Keith O’Neil was a feel-good story in the Dallas Cowboys training camp in 2003. An undrafted free agent out of Northern Arizona University, he faced an improbable task of securing a spot on the Cowboys’ roster.
“They called me Rudy; I didn’t want to be Rudy,” O’Neil said in reference to the legendary Rudy Ruettiger, whose unlikely career with the University of Notre Dame was turned into a Hollywood move in 1993. “I made that team that year, because I was Rudy.”
No one never knew how much of a Rudy he really was. He played two seasons with the Cowboys and was a member of the Super Bowl Champion Indianapolis Colts in February 2007, defeating the Chicago Bears 29-17. And he did it playing with an undiagnosed bipolar disorder.
O’Neil, 33, the founder and president of the 4th and Forever Foundation, is passionate about helping others who suffer from similar conditions. He was in Princeton for Saturday’s Living Works Suicide Prevention Walk and later spoke to a gathering of old and young alike at Second Story in the north end business district. Some we’re there to see a former NFL player in person, but more came to see how he copes with his illness, sharing their own personal trials.
“I’m trying to let people know that it’s OK to live with a mental illness. It can happen to anyway and more importantly, there is ways to final wellness,” he said.
O’Neil remembers restless nights as an 8 or 9 year old when he had racing thoughts and suicidal thoughts. In college, facing the pressures of being successful in football, he turned to heavy drinking, partly as a coping mechanism.
He found help in Dallas from Cowboys coach Bill Parcels, who showed O’Neil a side of compassion that many do not know from the outside.
O’Neil’s demons followed him to Indianapolis, where he had gone four nights in a row without sleep leading up to the Colts game with Ravens. He went to coach Tony Dungy, a man of strong faith, who lost his own son to suicide, for help. Dungy continues to be a sounding board and inspiration to O’Neil today.
It was not until December 2010 he was diagnosed with his bipolar disorder, two years after he last played football. His wife, Jill, had just suffered a miscarriage which triggered the worst bipolar disorder episode of his life, with mania followed by severe depression.
That feeling lasted for months and then one day, according to his webpage, O’Neil came across a memoir written by Brian “Head” Welch, guitarist for the heavy metal band Korn, titled “Save Me From Myself.” The book was about how Welch overcame his addiction to methamphetamines, discovered his faith, walked away from a $23 million contract, and saved himself.
“I bought the book and read it cover to cover in two days,” O’Neil said. “In the book I found a passage from Scripture, Matthew 11:28, ‘Come to me all who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest.’ I started crying. That’s when I picked up the Bible.”
I asked O’Neil how he ever manage to play in the NFL with his then undiagnosed condition.
“Honestly, it was a lot of hard work and support from my wife and family, selling out everything you have every day. I know it sounds cliche, but I really had to focus on my health and my routine. And giving it everything I had,” he said.
O’Neil, who grew up in a football family with a father who was an All-American linebacker at Penn State and a first-round NFL draft pick, and brother for Syracuse University, especially enjoys speaking to high school football players.
“I look at them and I see myself many years ago,” he said. “The more you see of them, the chances are some of them are struggling with something or know someone who is. I really enjoy speaking to young men or young athletes.
“For many years, when I was sick, I didn’t know what my mission was, but I look at this and I find this is my purpose in life. It’s something I’m going to likely do and want to do for the rest of my life.”
O’Neil admits to having had strong suicidal thoughts and spent time in a psychiatric hospital. His inspiration, he says, was to one day hear his son, Connor, call him, “Daddy.”
“It was on his birthday last year, and I got very emotional because there was times in my life I didn’t know how much longer I’d be around. When I heard that, I was so thankful I was there for that.”
He wants to help others be around for those special moments. He lists these seven guiding principles to cope with troubles in life.
1. Ask for help. You can’t solve everything yourself; when you reach the point where you can’t do it on your own, reach out and you will find the support you need.
2. Believe in your own abilities and intelligence, and let them guide you into making good choices.
3. Never give up. You may have problems that seem insurmountable, but a solution lies somewhere, and with persistence you will find it.
4. Treat your friends and family with love and kindness, just as they do with you.
5. Understand the importance of regular exercise to fuel a sense of mental and physical well-being.
6. Find people to serve as guides, advisors and mentors. Even if they don’t know everything, their presence will add to your sense of stability.
7. Look to your faith as your most important source of sustenance and survival.