In the 1986 NFL Draft, the San Diego Chargers selected Oklahoma State defensive end Leslie O’Neal as the eighth overall pick.
Despite playing on a Chargers team that won only four games that year, O’Neal introduced himself to the NFL by netting 12.5 sacks.
Shout out to one of my favorite Chargers of all time… What a player.
Mister Leslie O'neal 💪🏈⚡️ pic.twitter.com/sUxvaRMajp
— Brian Rick (@Chargerswin2023) November 15, 2022
For the next several years, he continued to play good football while San Diego languished through losing records.
Then, in 1994, O’Neal and the Chargers came out of nowhere to play in Super Bowl XXIX.
Throughout his career, O’Neal was known for his steady play and for his ability to sack the quarterback.
This is the story of Leslie O’Neal.
Leslie Claudis O’Neal was born on May 7, 1964, in Little Rock, Arkansas.
Happy 57th Birthday To Chargers, Rams And Chiefs Defensive End Leslie O’Neal 🏈.
*6× Pro Bowl (1989, 1990, 1992–1995)
*3× Second-team All-Pro (1990, 1992, 1994)
*NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year (1986)
*132.5 career sacks (T-14th all time)
*Los Angeles Chargers Hall of Fame pic.twitter.com/LpZCPTDhdP
— TimeoutSPORTS__ (@TimeoutSPORTS3) May 7, 2021
In his not-too-distant future, O’Neal would become a terror on the gridiron, taking apart opposing offenses.
In his youth, he was an Energizer bunny who took apart various household items.
“He could take everything in the house apart,” said his mother, Sheila. “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.”
O’Neal did eventually find an outlet for his energy when he played three sports for Hall High School in Little Rock.
On the football field, O’Neal was a running back for the Warriors and became a high school All-American and All-Arkansas player.
After the football season, O’Neal competed on Hall’s basketball and track teams.
O’Neal had the talent to play football at the college level.
In fact, local coaches liked O’Neal’s athleticism and the fact that he was still sprouting well over six feet tall.
The problem was that these same coaches weren’t quite sure what position he would play in college.
O’Neal was too light for their liking, and he was viewed as a project.
“The teams I was looking at were basically telling me, ‘We’re going to redshirt you your first year,’” O’Neal said. “Because I was 190, 199, 200 pounds playing defensive tackle or whatever. The story was, ‘We’re going to put some meat on you,’ that type of deal.”
Although he had played well as a running back in high school, O’Neal preferred the defensive side of the ball and wanted to be like Billy Ray Smith.
Smith was a linebacker at the time for the University of Arkansas and happened to be O’Neal’s hero.
O’Neal intended to matriculate to Arkansas himself and play for the Razorbacks.
When he spoke to the Arkansas coaches, however, they told O’Neal that they planned to redshirt him as well.
Happy Birthday Leslie O’Neal out of Little Rock, Arkansas and @CowboyFB 2X All American, 13 year @NFL career, 6X Pro Bowl, 100 sacks club, @NFL Defensive Rookie Of Year, @Chargers Hall of Fame, Member @cfbhall ; 57 Today… pic.twitter.com/ULplSUNUxb
— Larry in Missouri (@LarryInMissouri) May 7, 2021
Sensing an opportunity, Butch Davis, an assistant coach for Oklahoma State, offered O’Neal a chance to play right away.
Not wanting to wait a year to get his hands dirty, O’Neal took the Cowboys’ offer.
O’Neal Becomes a Force
When he arrived in Stillwater during the summer of 1982, the Cowboys coaching staff put O’Neal at tight end.
Before his sophomore year in 1983, O’Neal moved to the defensive line where he began to make steady progress.
By the fifth game of the season against top-ranked and undefeated Nebraska, he had become an important rotational piece for OSU.
The Cornhuskers had a spectacular offense in ’83 with Turner Gill, Mike Rozier, and Irving Fryar, and the Cowboys weren’t given much of a chance.
However, OSU was undefeated as well and didn’t plan to back down to the Huskers.
During the contest, O’Neal (who, by now, had gained more weight without losing speed) tortured the players assigned to block him.
Oklahoma State's Leslie O'Neal causing disruption vs Bowling Green. 1️⃣9️⃣8️⃣4️⃣ pic.twitter.com/MiIXtxQEhQ
— CFB Home (@CFBHome) July 20, 2022
Throughout the afternoon, O’Neal feasted on Nebraska and ended the day with an astounding 20 tackles.
Before playing OSU, the Huskers had run up the score on all their opponents.
The Cowboys’ defense was so good that they held Nebraska to 14 points, although OSU still lost, 14-10.
Because of his showing against the Cornhuskers, O’Neal started the rest of the 1983 season and helped OSU to an 8-4 record including a defeat of Baylor in the Bluebonnet Bowl.
“Leslie comes on and finishes out that year as All Big-Eight and we beat a good Baylor team in the Bluebonnet Bowl,” coach Pat Jones recalled years later.
After the 1983 season concluded, Cowboys head coach Jimmy Johnson headed to Florida to become the Miami Hurricanes’ new coach.
Pat Jones replaced Johnson, but the OSU defense remained the same.
While Oklahoma State was winning ten games in 1984, O’Neal was locked on to opposing quarterbacks and ended the year with 16 sacks and 118 yards lost.
Both numbers set program marks and O’Neal had yet another school record when he blocked two kicks against Missouri.
Leslie O’Neal at Oklahoma State🔥 pic.twitter.com/dGSw5tt7hc
— Old-Time Buckets (@oldtimebuckets) December 3, 2019
Then, during the Cowboys’ win against South Carolina in the Gator Bowl, O’Neal had 12 tackles.
After his junior season, O’Neal was named first-team All-Big Eight, Big Eight Defensive Player of the Year, and an All-American.
In 1985, the senior helped OSU to an 8-4 record, which included a loss to Florida State in the Gator Bowl.
During the 1984 and 1985 seasons combined, the Cowboys’ defense only gave up 34 touchdowns total, the best in school history.
O’Neal was the leader of that defense and wrapped up the ’85 season as a unanimous All-American, All-Big Eight, and a runner-up for the Lombardi Award.
By the time of his graduation, O’Neal owned the OSU record for career sacks (34) and was second all-time in tackles for loss with 47.
Best of all, O’Neal left Oklahoma State with the undying respect of his coaches and teammates.
“He was not a man of a lot of words but when he spoke, they listened,” Jones said. “He was very, very well-respected. He was a great leader by example. He was a hard worker in the offseason. He took good care of himself. He was very highly regarded internally.”
In 2020, Leslie O’Neal became a member of the College Football Hall of Fame.
O’Neal’s Rookie Year Ends Abruptly
In 1985, the San Diego Chargers had the best offense in the NFL.
Unfortunately, San Diego’s defense was ranked 25th overall.
In an attempt to improve that side of the ball, the franchise selected O’Neal with the eighth overall pick in the 1986 NFL Draft.
One of O’Neal’s new teammates just happened to be Billy Ray Smith, who had been drafted by the organization in 1983.
“Hey, you’re the reason I didn’t go to Arkansas,” O’Neal joked with Smith.
After his first training camp, O’Neal was pegged as the new right-side defensive end for the Chargers.
He started 13 games that season and quickly established himself as one of the best defenders in football.
Although San Diego was experiencing an awful 4-12 season, O’Neal proved to be one of the bright spots.
1986 @chargers for the 1st time
Lee Williams, Leslie O'Neal & Billy Ray Smith Jr.
Williams had a career-high in '86, O'Neal won AP Defensive Rookie of the Year & Smith had a career-high as well as only 10+ season.#HallsOfHistory pic.twitter.com/pLCFk7kTTF
— Scott Hall (@scotthall82) January 9, 2023
Through the first 13 weeks, he had 12.5 sacks, two interceptions (including one returned for a score), three forced fumbles, and 82 total tackles.
O’Neal made national headlines when he totaled a team-record five sacks in one game against Dallas in Week 11.
“I think I brought an attitude to a defense that always had taken a backseat to the offense,” O’Neal said.
Then, during a Week 13 contest against the Indianapolis Colts, O’Neal suffered a devastating injury when he tore both the MCL and ACL in his left knee.
San Diego’s team doctors assessed the injury and told O’Neal he would need at least a year or more to recover.
“He was our biggest impact player this year and for the future,” said then head coach Al Saunders. “He was a dominant pass rusher and was in line for rookie of the year. Realistically, we have to face the possibility of not having Leslie next year.”
Despite his injury, O’Neal put in enough work that he still became the NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Year and was also added to the PFWA All-Rookie Team.
The loss of O’Neal was devastating for the Chargers, especially among the players and coaching staff.
For Gunther Cunningham, O’Neal’s position coach, losing his star rookie was “the worst thing that has happened to me in my coaching career.”
Without a doubt, replacing 12.5 sacks and someone with O’Neal’s size and speed was nearly impossible.
To this day one of the best players I’ve ever watched. One of my all time favorite Chargers…
Leslie O’Neal! 💪🏼🏈⚡️ pic.twitter.com/V56ZekZkWa
— Brian Rick (@Chargerswin2023) April 5, 2022
San Diego improved slightly in 1987 with an 8-7 record, but O’Neal’s presence was missed as he rehabbed his knee the entire year.
He continued rehabbing to begin the 1988 season before returning in Week 7.
O’Neal ended his truncated third year with four sacks and 28 tackles.
Sackmaster, Part II
In 1989, O’Neal returned full-time for the Chargers and started all 16 games.
Coaches switched him to outside linebacker, and the change in positions did absolutely nothing to slow him down.
Leslie O’Neal says… 91 days until the 2023 NFL Draft, Chargers fans! 💪🏼🏈⚡️ pic.twitter.com/BCpYv3vQa6
— Brian Rick (@Chargerswin2023) January 26, 2023
Even with his surgically repaired knee, O’Neal hauled down quarterbacks 12.5 times that season, earning a trip to his first Pro Bowl.
The following year, O’Neal had 13.5 sacks, another Pro Bowl, and was named second-team All-Pro for the 1990 season.
In 1992, he returned to his defensive end spot and had a career-high 17 sacks that also led the AFC.
His teammates, and O’Neal himself, were quick to point out that he wasn’t just a talented pass rusher.
“I played with dozens and dozens of defensive ends who couldn’t care less about playing the run,” teammate Gary Plummer said, “but Leslie was as stout as he needed to be. He was quick off the ball, had amazing agility and could get off blocks.”
“The sacks are where you get the notoriety, but to be honest I loved playing the run,” O’Neal said in 2014. “You can go out and just play the run and make 10 tackles. I loved getting the passer, but I always prided myself on being able to play the pass and the run, too. Play every down. It’s kind of a lost art.”
His stats back up the fact that O’Neal was a threat no matter who had the ball.
From 1989 through 1993, he had between 56 and 96 total tackles each year.
A Super Bowl Season at Last
San Diego had one of the greatest defensive ends in football for several years, but the team also had losing records.
In 1992, the Chargers finally found success with an 11-5 record and a playoff appearance under first-year coach Bobby Ross.
Two years later, the Bolts went 11-5 again and returned to the postseason.
O’Neal had 12.5 sacks and 60 tackles that year, and his 41.5 total sacks between 1992 and 1994 were tops in the NFL.
— Ken Gelman (@kengfunk) November 18, 2017
The Chargers played the Miami Dolphins in the Divisional round of the 1994 playoffs and squeaked by, 22-21.
In the AFC Championship game, a deflected pass by San Diego linebacker Dennis Gibson shut down a Pittsburgh Steelers scoring threat late in the contest.
With their improbable 17-13 victory, the Chargers were playing in a Super Bowl for the first time in franchise history.
Super Bowl XXIX
On paper, the game looked like it would be a mismatch.
The San Francisco 49ers were sporting a 13-3 record and had a deep roster with quarterback Steve Young at the helm.
Also, during the regular season, the Chargers and Niners met in Week 15 and San Francisco humiliated the Bolts, 38-15.
Las Vegas didn’t have any confidence in the Chargers either and made the team 18.5-point underdogs for the Super Bowl.
In the week leading up to the game, general manager Bobby Beathard detailed what had to happen for San Diego to have a chance.
“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,” Beathard said. “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.”
San Francisco tackle Steve Wallace, who played against O’Neal in Week 15, agreed with Beathard.
“He kind of humbled me that day because I was having my way with him early on, and then he had that great play (a sack against Young),” Wallace said. “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.”
The optimism didn’t last long once the contest began, and it was readily apparent that the Chargers’ defense stood no chance against the Niners’ top-ranked offense.
On this date in 1995…Steve Young threw 6 TD passes in Super Bowl XXIX, which is still a Super Bowl record.
He completed 24 of 36 passes for 325 yards, and broke the record of 5 touchdown passes set by former 49ers quarterback Joe Montana in Super Bowl XXIV. pic.twitter.com/IIRxrjScSZ
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 29, 2020
By halftime, San Fran already had the game firmly in hand with a 28-10 lead. The contest eventually turned into a 49-26 blowout by the Niners.
O’Neal Becomes a Ram
San Diego tried to get back to the big game in 1995 and got as close as the Wild Card round before losing to Indianapolis, 35-20.
That same year, O’Neal had another 12.5 sacks and 48 tackles for his sixth trip to the Pro Bowl.
Then, after the season, the Chargers let O’Neal become a free agent and signed with the St. Louis Rams for $9.5 million over three years.
He stayed in St. Louis for two years and labored through 21 losses against only 11 wins.
In 1997, O’Neal had 10 sacks, the final double-digit sack season of his career.
On to Kansas City
After becoming a free agent again in 1998, O’Neal signed with Kansas City in hopes of returning to a Super Bowl.
He joined former Oakland Raiders defensive tackle Chester McGlockton who’d also signed with the Chiefs as a free agent.
— Vintage KCChiefs (@Vintage_Chiefs) August 19, 2022
In 1997, Kansas City had gone 13-3 before getting upset by the Denver Broncos in the Divisional round.
The signing of O’Neal made head coach Marty Schottenheimer ecstatic for ’98.
“Leslie O’Neal is one of the league’s best sackers,” Schottenheimer said. “He’s been in double digits in sacks five of the last six years.”
O’Neal himself was absolutely giddy at the prospect of playing with McGlockton and star linebacker Derrick Thomas.
“You take a guy like Chester and myself, and Derrick Thomas, guys who can get to the passer and play the run—now all of a sudden, who are you going to double-team?” O’Neal said. “It could be fun.”
The season began well, with Kansas City getting to its bye week with a 4-2 record.
Then the wheels came off after their return, and they dropped the next five games on the way to a 7-9 record.
O’Neal had 4.5 sacks and 45 tackles that year, then had 5.5 sacks and 28 tackles in ten starts in 1999 for the 9-7 Chiefs.
After the season ended, O’Neal retired.
During his 13-year career, O’Neal had 132.5 sacks, three interceptions and a pick-six, 21 forced fumbles, 16 fumble recoveries, one fumble recovery for a score, and 767 total tackles.
He was a Defensive Rookie of the Year, six-time Pro Bowler, and three-time All-Pro.
O’Neal is still San Diego’s career leader in sacks with 105.5, and as of 2023, he is ranked 14th in the NFL all-time in official sacks.
Since his retirement, O’Neal has been added to the Chargers’ Hall of Fame and 40th and 50th Anniversary Chargers All-Time Teams.
Hall of Fame Worthy?
In the years since he left the game, several sports writers and pro football historians wonder why O’Neal is not in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Former pass rushers Lawrence Taylor and Rickey Jackson have 132.5 and 128 sacks, respectively.
Both are in the Hall.
Derrick Brooks is also a Canton member with 126.5 career sacks, although his career, and life, ended abruptly due to a car accident in 2000.
O’Neal had eight seasons with double-digit sacks and led the AFC in that category in 1992.
Random Football Card of the Day:
1986 & 1988-1999@chargers, @RamsNFL, & @Chiefs
196 games (176 starts)
3 INT (1 TD), 21 forced fumbles, 16 fumble recoveries (1 TD)
132 1/2 sacks
1986 All-Rookie Team & Defensive ROY
6 PB’s pic.twitter.com/Vpddm3miS7
— Michael T. Adams (@michael_t_adams) June 19, 2022
There is reason to speculate that, if he hadn’t injured his leg in his rookie year, O’Neal would have had a few more years of high sack totals.
“To come back and play at the level he played was nothing short of a miracle,” said Gary Plummer. “After the injury, he walked with a noticeable limp. He couldn’t straighten his leg out. He definitely didn’t get the credit he deserved.”
According to Plummer, the main reason O’Neal is overlooked is that he played mostly for losing teams.
“It’s simple,” Plummer said. “He played for the San Diego Chargers. The Chargers were never on TV. We sucked. And, unfortunately, you’re judged by how well your team plays even though the Hall is about individual careers.”
In his career, O’Neal played in the postseason just three times, and his Chargers were beaten soundly in his only Super Bowl appearance.
While others might be openly soliciting for his inclusion into pro football immortality, O’Neal himself isn’t too worried about it.
“Realistically, there’s nothing you can do,” O’Neal said in 2021. “I could go out and toot my own horn or whatever. But is that gonna get me in? And if it does, how do I feel about that?”