Mike O’Neal: A Black man of distinction
Former star athlete at Needham High credits family for his numerous successes in life
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This story starts on June 8, 1959, in Meridian, Mississippi. Michael Douglas O’Neal was the fourth child and second male baby born to Onita and Rev. Eddie S. O’Neal. I write this story with thanks to both parents for the man they produced, but in great honor to Mother O’Neal, who raised Michael to be the man he is today — a Black man of distinction for every season.
Mother O’Neal left this world on August 27. Michael wrote a poem that he read at her funeral on Sept. 7, entitled “MAMA,” which brought tears to every person in attendance.
When parents bring a child into this world, they pray that the baby becomes a credit to the human race. Mother O’Neal, you may rest in eternal peace, knowing that the son you raised has reached that exalted height.
Michael O’Neal was a star athlete from his youth and became a primo-athlete at Needham High School. Among his achievements: captain of Needham’s track team; winner of the 100- and 220-yard runs, the long jump and high jump competitions at one meet in 1978; two state titles in the long jump; and All-Scholastic honors.
He was a member of the 1978 Needham soccer team that went undefeated and unscored-upon for the 1978 season en route to capturing the Eastern Massachusetts championship. Nicknamed “The Team,” that squad is still considered one of the greatest in the history of Massachusetts high school sports.
“We were a special team. We played together and stayed together, always keeping the team goal — victory — as our primary focus,” O’Neal said. “My coach and some of my teammates are still alive, and I would want them to know that it was my honor and privilege to play with them.”
When I asked what it was like being the only Black member of his high school soccer team, he answered in typical Michael O’Neal fashion: “I was focused on the group, not on me or my individual performance. I always focused on the color of my team’s jersey, not the color of my teammates’ skin. That is not to say that it wasn’t lonely being a ‘one and only,’ but my mother and my father, a major athlete and a man of substance on and off the preaching podium, raised me to be a man who is proud to be Black.”
He added, “All the other stuff faded into the background when compared to the strength that my mother exhibited one day when a New Jersey police officer put a gun to my head and threatened to shoot me for something that I did not do.”
In his own words from his tribute poem: “MAMA, you taught me a lesson in honor, loyalty and courage in the face of impossible odds that day. I was just 10 years old. You were home sick with a temperature of 102. You came out of the house and demanded that the police officer take his hands off me. He was startled by your tenacity and backed off. You were my hero and savior that day and every day since.”
Mother O’Neal would watch her son go on to athletic glory at the UMass Amherst, helping to lead the 1978 men’s soccer team to the Eastern College Athletic Conference championship.
But his most outstanding manhood achievements would come outside the field of athletic competition.
O’Neal made a significant mark for himself when he became the founder and president of “Fathers, Inc.,” an organization dedicated to helping young men become better fathers to their children, whether they’re in the home or not. With hundreds of local and national testimonials to his work, including a cover picture on Ebony magazine as one on the list of “top 50 leaders of the future” and several other publications, he made a national name for himself as a published author and inspirational speaker, while always making time for other people.
“The awards and honors are appreciated, but my greatest satisfaction came from helping so many men to become better fathers to their children and families,” he says. “I borrowed a part of Malcolm X’s slogan, “by any means necessary” and I added my own phrase, “Be a father to your child.”
Following an appearance on “60 Minutes,” O’Neal had been fired by the Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts in 1990.
“I was told that I did not fit in,” he recalled. “I filed the articles of organization for Fathers, Inc. the very next day.”
O’Neal ran his organization for the next 12 years, visiting prisons, schools, hospitals and every other place where he could spread his message of education and hope.
“I turned my focus to helping people navigate their way through the difficulties of this life,” he said. “I stayed by my mother’s side until the day she died. And there is not a moment of this life that I don’t think of the woman I lovingly called ‘my little peanut.’”
These days, O’Neal guards children’s lives as they go to and from school. He is a trustee at the Needham Free Public Library. He reads his Bible daily to draw strength for the challenges of this life, and to try to deal with the absence of his mother.
I have met many famous people in my media lifetime. Very few have the courage, strength of character and genuine love for people of Michael Douglas O’Neal.