IT was right before Columbus East was about to start its football season and head coach
Bob Gaddis was talking about his offense.
With tailback Markell Jones leading the way, it didn’t appear that Gaddis would have much to talk about aside from No. 28 and the offensive line’s ability to clear the way for him.
Even so, Gaddis was talking about somebody other than Jones.
“We have to find a way to get the ball in Steven O’Neal’s hands,” the Olympians’ veteran coach said.
Gaddis has found a way to do just that, even with Jones rushing for 600 yards in the first two games.
O’Neal, a junior, has rushed 16 times for 113 yards and has caught four passes for 55 yards and a touchdown. That’s an average of 84 yards a game from scrimmage and it’s likely that Gaddis has only scratched the surface.
“I’m basically the second guy in a way,” O’Neal said. “But that’s OK. I really think more like ‘whoever scores for this team, that’s great.’”
Although O’Neal is next in line to Jones when it comes to getting the football, he definitely is not a backup. He lines up in the backfield with Jones, or plays a wide receiver position, or whatever other position where Gaddis would like to put him.
“I grew up in Madison and played football there from kindergarten to eighth grade,” O’Neal said. “I really didn’t have a position. I played wherever. In eighth grade I played quarterback, then would play some wide receiver, then would play some running back.”
So what does he consider himself position-wise?
“An offensive weapon, I guess. I just like playing.”
He liked playing in Madison, but he had something else in his future when it came to high school. His mom, Shannon O’Neal, took a job at Columbus Regional Hospital as a radiologist. Although he was leaving his roots, Steven O’Neal was excited about the move.
He had watched Columbus North’s 45-40 victory against East and quarterback Gunner Kiel on television in 2011.
“I was excited, but I was worried that I wasn’t good enough (to play at East),” Steven O’Neal said.
Those fears subsided his freshman season when he became one of the guys.
“I am closer to these guys than I ever was to anyone in Madison,” O’Neal said. “These guys are all like brothers. When I got here, there wasn’t one guy who I could say, ‘Man, that guy is mean.’”
Last season, he put up what Gaddis called “Markell Jones numbers” as the junior varsity tailback and he saw some time on special teams and backup duties with the varsity.
However, he knew he needed to get bigger. “I weighed 140 pounds last year,” said the 5-foot-9 O’Neal. “I’ve gained 20 pounds. I have more confidence because I am bigger and stronger.
“I also am a lot smarter football-wise. Coach Gaddis has taught me a lot of stuff. I’ve learned more in the last two years with Coach Gaddis than I learned in all the years before. He really has taught me everything I know about football.”
Gaddis doesn’t need to teach O’Neal anything about speed. O’Neal said he has timed 4.45 in the 40-yard dash. It is the kind of speed that might help him find a place at the college level despite his size.
“I’ve wanted to play at that level since kindergarten,” O’Neal said. “It’s always in the back of my mind, ‘Am I good enough?’ Coach Gaddis says that if you are good enough, they will find you.”
If college scouts were in the stands Friday night when East downed North, they would have seen O’Neal clear the defensive backs by 15 yards on a tailback pass by Jones. He caught it for a 27-yard touchdown.
“I remember as a freshman, sitting in the stands during the game against North and someone scored,” O’Neal said. “The crowd went crazy. I always wanted to do that.”
Jones gave him a chance with a pass that fluttered but found the target.
“I kept thinking, ‘I can’t drop this,’” O’Neal said.
O’Neal finally experienced the moment he had dreamed about as a freshman.
“It was better than I thought it would be,” he said.