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Leon O'Neal Comes Full Circle At Texas A&M

Leon O'Neal reflects on his time at Texas A&M and his growth

COLLEGE STATION -- The war hymn was over, but the day wasn't for Leon O'Neal. He didn't head inside the locker room following Texas A&M's 52-3 victory over Prairie View A&M last Saturday. 

No, he headed towards the stands, running towards the 12th Man faithful, grinning from ear to ear. Cameras shuffled in the hands of those wanting to record the moment or take a picture with Aggies' star safety. 

O'Neal obliged requests on more than one occasion. He tossed his gloves to a little Aggie fan standing in front of his parents. A few feet over, he handed his arm bands to a girl with her family. 

He took pictures. He filmed Snapchats. He smiled as the crowd slowly started to exit from Kyle Field. 

O'Neal stayed put. He wasn't ready to walk back into the locker room. He didn't want to say goodbye. 

“I wanted to say thank you to all the fans," O'Neal said Saturday. "These Aggies, man, they do so much for us. I love them with all my heart and I wanted to make sure they knew I love ’em.”

O'Neal and No. 15 Texas A&M (8-3, 4-3 SEC) close out the regular season at LSU (5-6, 2-5) on Saturday.

O'Neal's story with the Aggies is one that comes with twist and turns. It comes with doubt. It certainly comes with trials and failures, perhaps more than O'Neal would care to count. 

It doesn't matter what happened in the past. It matters what happens now. All Aggies could tell by the crackling in his voice what the fans and the school have meant to O'Neal. 

His words are true. It's why the voices across social media could relate with the pain the senior felt, knowing his time in College Station was over. 

“Even if (NFL) football doesn’t work out, I’m going to be a successful young man because of you guys," he said. "Y’all helped me grow and helped me cope with life." 

Recruited by Kevin Sumlin from Cypress Springs High School, O'Neal elected to remain with the program when Jimbo Fisher was hired in 2018. Two years later, O'Neal almost left. 

When the NCAA transfer portal became more accessible for players to join a new program right away, O'Neal wanted out. Heck, he freely talks about being ready to leave College Station and test the waters elsewhere. 

Looking back, O'Neal had a choice. He could walk away from the program and start over new, or overcome the obstacles and tough it out another season. 

He chose the latter option. He never once has looked back. 

"There was a time I almost quit on myself," he said. "I didn’t really see it for what it was at (the time) — I was blaming everybody else for my problems. But when you take accountability, when you look in the mirror and say, ‘Hey, I’m the reason this thing is not working,’ that’s when you build a culture.”

O'Neal speaks of "keeping faith" through challenging times. He also describes life as a boxing match, where blows will be delivered, but the ones that strike hardest are where you can see the adversity and character of a person. 

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Texas A&M has taken its fair share of blows in 2021. Initially a College Football Playoff favorite, the Aggies suffered two early losses to Arkansas and Mississippi State. A road trip to Ole Miss ended in sorrow, ending the Aggies' shot at winning the SEC West. 

Not all is lost for the Aggies in Year 4 of the Fisher era. A victory at LSU and one in the bowl game would cement a 10-win campaign, the first for the program since 2012 and a first since Fisher arrived from Tallahassee. 

"We have a lot to fight for right now, like a 10-win season," O'Neal said. 

All A&M players want to go out on top, but 10 wins would be different for O'Neal. It shows growth as a program that expects to compete for championships in the coming years. 

Growth that similarly parallels O'Neal's time in Aggieland. 

"It’s a choice, how you want to grow," Fisher said. "Leon bought in and made the choice that he wanted to change and be a part of something bigger than him 

"It’s been really fun to watch him grow into being a man.”  

O'Neal wants to leave the program better than he found it. The Aggies are trending that way going into 2022. A No. 1 recruiting class is in play. So is a chance to be the top team defensively in the SEC West. 

Young players often lean on veterans for guidance. Defensive back Antonio Johnson said that it was O'Neal who hosted him during his recruiting visit. The two are now roommates and spend hours together, working both on and off the field. 

"We just connect on such a personal level," Johnson said. "To see him grow, I'm just proud of him and the man he's becoming." 

As O'Neal walked off Kyle Field donning the maroon No. 9 jersey for the final time, he smiled as the memories began to unfold. Four years ago, he made sure Aggieland was his home. 

Two years ago, he was at a crossroads. O'Neal is thankful to make it to the other side. 

He leaves College Station a better man. It's not a goodbye. It's just a farewell for now.  

“This organization changed my life," O'Neal said, "and I’m forever grateful.”

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