It is the day after the San Diego Chargers' improbable AFC Championship Game victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers, a day off for the partied-out Chargers, and defensive end Leslie O'Neal has a choice to make. He can spend the afternoon answering his phone, which hasn't stopped ringing since the title game ended, he can watch Ready to Wear, the Robert Altman film he's dying to see, or he can review tape of San Diego's last-minute defensive stand that beat the Steelers and then shoot pool afterward.
Truth be told, O'Neal would opt for the Altman film, but he has just missed the start of the 1:15 show. So he settles for Dick Enberg's call of the AFC title game and then some eight ball. He takes a seat in the Charger p.r. office to watch the end of NBC's telecast. "First time I've seen this drive," says the 6'4", 265-pound O'Neal, stroking his dark goatee.
On the TV monitor San Diego linebacker Dennis Gibson deflects the final Pittsburgh pass with 1:04 left and San Diego leading 17-13, giving the Chargers possession at their own three. Having only to run out the clock to clinch their first Super Bowl appearance, the San Diego players, led by prancing quarterback Stan Humphries, are racing jubilantly around the field. One player, O'Neal, is waving teammates off the field, almost angrily.
Why the bah-humbug act at such a momentous time in Charger history? "I'm thinking we can't afford a delay-of-game penalty because that'd put us back half the distance to the goal with a minute to go," O'Neal says. "We've still got to run a couple of plays. Stan's just going to kneel down, but we can't risk getting pinned near our goal line and have them collapsing our line and getting a safety. Then they could win the game."
There is no penalty flag, and there is no safety, and the final gun sets off another Charger celebration—and this time O'Neal happily joins in.
Now O'Neal and his guest move on to Banx, O'Neal's favorite o San Diego pool hall. In a game of eight ball the guest has solids, O'Neal stripes. On his second turn O'Neal has no opportunity to pocket a shot, so he buries the cue ball in a covey of stripes at the opposite end of the table. The guest's only shot is to scatter the stripes, and his opportunistic opponent pounces. Two turns later O'Neal drains the 8 ball. "I've played a lot." he says later, "and every shot in this game has a purpose."
That's all you need to know about one of the most unsung performers in the NFL. While many of today's players are deep into self-congratulatory strutting, O'Neal plays the game—football and pool alike—thoughtfully and without beating his chest. At a time when image is everything, he doesn't waste time embellishing his. It's not that he's aloof; he's simply happy to leave the minicams to linebacker Junior Seau, the columnists to Humphries and the microphones to running back Natrone Means.
In an era when pass rushers are among the most valuable and most high-profile players in the NFL, O'Neal, 30, might be the best of them. You can look it up. Over the last three seasons, who leads the league in sacks? Bruce Smith? Derrick Thomas? Reggie White? No, no and no. It's the slippery and hard-to-read O'Neal, with 41½.
In fact, O'Neal is pivotal to whatever hope there is for a San Diego victory against the heavily favored San Francisco 49ers. Here's why: Quarterback Steve Young runs the Niners' quick-strike attack with a precision and knack for improvisation seldom seen in the NFL. But he has to look out for O'Neal, whose forte is speed-rushing the left tackle, slapping the tackle's hands away and slithering through the guard-tackle hole. O'Neal is one of football's only pass rushers with the strength to shuck off Steve Wallace, the outstanding 49er left tackle, or beat him with an inside rush.
In San Francisco's 38-15 clobbering of San Diego on Dec. 11, the Niners ran up a quick 21-0 lead and were threatening to score again, having driven to the Charger 17 with a minute left in the first half. But then O'Neal ran down Young, lunged at him for the sack, stripped the ball free and recovered the fumble. After driving for a field goal, San Diego at least had a pulse as it headed to the locker room, trailing 21-3.
O'Neal might have to make three or four plays like that on Sunday for the Chargers to slow the Niner juggernaut. "For us to be successful in this game, we're going to have to disrupt the things they do on offense—and Leslie's the big key to that," Charger general manager Bobby Beathard says. "The 49ers know he's there, and they're going to prepare for him and they're going to double-team him some, which will help us at other places on the defense. It's really important for him to come out and do well."
The challenge facing San Francisco is described by Seattle Seahawk tackle Ray Roberts, who has battled O'Neal twice a year for the last three seasons yet still considers him a mystery. "His demeanor on the field totally fools you," Roberts says. "He looks like he's just not into the game. You look in his face, and he's totally uninterested. Then he fools you on a move, as if he knew exactly what you were going to do, and blows by you, and you're like, Whoa, what happened? Then he gets a sack and goes back to the huddle real quietly to get ready for the next play. He's not the type to go looking for an open spot on the field, where he can pound his chest and yell, 'Hey, look at me!' "
O'Neal has never been that type. While growing up in a middle-class family in Little Rock, Ark., he was a bright but hyperactive child. His mother, Annette, says, "I can remember his sister, Sheila, saying, 'Mom, how can Leslie read something so fast and remember everything about it? I have to read it over and over again.' He could explain any part of the Bible to you. At one time—maybe he was 10, 11 years old—everyone thought he was going to be a preacher because he could read the Bible and tell you every story in it. But he was so busy. He'd never slow down.
"He could take everything in the house apart. When he was five, maybe six, we looked over one day and saw that he'd taken a lamp apart. We were glad when he got into sports, because then when he'd come home, he'd be tired."
Sports landed O'Neal a scholarship to Oklahoma State, where he played his first two seasons under Jimmy Johnson and was well served by lessons from home. "My dad [Leslie Sr.] always told us, 'If there are things you want, work for them and go get them,' " he says. O'Neal heeded those words while playing for Oklahoma State, and the Chargers were sufficiently impressed by his pass-rushing prowess to make him the eighth overall pick in the 1986 draft. He stormed NFL quarterbacks the way no rookie had since Lawrence Taylor five years earlier, setting the sack record for first-year players—12½, including five in a game against the Dallas Cowboys—before a gruesome knee injury ended his season in late November.
It was obvious that O'Neal wasn't a typical rookie in other ways. Before he signed his first pro contract, he demanded a face-to-face meeting with San Diego owner Alex Spanos because he wanted to know the man who would be signing his checks. When teammates asked the rich first-round pick to sing at training camp, O'Neal got up and coolly sang For the Love of Money, by the O'Jays. During noncontact intrasquad scrimmages, he exhorted his defensive mates to get after quarterback Dan Fouts, thereby ticking off members of the offense. "I think I brought attitude to a defense that always had taken a backseat to the offense," O'Neal says. "I wasn't going to be a second-class citizen to Dan Fouts."
On a charter flight early that season, a veteran Charger told O'Neal, "Hey, rook, that's my seat. Get out." O'Neal stayed put and told the guy where to go. In short, he wasn't voted Mr. Congeniality by his teammates. "The one thing I'm going to get from the people I play with and against," O'Neal says now, "is respect."
The injury to his left knee that first year nearly ended his career. While reacting to a sweep run by the Indianapolis Colts, O'Neal collided with teammate Wood-row Lowe and tore the anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments and broke a bone in the leg. It was 22 months before he played another game, and he wasn't back to his preinjury form until the 1989 season. Since then he has averaged nearly 13 sacks a year, while continuing to infuriate teammates, coaches and the San Diego front office with his tell-it-the-way-he-thinks-it-is approach.
In 1990 he said the Chargers were promoting certain "favored" players; the implication was that white teammates were benefiting over blacks. A year later he tussled with assistant coach Mike Haluchak at halftime of a game and was fined a reported $15,000 by then coach Dan Henning. Throughout his career O'Neal has frustrated the San Diego coaches and front office with a seemingly lax attitude toward game preparation and off-season conditioning. He admits he is lazy at times and says he would gladly choose another profession if he could make as much money—$2.4 million this season—as he does in football.
"It used to bother everybody around here," Beathard says. "Ideally, you'd like him to take more of an interest in mini-camps and studying and things like that. But when he comes to camp, he practices hard, and he's in shape. He's a very intense guy who gets mad if every guy doesn't play to his maximum. The thing to realize about Leslie is he's got this whole thing figured out, and he's going to give you everything he has out there on the field."
Playing against O'Neal is so difficult, opponents say, because he can resort to a variety of pass-rushing tactics without telegraphing them. In the Super Bowl, Wallace probably will get help from a tight end or a fullback in blocking O'Neal, who had seven tackles in addition to that big first-half sack when the Chargers and the 49ers met last month. "He kind of humbled me that day because I was having my way with him early on, and then he had that great play," Wallace says. "It was a dogfight the rest of the day. Our matchup will be a key matchup of this game, there's no doubt about it."
Leave it to O'Neal to try to put Sunday's game in perspective for the Chargers. "This is great, what's happened this year," he said at the pool hall. "But what I'm more concerned with is next year. Next year is the year we've got to show consistency and get the respect we're fighting for. Nobody talks about the New England team that made one Super Bowl then died. I don't want us to be a flash in the pan. I want to be on a team that plays consistently for 60 minutes every week, and the only consistent thing we've done is fall behind and then come back."
He paused. "Football is a thinking man's game," he said. "People lose because they're not thinking fast enough or because they're not playing the right system. You might say that our game against Pittsburgh came down to one big play at the end of the game and it's fate that we won, but what happened earlier in the game? Every play along the way is big. In a football game, you make your own fate, and that's how I play."