Pinkel handles O'Neal's death, lawsuit with grace, class -

Pinkel handles O'Neal's death, lawsuit with grace, class is one of the most popular college football databases on the Internet. The site still has a profile and career statistics for a Mizzou linebacker named Aaron O'Neal.

0 games played. 0 tackles. 0 interceptions.

O'Neal should be a college senior right now. Maybe he would be finishing up his undergraduate degree. Perhaps he would be preparing for the NFL Draft. He could have told his children and grandchildren he played football at the University of Missouri during their greatest two-year period in decades.

His college football career should have just ended in December. Instead, it never began.

The former Parkway North star, 19, died during a voluntary workout at MU in July, 2006, just before he was to begin his freshmen year. The Boone County Medical Examiner's office said the cause of death was viral meningitis. O'Neal's father sued MU, claiming the athletic department did not recognize signs of medical distress that could have saved his son's life.

Now that the University and the O'Neal family have settled the family's lawsuit for $2 million, it seems natural to think both sides could move forward and heal.

But head coach Gary Pinkel may never put this behind him.

"I don't think the healing process will ever stop," Pinkel said nearly three years ago.

Observers have noted Pinkel has been a different coach in the wake of O'Neal's death. They notice he's more personable, a father-like figure for many of his players.

Upon exiting Farrout Field to head into the locker room after a practice this summer, Pinkel stopped at a black and gold sign that simply said "A.O. 25." 25 was O'Neal's number.

Pinkel put his hand on the sign, paused for a few moments, head bowed towards the asphalt, before slapping the sign a couple times and walking away.

Gary Pinkel has not forgotten about Aaron O'Neal. It's why he made sure "A.O. 25" was imprinted all over the grass sidelines at Farout. It's why Chase Daniel, Chase Coffman and all the other seniors took turns wearing number 25 this season. It's why, as part of the settlement, there will be a $250,000 scholarship endowment in the name of Aaron O'Neal. It's why he stood with O'Neal's father on Senior Night.

It didn't matter to Pinkel, who was vacationing in Las Vegas when O'Neal died, that he was one of 14 defendants named in the case, all of whom were dismissed this week as part of the settlement.

"From the moment we lost Aaron, our primary concern was always for his family and for us to do what's right for them," Pinkel said. "I've always understood through this whole process that they were doing what they had to do, and all we could focus on was honoring Aaron and what he meant to our program."

Aaron O'Neal died far too young. Hopefully this settlement can bring some closure to his family.

However, no amount of money can bring Aaron O'Neal back.

Gary Pinkel certainly knows that.

Michael Bittner is a journalism student at the University of Missouri-Columbia

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