TAMPA — When University of South Florida sophomore Matthew O'Neal became fascinated with the triple jump during high school track and field meets in Jackson, Miss., he learned the event's techniques by watching YouTube videos.
Expert coaching wasn't available. So he watched, learned and taught himself.
O'Neal, 19, has emerged as one of the country's top collegiate triple jumpers, soaring to a 53-foot effort that led the nation until it was surpassed last week by three-quarters of an inch. But heading into the three-day American Athletic Conference Outdoor Track and Field Championships, which begin today at USF, O'Neal remains a legitimate contender for an NCAA individual title and, perhaps, an eventual spot on the U.S. Olympic team.
Who expected any of that?
“Life can be very unpredictable,” he said.
For O'Neal, that goes beyond the triple jump.
It involves a leap of faith.
During Thanksgiving week in 2007, O'Neal's father, Major, a hale and hearty man who had his high school basketball jersey retired, began complaining about debilitating back pain. He stayed home from work and tried to rest, but it got worse. By the time real concern began to grow, even before a doctor was called, he died.
He was 45.
O'Neal was in eighth grade. In the following days, he and his three siblings were shocked, probably a bit lost. Their mother, Valeria, dealing with shock of her own at becoming a widow, drew them all close. They mourned, but she didn't allow it to linger.
“My resolve is if God had wanted it another way, he would've made it so,” she said. “Still, in your mind, of course you think, 'Oh, if only he was here.' Or, 'I wish he was here to see this.'
“Matthew does not talk much about this. In his mind, with all that's going on, I believe he's saying, 'I'm making my dad proud of me.' ”
The mother sees her late husband in O'Neal, whether it's his athleticism, his soft-spoken demeanor, his compassion for others or his selfless nature. O'Neal is dedicated to his studies, his church and his athletic passions, which include the triple jump and soccer.
Yes, O'Neal is a defender on the Bulls' AAC champion soccer team, fulfilling a dual-sport desire that led him to USF, one of the few schools that allowed him to pursue that difficult and demanding quiniela.
“There's no one on this campus who doesn't like Matthew O'Neal,” said USF senior Shane Lewis, a fellow triple jumper. “This is a high-caliber athlete, but also a guy who nobody can say anything bad about. He's probably the ideal student-athlete. I think everybody is rooting for him to do great things.”
At USF, O'Neal is now better positioned to achieve those great things. Since November he has worked with Bulls jumps coach Pete Herber, a former high jumper at Northern Iowa.
“He's such a quiet kid who just goes about his business, but he definitely has the fire,” Herber said. “He competes, and he's a big-time performer in those situations.
“Track and field, obviously, doesn't get the attention of football or basketball. But Matthew O'Neal is worthy of your attention. I don't know if people know how good he is. Actually, I don't know if he knows how good he is.”
In the words of Lewis, “Matt has those nice levers,” meaning long arms and legs, which allow him to accelerate down the runway, power through the cycle and extend his 6-foot-1, 162-pound body during the jump. He has great genetics — both parents played college basketball, and uncle Corey Bradford was an NFL wide receiver — and an unquenchable thirst to learn.
He has some experience, a ninth-place finish at last season's NCAA Championships and All- American status.
“I got a little taste of it,” O'Neal said. “I know the potential is there to accomplish a lot more, and that's what I want. But I need to keep working and stay patient.”
That approach sounds like his father, whose death was linked to sickle-cell disease, which mystified doctors. The father, 6-foot-6, 200 pounds, simply didn't fit the characteristics because he was in top shape and ran constantly.
He embraced life, particularly the moments that involved his children.
O'Neal remembers him being at all of his events, even a fifth-grade chess tournament, when the father took off work. More memories: He never raised his voice, but his message came across. There was laughter and jokes, lots of basketball and soccer, but also the foundation of church and hard work, the insistence of doing things the right way.
“I think about him every single day,” O'Neal said. “I'm thankful that he was in my life. He taught me great values and helped me grow into a man, when he showed me things when I was younger.
“I know he's enjoying watching all of this. Whatever I'm able to do, he's going to share in it.”