholarship before the 2003 season and was later granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA.
O’Neal’s tenacity on the field drew the attention of the Oakland Raiders who drafted O’Neal as the 175 pick overall with their sixth round pick in 2007.
His coach Lane Kiffin named him the rookie player of the year having earned playing time on both offense and defense in 14 games.
CBS Sportsline told his story in 2006 when he was chosen as "National Walk-on of the Year". In that article, he told of sleeping on friends' floors and doing anything else necessary to get by as a walk-on with very little money or resources.
His dreams turned into a reality until 2008 when O’Neal suffered a knee injury and was eventually cut prior to the 2010 season.
“When it’s over, you feel lost,” said O’Neal. “By all means I made it to the highest level of football that they would of like to have felt and when football was over for me I still felt that same lost feeling.”
O’Neal said he was in a dark place after his football career ended earlier than expected. For O’Neal it was hard to adjust, when football elevates your status of worthiness.
“Football gives you a lot of value here and it teaches you that this is where your value comes from, but I want to tell these young athletes that you can’t let football give you value,” said O’Neal. “I used to think I had value because I did this.”
Growing up in a small community O’Neal said he was treated differently because of his athletic ability and once he earned his football scholarship, that’s when all the pats on the back and praises began.
“Young black men in the community, once they’re good in football they have their value but once it’s over their value is gone,” said O’Neal. “There is nothing else for them.”
O’Neal speaks from experience. After his playing days were over, he battled many different health issues.
O’Neal has had eight knee surgeries and still needs three more. He also suffers from Traumatic Brain Injury with symptoms so severe it leaves him sleep deprived.
O’Neal said through his lowest moments of suffering and pain, he saw the value that he once had, no longer a factor.
“That’s the nature of football,” said O’Neal. “I made it all the way up to the top level, pats on the back, good job but when it was all over I get a call from one coach, two teammates, but nobody that was affiliate with football contacted me.”
O’Neal said he made the mistake of allowing himself to feel that without football he was nothing. O’Neal went to work for General Electric but was still coping with life without football.
“I was struggling. It was a mental struggle,” said O’Neal. “I had a nice job as an engineer. Everything was going well but it wasn’t football. It’s so engrained cause that’s all you can do, run and jump. But when it’s over, it’s over and you’re sitting there struggling in these dark places.”
O’Neal said his upbringing by his parents and community mentors at a young age helped instill his true purpose in life which he now teaches to elementary students.
“Kids deal with a lot from low income to poverty,” said O’Neal. “They really need to be engaged and built before their brain is developed at the age of six.”
When going to the elementary schools O’Neal holds the parents accountable for teaching self-worth to their children.
According to O’Neal, if you look at child psychological, 90 percent of a child’s brain is developed before the age of six.
Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child concurs that 90 percent of a child’s brain is developed by kindergarten and what you do during that time is an incredibly important period to ensure that children have a strong foundation for future development.
“If you don’t have no role models, if you don’t have no father figures, or anybody coming together programing these kids before they get to six everything you do is a monumental effort to erase everything that shouldn’t of been programmed from the beginning,” said O’Neal.
Providing the building blocks for educational achievement, economic productivity, responsible citizenship, lifelong health, strong communities, and successful parenting of the next generation is what O’Neal teaches but states it must start at home.
“If you want your kids to be great, everything you tell them, you have to do,” said O’Neal. “If you tell them to read, they have to see you read. If you are telling them to do these things, they have to see you doing these things or they are going to say mom’s not doing it or whoever is in charge is not doing it so it can’t be that important.”
O’Neal said when his football career ended almost everyone stepped back.
While it’s great to go to the NFL and make money, O’Neal says to seek other opportunities in fields that will pay you just as much or even more such as a computer engineer, data scientist or data analyst.
“You got to find a way to make it with your mind so you don’t destroy your bodies and we can teach these kids to have value,” said O’Neal. “Don’t play ball to give yourself value. Bring value and find your purpose cause when it’s all over you still got to have purpose.”