O'Neal covers the distance

By Christopher L. Gasper
Globe Staff / September 19, 2008
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FOXBOROUGH - The transition from Cincinnati to New England has been tough for Deltha O'Neal, but not for the reasons you would think.

The veteran cornerback, who was scooped up Sept. 1, six days before the start of the Patriots' season, has fit in almost seamlessly in the secondary. He made a game-saving tackle against the Chiefs in the season opener and made his first Patriots start last week in a 19-10 victory over the Jets.

On the field, O'Neal has looked right at home. But it is the sacrifice he made off the field that has been tough - although you could never tell by the perma-grin on his face.

O'Neal left behind his wife, Lisa, and his three children, daughters Talia, 6, and Mya, 2, and son Ty, who turns 2 next month.

O'Neal knows what it's like to grow up without a father. That's why every Monday right after meetings he races to the airport and hops on a plane to spend the players' day off (Tuesday) with his family.

"It was tough, but they understood," said O'Neal, who was cut by Cincinnati Aug. 30. "I'm still playing football, but once I'm done I won't be away from my [kids] ever again.

"I see them pretty much every week. I go out there as much as I can to see them. I'll go to their school and interrupt class and try to take them out so I can be with them for like five or 10 minutes. Just anything so I can see them."

O'Neal's role model when it comes to taking care of family is his brother, Stephan Forbes, who is 10 years his senior. According to O'Neal's mother, Cheryl Jessie, Forbes was a surrogate father for O'Neal while he grew up in Milpitas, Calif., helping him with schoolwork and taking him on trips to the local amusement park.

When Forbes sacrificed his chance to pursue sports when he became a father at age 22, it made quite an impression on O'Neal.

"He taught him the importance of family, family ties, and values," said Jessie. "I think Stephan was very instrumental in him being what he is now."

"I saw the man that he became as a young man," said O'Neal. "I was like, 'That's how you're supposed to do it. You're supposed to take care of your family.' He did a great job at that."

Family is one of the reasons that O'Neal, who has a degree from the University of California at Berkeley, is planning to participate in the league's NFL Business Management and Entrepreneurial Program this offseason by taking classes at Harvard Business School.

"To me, NFL stands for 'Not For Long,' so you get what you can while you're in here," said O'Neal, 31. "I'm not trying to be one of those guys that has been in the NFL for almost 10 years and you got out of the NFL and you're dead broke. You have nothing. I'm trying to provide for my daughters and my little boy. That's my whole outlook about that."

Despite what the Bengals may have thought, it appears that O'Neal, a two-time Pro Bowl selection, is not nearing the end of his NFL existence.

It's not an accident that O'Neal landed in New England. He shares the same agent (Steve Feldman) as Patriots safety Rodney Harrison. He also is close friends with former Bengals cornerback Tory James, who was in training camp with the Patriots last year and was released before the start of the season.

"This is probably one of the best places by far out of all the teams in the NFL that you would love to be a part of," said O'Neal. "It was more so Rodney and Tory's observation about the whole deal that had me focused on coming here."

Harrison said the record of Patriots coach Bill Belichick was more convincing than any pitch he might have made. "[O'Neal] just knows that this is a team where you don't have to be a 26-year-old to come in and play," said Harrison. "They're not afraid of veteran guys. They're not afraid of guys that are in their 30s, and Bill has an uncanny ability to see what everyone else doesn't see.

"So, if the world is saying, 'This guy is washed up. He can't play,' he'll bring you in because he knows that you still can play. He knows that you can do certain things. Deltha has fit in tremendously. He's a great person."

Leaving Cincinnati, one of the NFL's most dysfunctional franchises, must feel sort of like a get-out-jail-free card to O'Neal.

O'Neal set a Bengals franchise record with 10 interceptions in 2005, but fell out of favor. He admitted he had been trying to extricate himself from Cincinnati for quite a while, although getting cut may have been a less-than-ideal way of doing it.

"I've been trying to get up out of there for the longest," O'Neal said. "I have no sour words for them. I wish them well. I'm just happy for my situation."

O'Neal said that magnanimous milieu is one of the reasons he's been able to get up to speed so quickly. He said that before the Patriots defeated the Chiefs, 17-10, he spent time cramming with defensive coordinator Dean Pees and special assistant/secondary coach Dom Capers.

O'Neal met with Capers after meetings, after practice, before practice, even at lunch.

When Capers wasn't tutoring him, Harrison, cornerback Ellis Hobbs, safeties Brandon Meriweather and James Sanders, and even cornerback Lewis Sanders, who is O'Neal's primary competition for playing time, also provided tips.

"Everybody realizes that everybody has a role in this defense," said O'Neal. "In order for that role to work, you got to work together. That's what they did for me. They helped me out tremendously . . . It helped us get a victory and it helped me be at the right place at the right time."

O'Neal now seems to be in the right place at the right time in his career - even if it is away from his family.

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