By Clark Judge
Talk of Fame Network
Leslie O’Neal was inducted this week into the San Diego Chargers’ Hall of Fame in a move that was long overdue and that got me to thinking: When does his name come up for consideration for the Pro Football Hall of Fame? Because that’s long overdue, too.
Now, let’s make something clear: I’m not saying he should be inducted into the Hall; I’m saying he should at least be in the conversation — and I can’t remember one Hall-of-Fame conversation that included O’Neal’s name.
That’s not odd. It’s downright wrong.
Leslie O’Neal was a premier pass rusher who could — and did — play the run, and I know what you’re thinking: Yeah, well, so do a lot of guys. So what? So Leslie O’Neal wasn’t like a lot of guys. He was a Defensive Rookie of the Year. He was a Comeback Player of the Year. And he produced 132.5 career sacks — or the same number as Hall-of-Fame linebacker Lawrence Taylor — despite missing nearly two seasons with a knee injury.
In short, the guy was a load. San Diego’s all-time sacks leader, he had more than Junior Seau, and he had more than Fred Dean. And this just in: Dean’s in the Hall, and Seau will be soon. But Leslie O’Neal? He can’t even make roll call.
“Junior was a great player and probably a first-ballot Hall of Famer,” said Nick Canepa, columnist for the San Diego Union-Tribune and member of the Hall of Fame’s board of selectors, “but, if you looked at it from a purist point of view, Leslie O’Neal is the best defensive player in the history of the Chargers. He was great against the pass. He was great against the run. He had some of the best hands in the history of football, and he had great explosion. But, for whatever reason, he never gets sniff. He’s just one of those guys who slipped through the cracks.”
I don’t know that O’Neal was better than Seau, who’s among the Class of 2015 candidates, but I do know he was better than most of the guys I’ve covered the past three decades. OK, so he wasn’t a member of an all-decade team, and there are 73 of those guys outside the Hall … with 60 just waiting to be discussed. But this isn’t about breaking down the doors for Leslie O’Neal’s admission. It’s about having him included … just included … on a list of candidates.
There were 126 modern-era names nominated for the Class of 2014 — including 10 defensive linemen and 11 linebackers — but Leslie O’Neal wasn’t among them. Charles Mann was. Ken Harvey was. So were Tedy Bruschi and Jerome Brown. But no O’Neal, and one question, please: Huh? The guy was a six-time Pro Bowler, for crying out loud, and member of the Chargers’ 50th-anniversary team. So are you going to tell me he doesn’t at least deserve to be on a ballot?
Give me a break.
Not only did Leslie O’Neal produce eight seasons with 10 or more sacks; only nine guys have more sacks in their careers … with six of them in the Hall of Fame and a seventh — Kevin Greene — a three-time finalist.
Look, I have no problem with people saying O’Neal doesn’t belong in Canton because he wasn’t all-decade or because he wasn’t All-Pro. I get that. But don’t tell me he doesn’t belong on the ballot because he does. And if Canepa is right … namely, that O’Neal was a better player than Junior Seau and Fred Dean … he deserves a lot more.
Photo courtesy of the San Diego Chargers