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November 6, 2008
Tigers will honor AO on senior day
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Twenty-two Missouri seniors will walk out to meet their families prior to Saturday's game. They will receive huge ovations from a sellout crowd to thank them for the four or five years they have given to the Tiger program. But the most emotional response will likely be for a player who never had a chance to play a game in a Tiger uniform.
"It would have been AO's senior day," Van Alexander said. "It's gonna be hard."
On July 12, 2005, redshirt freshman Aaron O'Neal collapsed following a summer workout at Faurot Field. Hours later, O'Neal was dead. For more than three years, the Tigers have kept O'Neal's locker at Faurot Field intact. They have chanted his name at the end of every practice. They have taken every measure they could to keep his memory alive when O'Neal was not.
"We definitely take it seriously here," said senior linebacker Steve Redmond. "We still, every day after practice, before practice, we get an 'AO' chant. Before the game everybody's thinking about him."
But the fact is, most of these Tigers never knew O'Neal. Four of those to be honored this weekend have only been on campus for four years and were not even enrolled at Mizzou when O'Neal died. Four more came into the program as upperclassmen and never met O'Neal. But the members of Missouri's senior class who did share a year with AO have done everything they can to let their younger teammates know about the linebacker from Parkway North.
"Every time a class comes in we talk about him and we read the thing that he has in the program. You've got players that will come up and ask about him, 'What was he like?'" Tommy Saunders said. "There's a video we show about him, just little things like that to show them. And hopefully they will know him. Not like we did, but know about him."
"We wear wristbands, 'In Memory of AO' bands. It's just something for guys, we don't make it mandatory. It's not like, 'You're going to wear this because you're on the team.' If the guys that didn't play with him or didn't know him want one, we talk to them about AO and everything, who he was and what kind of guy he was," Redmond said. "We don't want it to be something like this is what everybody else is doing, so I'm going to do it. We want it to mean something to them."
The younger players say it doesn't take long to get the message.
"You just know. When they talk about him or they say his name, you just see the emotion that goes through them. Just knowing that he was the type of guy that people looked at and wanted to be like," Jeremy Maclin, a sophomore, said. "Guys really, really, really liked that guy."
"You know, when the younger guys come in, we always have a meeting and we watch a tribute video," junior Sean Weatherspoon said. "Once you see the older guys sitting in the front, you see tears being shed, you see guys that can't even speak about it. You really know it's serious. That's something that this program is really serious about."
All season long, a different Tiger senior has worn O'Neal's #25 in a game. On Saturday, along with 22 other seniors, O'Neal will be introduced to a sellout crowd at Faurot Field.
"I don't think there's anything I could say, any words that I could say that are gonna make people understand how much he meant to us and how much he meant to this team and he means to this team," Saunders said. "We go out every week and play for him."
Perhaps just as important, Gary Pinkel said there are plans for the O'Neal family to be in attendance for the game. Following his death, the family filed a lawsuit against Missouri. At last report, the lawsuit had not been settled.
"For them to show up would mean a whole lot to us. I don't know what it looks like from the outside, but everybody was deeply hurt by what happened and it took everybody by surprise," Redmond said. "We loved him just as much as anybody else did. He was our family too, just as much as he was their family. It would mean a whole lot for them to show up."
Going forward, no official plans have been made for honoring O'Neal after his class graduates. Pinkel said he would talk with some of the seniors and athletic director Mike Alden after the year is over.
"We want to just do it the right way," the coach said. "I thought about a scholarship in his name. There's a lot of things I've been thinking. We'll just wait till the season's over. We want to be very respectful about how we do it too."
The future remains unknown. But for one day, AO will take his place with his classmates. And somewhere, those teammates think, AO will be smiling.
"The program was a lot different when he was here. I know he'd have been real excited about what it turned into and our success. It's going to be emotional," Redmond said. "I just miss him, man."
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