If ever a player personified Texas A&M's fanbase, it would be Leon O'Neal.
A staunch defender of the 12th Man, a colorful personality on social media, the senior safety represents what what it means to be an Aggie.
It's infectious hearing him talk about College Station. About football. About life in general. He commands a room with his charismatic demeanor.
“He’s talkative, excited and driven,” defensive lineman DeMarvin Leal said of O'Neal. “You can tell somebody has a passion for the game when they talk. Not only because of what they’re saying, but the emotion behind what they’re saying.”
He loves the game, there's no denying that. The only thing he might love more than meeting wide receivers on a slant pattern is the team he plays for on Saturdays.
And yes, he knows his larger than life personality has been well documented over his time with the program.
“I’m a very enthusiastic young man. I’m aware of that,” O’Neal said. “I’m very passionate, have a strong will and care a lot about A&M.”
The journey from Cy Woods to his senior season with the Aggies has been one with high points and low ones. As he prepares for Saturday's game against Kent State, O'Neal knows what's on the line.
Texas A&M enters the season ranked No. 6 in the country. They're coming off a 9-1 season and their highest finished in the AP Poll since 1939. The defense is returning nine starters.
So yes, O'Neal has a reason to be excited to walk through that tunnel for one more season. That energy is addictive and is spreading like wildfire among the A&M players.
That's good. The Aggies needs to start the season off on the right note.
“One thing you can never doubt about Leon is he loves to play ball,” A&M coach Jimbo Fisher said. “He loves to work out and he loves to prepare to play. That energy is infectious. You’ve got to have those guys you see every day who love what they’re doing."
O'Neal has played in 36 games in three years. Over that time, he's grown and matured, not just on, but off the field.
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O'Neal once considered transferring. In 2019, he posted to his Twitter account of over 26,000 followers that his time with the program was done. Soon after, he announced his return, stating that he was a "Texas A&M Aggie."
He lived up to that standard, starring last season as the Aggies posted their best record since going 11-2 in 2012.
Each day is a blessing, according to O'Neal. His priorities have changed. He now freely mentions his faith, and his growth in classroom and on the field.
"I’m living for today," O'Neal said. "For example, I’ve got to handle schoolwork ... and do certain things to apply myself within the day. That’s all I’ve been doing for the past two years now, just handling myself a day at a time. That flower is just growing.”
O'Neal beams at the thought of getting back on Kyle Field in front of some of the best fans in college football. Despite the pressure facing the Aggies this season, O'Neal knows how to ease the tension.
“Everything Leon says is funny,” Leal said. “It doesn’t even matter what — it’s funny.”
The Aggies have plenty of leaders on the defensive side of the ball. Linebacker Aaron Hansford, defensive end Michael Clemons, defensive tackle Jayden Peevy and cornerback Myles Jones all came back for one more season.
Throw O'Neal at the top of the list as well.
"He’s always got juice, and he’s always going hard," Fisher said. "His leadership in that role has been really big, and he loves being on that football field.”
O'Neal's Twitter handle is "WakeEmUp9." It's also his slogan for the season, and is not aimed at the doubters and naysayers.
O'Neal says that it's about waking up yourself, looking in the mirror and fixing the issues head on.
He had to do that two years ago. Now, O'Neal walks on a brighter side of life towards a promising season inside the confines of Kyle Field and beyond.
“I have to wake up myself before I can wake up the world,” O’Neal said. “It's been working really good."
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