COLUMBIA, MO. • Jamal Brooks had just finished kindergarten in 2005 when Aaron O’Neal took his last breath.
Obviously, Brooks was too young then to now remember the Missouri linebacker who died in Columbia during a summer workout. July 12 of that summer might have been the darkest day in the history of Mizzou’s program, when O’Neal, a redshirt freshman from St. Louis, collapsed during conditioning drills on Faurot Field and died before doctors could save him.
Boone County’s medical examiner initially said O’Neal died from lymphocytic meningitis, though his family later filed a wrongful death suit that concluded the sickle cell trait caused the vascular crisis that led to his death. Mizzou later reached a settlement with the O’Neal family.
In the years that followed O’Neal’s death, Mizzou’s team honored his memory with multiple tributes. A dozen years later, one tradition continues: Every few years a young linebacker is assigned O’Neal’s No. 25 to wear for the length of his career, an honor that remains sacred within the program. Zaviar Gooden wore No. 25 from 2009-12, followed by Donavin Newsom from 2013-16.
When it came time to find the next linebacker to wear O’Neal’s number, assistant coach Cornell Ford suggested Brooks to Barry Odom and the rest of the staff.
“It had to be someone who wanted to do it,” Ford said after Friday’s preseason practice. “Coach Odom was all for continuing the tradition.”
At first, Brooks was unsure if he was the right candidate. He wore No. 26 at Bessemer, Ala., City High School, where Odom’s staff identified him as a middle linebacker prospect who could anchor Mizzou’s defense for years to come.
“But Coach told me they were giving me the number because they see something in me,” Brooks said. “It’s something I take a lot of pride in.”
After the staff suggested he wear 25 earlier this summer, Brooks did his homework on O’Neal — and he didn’t start and stop with a simple Internet search. Brooks researched the old fashioned way. He asked questions. He listened. He learned.
The Tigers have undergone a head-coaching change since O’Neal died, but several people from that team still work within the program, starting with Odom, who was Gary Pinkel’s director of recruiting at the time. Ford, Odom’s running backs coach, was an assistant on the staff and the coach who recruited O’Neal at Parkway North High School. It was Ford who drove to St. Louis with Pinkel the day after O’Neal died to visit with the player’s father, Lonnie. Brooks spent time with Ford to learn about O’Neal. He listened and learned from Will Franklin, Mizzou’s director of football player engagement and a wide receiver for the Tigers in 2005.
“As soon as they brought it up to me in that first conversation I started looking into (O’Neal),” Brooks said. “I understand that was a devastating day for Mizzou and the entire Tiger Nation. For some people who were there, when they’ve been ready to talk to me about it, I’m always ready to talk. I’ve wanted to learn as much as I can about the situation. Google and the Internet can only tell you so much. The strength staff, Coach Franklin, they all have their own views and memories of that day. Just to hear them talk about it has been a good thing to sit down and listen to.”
The more he learned, the more Brooks wanted to become next in line to wear O’Neal’s number. He bought a gold No. 25 pendant that he wears on a chain around his neck.
“I just told him how proud I was he was willing to do it and what an honor it means to Mizzou and to the O’Neal family,” Ford said. “I’m sure he’ll do a great job.”
While Ford talked to reporters after Friday’s practice, Brooks jogged by on his way to the locker room.
“Who’s your favorite linebacker, Coach?,” he shouted.
“Two-five, baby,” Ford answered, laughing.
Brooks, a charismatic, hulking 250-pounder readymade for the SEC, will probably see the field as a freshman this season given he plays on every special teams unit but the PAT/field goal team. He’ll take part in his first scrimmage Saturday, wearing the number that honors a stranger he’s committed to know better.
O’Neal never played in a game for the Tigers. Brooks figures to play many — now with an extra purpose, thanks to stories others have shared.
“Aaron’s still very special to me,” Ford said. “Even 12 years later, it’s still hard to believe he’s not with us anymore.”