Since his time growing up in his hometown of Jackson, Mississippi, being part of a family has been something Matthew O’Neal has treasured.
From his various sporting endeavors to his devotion in church and everything in between, O’Neal has had his family’s unwavering support along each step of his journey from high school state champion to potential Olympian.
Saturday, O’Neal’s family made the 13-hour trip from Mississippi to Jacksonville for the NCAA preliminary rounds to watch him compete in one of his final collegiate events.
He finished the competition with a personal-best triple jump of 55 feet, 9 3/4 inches, beating out his previous best jump by 10 1/4 inches, winning the competition and shattering the previous school record.
“I’m excited when my family’s there,” O’Neal said. “Even this past weekend, it showed where I was able to do the first jump and (my coach) said ‘Well you know that should be good enough, it’s kind of up to you if you want to do another jump.’ I told her since my family came all this way down to Jacksonville that I did want to do another jump, and then I came down after my jump and that was all I needed.”
However, when O’Neal joined USF in 2012 he was away from his support system for the first time in his life.
To adjust to this new void, he fully invested himself in the USF soccer team and the Tampa community.
O’Neal played as a defender for coach George Kiefer and the men’s soccer team for three years, but gave the sport up this year to devote himself completely to track and field.
“The coaching staff, the athletes that I’ve lived with, I wouldn’t trade those experiences for anything,” O’Neal said. “I’m thankful I was able to be a part of the teams here at USF, it really got me to be involved with athletics and with my coaches and helped me build relationships with people.”
While O’Neal’s time on the soccer team eased the transition to Tampa, his time spent off the field is where he found another family.
Raised in a strongly religious family, O’Neal was referred to New Life Tabernacle in Seffner, Florida from a friend back home who was familiar with the area.
“I came down and it was maybe my second week here when I decided to go down to New Life Tabernacle,” O’Neal said. “I went out there and had a great time, got a lot of encouraging words and it was really what I needed, so I stuck there for the rest of my time here. They’ve really helped me to grow into who I am today.”
Like everything else he does, when O’Neal joined New Life Tabernacle, he went all-in.
In his four years at the church, he’s served as a member of the youth choir, the youth praise team, led home bible studies, helped with baptisms and participated in several weekend community outreaches that include feeding the homeless and extending invitations to the community to attend the church.
Aside from his commitment to the church, he’s devoted himself to the Tampa community through volunteer work such as the Paralympic Center and the Boys & Girls Club.
This ever-growing family has helped O’Neal remain humble in the face of consistent athletic dominance over his four-year athletic career.
O’Neal’s ability to maintain a positive spirit is what coach Warren Bye said has allowed him to excel at the national level.
“Obviously, he’s talented and he’s taken his talent to the next level, but he’s just so happy-go-lucky,” Bye said. “He goes out and he has fun, he enjoys it, it doesn’t seem like he’s worrying about it. He’s just going out there and having fun and letting whatever comes out, come out.”
Already a five-time NCAA All-American and six-time conference champion with another chance to add to the trophy case when the NCAA Championships begin in Eugene, Oregon on June 10, O’Neal has avoided letting his success affect his attitude on and off the track.
“I think it’s his approach, his demeanor,” assistant coach Kiamesha Otey said. “The faith that he has is huge, and the humility that he has as well. He never takes any credit for it, he never puts anything on himself. He’s not going to be the athlete who’s going to say, ‘Oh, I’m good, I can do this and I can do that.’
“He’s just very, very humble. He doesn’t let any of this stuff go to his head and I think that’s important. Confident? Yes. Cocky? Not at all.”
O’Neal, who is always looking for a chance to talk about his faith, has inspired not only his teammates, but coaches as well.
“Being in college, all this stuff is going on around you and for him to be that grounded and centered in his faith is just unbelievable,” Otey said. “I honestly and truthfully started getting more active in my spiritual life just by watching him. I grew up in the church and did all those things as well, but it wasn’t until I got here that I really started getting serious about it.
“He’s definitely inspiring as far as that’s concerned. He’s just a great kid and I would want any of my athletes to be like him. He has that spirit about him that doesn’t come naturally to a lot of us.”
Through the support of his family and a little help from natural athletic talent, O’Neal is poised to wrap up one of the most historically dominant careers in school history.
Through three years of playing multiple sports along with earning his degree in management information systems, O’Neal has broken the school record for the triple jump each year since his sophomore season.
“He’s probably the best athlete I’ve had the honor to coach,” Otey said. “I’ve only been coaching for six years, so I’m still very young in my coaching career. Some people coach a lifetime and never work with an athlete like him.
“Who knows when the next one will come for me, but this is … this is amazing. I never thought that this early, working with this type of athlete would be in my career path, but I’ve been so excited for it.”
Injury-free and coming off his best season yet, O’Neal is in prime position to leave his mark on USF athletics one last time at the NCAA Championships before gearing up for the Olympic trials in July.
“Matt’s in the top one percent of athletes I’ve coached, if that makes any sense,” Bye said. “Not because of his greatness on the track, but who he is as a young man and to me that explains it all right there.
“I’ll just say this: it’s there for the taking. Anything can happen and it only takes one jump, but yeah I think he’s got a great opportunity and if he puts everything together, I think he can do something special.”