Amid the tears and the anecdotes and the numbness, the fanning of funeral programs and singing and clapping at the West Side Missionary Baptist Church in St. Louis 10 years ago Saturday, hundreds mourned and celebrated Aaron O’Neal, the 19-year-old University of Missouri football player who had died days before after a voluntary workout in Columbia, Mo.
“We’ll never forget A.O.,” MU coach Gary Pinkel said, his voice trembling at times as he spoke. “We’ll never forget him.”
Before he left that day, Pinkel pulled onto his right wrist a white rubber bracelet embellished with “Aaron O’Neal #25.”
Without exception, he kept it on for years to stay connected to the young man who lived with what Pinkel called a “million-dollar smile” and who liked to just tell friends “you’re great” and who had a gleaming future waiting on and off the field.
Three and a half transformative years later at the Alamo Bowl in San Antonio, the bracelet virtually fused to his wrist long after Pinkel fretted it would just erode away, Mizzou prepared to play in what would have been O’Neal’s last game.
As he touched the bracelet, Pinkel said, it would be time for a ceremonial removal of it after the game.
The feeling he expected would really “be something,” and that meant that when he managed to pry it off he expected to tear up.
The same way he did at a news conference after that horrible day, when he said he felt like he lost “one of my children.”
The same way he did at a campus memorial service for O’Neal, and at the funeral and as he did standing by O’Neal’s father, Lonnie, as Aaron was commemorated before the last home game in 2008
“You’re so close to these players … I hug ’em and love ’em,” Pinkel said on that senior night as his eyes moistened and he suggested, “Let’s talk about something else.”
Before O’Neal died, Pinkel typically spoke to players only on Thursdays before games and Sundays after, former Tiger Lorenzo Williams said in 2007.
Then Pinkel would “go back to his little corner” or back “in the shadows,” added Williams, who called him “cuddly as a cactus.”
“It was the kind of feeling like we were getting punished all the time,” Williams said when I was covering MU for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
So Aaron O’Neal had redshirted and never played a down at MU.
But he was the impetus for a dramatic change in the man who changed Missouri football, a change that came at a time when the program was wobbling and Pinkel’s future was in doubt.
Long before Pinkel would lead MU to three Big 12 and two Southeastern Conference divisional titles and have to contend with other crucial trials and recoveries along the way, his fourth Mizzou team went 5-6 in 2004.
Adding to a dreary time around the program, Pinkel was alienating fans and media with frequently contentious or condescending stances.
Once, he stormed out of a booster meeting in Columbia because he was offended by a fan question.
The regression of 2004 (the Tigers were 8-5 in 2003), though, had made Pinkel reflective and beginning to move away from his insistence that no changes were needed.
Suddenly, he embraced the spread offense, a bold change — “especially for me,” he would later say.
And he acknowledged that he had strayed from who he intended to be in dealings with the public.
“You don’t treat people that way …,” he said in his office in the spring of 2005. “I crossed the respect line, and I don’t want to do that. And guess what? It’s fixed.”
With few exceptions in memory, that was true.
He generally remains stoic, yes, but he seldom is rude and in bursts is willing to show and share more of himself.
(A phone message seeking to interview Pinkel for this story was not returned by MU sports information).
But there was something more imperative missing in Pinkel’s quest to restore the program: a level of warmth and accessibility — and thus credibility, in the modern model — with his players.
Maybe he could have prevailed without establishing that better, but he wasn’t helping himself by thinking command presence meant just staying aloof in the mold of mentor Don James.
By the time camp opened a few weeks after O’Neal’s death, players noticed Pinkel had begun talking to them instead of just at them.
He no longer was speaking as an automaton from a script but as an animated, even paternal, human being.
He was intent on both being more candid and listening more, for instance, when he’d meet with seniors every Monday, a transition Williams would compare to the Grinch who stole Christmas.
“Mean at first and got nice at the end,” as he put it, a development that left players caring more about Pinkel and more about pleasing him.
Fueled by some chemical combination of the evolving Pinkel, playing for O’Neal, the new scheme and better players, the pivotal 2005 season galvanized a program that had been mired in distress and dissonance.
The punctuation mark was the Tigers coming back from a 21-0 first-quarter deficit to beat South Carolina 38-31 in the Independence Bowl.
That victory, celebrated on the 25-yard-line in memory of O’Neal, provided a winning season (7-5) — since which Missouri is 84-36 after having gone 29-40 in the previous six seasons.
Trust had been tenuous in the program, and it was imperiled altogether with the shock and lingering mystery over precisely how O’Neal died.
To this day, in fact, the exact cause of death is unclear.
When the Boone County medical examiner initially cited viral meningitis in 2005, other medical experts were dubious.
Meanwhile, players were skeptical because it seemed to absolve MU — which by numerous accounts mishandled the situation on the field at multiple levels, including failing to follow written policies.
In announcing a wrongful death suit filed by O’Neal’s parents, their attorney contended then that O’Neal “died from neglect.”
In 2009, the school reached a $2 million settlement of the suit that attributed no fault to any of the 14 defendants (including Pinkel) and identified sickle cell trait as the catalyst for the “vascular crisis” that killed him.
However O’Neal ultimately died, he lives on in legacies that belie his short life.
It’s first and foremost in the way he’s remembered: as a kind and bright young man who thought more about others more than himself.
That’s why he’s revered from his alma mater, Parkway North High, to MU, where seniors in 2008 rotated wearing his number and an endowed scholarship and a meeting room bear his name.
In the wake of his death, MU investigated, updated and reiterated the importance of knowing and following emergency procedures and initiated mandatory testing for sickle-cell trait for all incoming athletes, a standard the NCAA since has adopted.
Part of O’Neal’s legacy, too, is the impact he had on Pinkel and Mizzou football during a piercing and volatile period that defined the program then and going forward.
Years later, Pinkel acknowledged he didn’t know if “we would ever recover from that.”
All he knew to do, somehow, was think of what was written on his wrist, let down his guard, get closer to players and love ’em and hug ’em.
To reach Vahe Gregorian, call 816-234-4868 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @vgregorian. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com