Every so often a team is lucky enough to draft a player that becomes a franchise icon. In the 1986 NFL draft the San Diego Chargers used their first round pick on Leslie O’Neal. They selected the defensive lineman out of Oklahoma State with the eighth pick in the round and it proved to be a wise selection.
As a freshman at Oklahoma State, O’Neal was a tight end. He didn’t start on the defensive line until half way through his sophomore season (sixth game). He immediately rewarded the coaching staff and had a monster game against Nebraska in which the team lost (14-10) on an interception in the end zone in the final seconds of the game. O’Neal totaled 21 tackles that game from a tackle spot and his name was immediately recognized as a defensive standout.
In his collegiate career O’Neal was a two-time All-American and totaled 34 career sacks for the Sooners. That total is still a school record as is his season record of 16 sacks which he amassed in the 1985 season. He had an incredible burst and a relentless motor. The Chargers came calling with the eighth pick as they had a desperate need for pass rushers. O’Neal more than fit that bill as the Chargers came calling and he was on his way to San Diego.
His rookie year was fantastic and horrible all in one. He started and played in 13 games recording 12.5 sacks and 82 tackles but suffered a major knee injury on the 13th game. O’Neal was a unanimous choice for defensive rookie of the year but the knee injury he suffered really clouded his future. In all Leslie O’Neal missed almost two complete seasons from the injury. He was out all of the 1987 season and returned for the 1988 season but wasn’t even close to 100 percent.
Not until the 1989 season did he emerge once again as a defensive force on the outside of the Chargers line. He played in 16 games recording 12.5 sacks and totaling 96 tackles from his linebacker/defensive end position. The Chargers fans were now at ease as it appeared O’Neal would regain his rookie form.
Not only did O’Neal return from injury, but he proved to be remarkably durable. For the rest of his Chargers career, O’Neal missed only one game after his initial knee injury. For seven out of eight seasons he played in 16 games, only missing one game in 1992 because he had arthroscopic surgery on his right knee. Imagine that he had surgery one week, missed a game but then returned the following week to play and finished out the season to boot. He ended up leading the Chargers in sacks for six straight years (1990-1995).
The 6’4″ O’Neal was a force on the outside in his 13 seasons. He played nine total for the Chargers (1986-95), two for the St. Louis Rams (96-97) and two for the Kansas City Chiefs (98-99). His 132.5 sacks is currently 10th all-time tied with New York Giants great Lawrence Taylor. O’Neal was a six-time Pro Bowl selection and made it six out of his last seven years as a Charger.
In 1990 O’Neal made some comments that did not endear himself to Chargers management. He made some comments about racial preference when talking about linebacker Henry Rolling and the fact he should be starting over fan favorite Billy Ray Smith. The comments were controversial and gave O’Neal an edge to his personality. Local media and Chargers management were always afraid to press any issues with O’Neal. In the end he played everyday and did his job. That type of effort eventually made him a fan favorite and a Chargers cult hero.
In January of 1996 Chargers G.M. Bobby Beathard made some very unpopular decisions. Both O’Neal and running back Ronnie Harmon were not offered deals and were allowed to leave via free agency. He had some decent seasons for the other two franchises but never put up the numbers he did while in San Diego.
He was blacklisted by the team after leaving. There is really no better way to put it. The team failed to enshrine him into the Chargers hall of fame until 2014. 15 full years after he retired from the game of football. In the end the Chargers did what was right and gave him his credit for being the best pass rusher in Chargers history. O’Neal’s 105 1/2 sacks is still the franchises record for career sacks.
The man was all over the field when he played the game. He totaled 572 tackles in his nine seasons as a Chargers player. Not only did O’Neal get sacks but he also played the run and often dropped back to take on a tight end. He was a physical specimen and had unlimited physical ability. You have to wonder how special he could have been if he never suffered a knee injury. He would never tell you this but that knee injury did limit him a little and slowed down his burst. To his credit he worked through it and became a great NFL player. We at EVT salute Leslie O’Neal and pay tribute to him for being one of the greatest Chargers players ever.