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It is the day after the San Diego Chargers' improbable AFC Championship Game victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers, a day off for the partied-out Chargers, and defensive end Leslie O'Neal has a choice to make. He can spend the afternoon answering his phone, which hasn't stopped ringing since the title game ended, he can watch Ready to Wear, the Robert Altman film he's dying to see, or he can review tape of San Diego's last-minute defensive stand that beat the Steelers and then shoot pool afterward.
Truth be told, O'Neal would opt for the Altman film, but he has just missed the start of the 1:15 show. So he settles for Dick Enberg's call of the AFC title game and then some eight ball. He takes a seat in the Charger p.r. office to watch the end of NBC's telecast. "First time I've seen this drive," says the 6'4", 265-pound O'Neal, stroking his dark goatee.
On the TV monitor San Diego linebacker Dennis Gibson deflects the final Pittsburgh pass with 1:04 left and San Diego leading 17-13, giving the Chargers possession at their own three. Having only to run out the clock to clinch their first Super Bowl appearance, the San Diego players, led by prancing quarterback Stan Humphries, are racing jubilantly around the field. One player, O'Neal, is waving teammates off the field, almost angrily.
Why the bah-humbug act at such a momentous time in Charger history? "I'm thinking we can't afford a delay-of-game penalty because that'd put us back half the distance to the goal with a minute to go," O'Neal says. "We've still got to run a couple of plays. Stan's just going to kneel down, but we can't risk getting pinned near our goal line and have them collapsing our line and getting a safety. Then they could win the game."
There is no penalty flag, and there is no safety, and the final gun sets off another Charger celebration—and this time O'Neal happily joins in.
Now O'Neal and his guest move on to Banx, O'Neal's favorite o San Diego pool hall. In a game of eight ball the guest has solids, O'Neal stripes. On his second turn O'Neal has no opportunity to pocket a shot, so he buries the cue ball in a covey of stripes at the opposite end of the table. The guest's only shot is to scatter the stripes, and his opportunistic opponent pounces. Two turns later O'Neal drains the 8 ball. "I've played a lot." he says later, "and every shot in this game has a purpose."
That's all you need to know about one of the most unsung performers in the NFL. While many of today's players are deep into self-congratulatory strutting, O'Neal plays the game—football and pool alike—thoughtfully and without beating his chest. At a time when image is everything, he doesn't waste time embellishing his. It's not that he's aloof; he's simply happy to leave the minicams to linebacker Junior Seau, the columnists to Humphries and the microphones to running back Natrone Means.
In an era when pass rushers are among the most valuable and most high-profile players in the NFL, O'Neal, 30, might be the best of them. You can look it up. Over the last three seasons, who leads the league in sacks? Bruce Smith? Derrick Thomas? Reggie White? No, no and no. It's the slippery and hard-to-read O'Neal, with 41½.
In fact, O'Neal is pivotal to whatever hope there is for a San Diego victory against the heavily favored San Francisco 49ers. Here's why: Quarterback Steve Young runs the Niners' quick-strike attack with a precision and knack for improvisation seldom seen in the NFL. But he has to look out for O'Neal, whose forte is speed-rushing the left tackle, slapping the tackle's hands away and slithering through the guard-tackle hole. O'Neal is one of football's only pass rushers with the strength to shuck off Steve Wallace, the outstanding 49er left tackle, or beat him with an inside rush.
In San Francisco's 38-15 clobbering of San Diego on Dec. 11, the Niners ran up a quick 21-0 lead and were threatening to score again, having driven to the Charger 17 with a minute left in the first half. But then O'Neal ran down Young, lunged at him for the sack, stripped the ball free and recovered the fumble. After driving for a field goal, San Diego at least had a pulse as it headed to the locker room, trailing 21-3.