BARBOURVILLE, Ky. - A Hollywood writer could not have scripted a better ending – a standout senior linebacker posts a school-record 20 tackles, helping his team to an upset of a Top 20 program in his final game in a collegiate uniform.
As make-believe all this might seem to be, it was all that and more for Patrick O’Neal.
The Lula, Ga. native tied the school record with 20 stops in the 28-21 win at then-No. 17 Georgetown (Ky.) College, a team Union College had not beaten since 1938 and lost the last 23 meetings to.
“It’s probably one of the best feelings that you could have,” O’Neal said of the win and his performance against Georgetown.
And in the wake of that win, the accolades have rolled in for O’Neal. First came the Mid-South Conference and NAIA Defensive Player of the Week nods. Next, he landed on the MSC East All-Conference First Team for the third year in a row.
O’Neal is just the third player in program history to earn All-Conference First Team honors three or more times in a career, joining tight end Pete Greene and offensive lineman J.T. Pennington on that exclusion list.
“He’s the type of kid that does all the things he needs to make him the best he can be,” said Union head coach Tommy Reid.
Ever since he suited up in a Bulldog uniform, O’Neal has been the team’s top tackler and his production has drastically improved with each passing season.
“Every year, I go in with the perspective that I want to get better and do whatever it takes to get there,” the senior linebacker said.
As a freshman, O’Neal tied for the team lead in tackles with 63 and had just one double-digit tackle performance. He upped his output with 82 stops – 16 more than anyone else on the team, and three 10-plus tackle outings. In 2006, the 6-foot-1, 215-pounder racked up six double-digit outings in amassing 102 tackles, 20 more than next highest tackler.
But the numbers O’Neal put in 2007 was nothing short of astounding.
He opened the season with 20 tackles against University of the Cumberlands (Ky.) to tie the single-game record. O’Neal had 10-plus tackles in nine of the Bulldogs’ 11 games, including four 15-plus performances. He set the single-season record 143 stops, surpassing the 22-year-old record of 135. Also, O’Neal finished with 67 more tackles than anyone else on the team.
And he closed out his collegiate career with arguably his best game ever: 20 total tackles (10 solos), 2.5 tackles for a loss and 2.0 sacks in a seven-point upset of a program that Union had never beaten in the modern era of football at the school.
“He’s got a natural ability to find the ball carrier,” the Bulldog coach said. “On top of that, Pat spends a lot of time studying each opponent and his assignments.
“Pat is one of the hardest workers we’ve ever had.”
O’Neal wrapped up his career with 390 total tackles, just two shy of the program record of 392. Add that to the fact that in his final 20 games, O’Neal registered double-figure tackles 15 times.
Yet, he deflects any praise for his accomplishments to his teammates.
“It’s not just one person on defense,” O’Neal said. “It’s not about me. I couldn’t do it without everyone else.”
But to speak of O’Neal prowess on the gridiron would only tell half of the story for he excels in the classroom as well.
“My parents always taught me that a good education is more important than football,” O’Neal remarked. “You’re not always going to be playing football. I enjoy football, but it’s the most important thing.”
A special education major, O’Neal boasts a 3.62 grade-point average, has been named to the MSC Academic All-Conference Team three times and was a 2006 Daktronics-NAIA Scholar-Athlete.
Earlier this month, O’Neal was selected to the 2007 ESPN the Magazine CoSIDA Academic All-District IV First Team with more academic honors expected to come his way.
So, how does O’Neal walk the tightrope between preparing for game day and the classroom?
“It’s very hard to do,” he explained. “You have to pull out the schedule and see where you can fit in everything. Every day is a full day, and it’s never-ending.”
Reid added, “When he came to us as a freshman, he knew what his goals were, where his priorities laid, and he stuck to those.
“He’s an intelligent kid, but more so than that, he’s doing a great job in regards to time management skills. He is the model student-athlete.”A model who just might’ve broken the mold.