Sunday August 26, 2012

Angela O'Neil is not a long-distance runner. She'll tell you that. She's a three-sport athlete at Taconic High School, but cross country isn't one of those sports.

At the 5-mile mark of the New Balance Falmouth Road Race on Aug. 12, with 2 miles left, O'Neil could have stopped. She'd already gone so far and done so much for a charity that meant a lot to her
family.

She didn't stop, though.

"I don't like not finishing," she said.

That's just one lesson she learned from her favorite coach and father, Bob O'Neil. Angela wanted to finish for herself and for her dad.

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Bob O'Neil lived to coach basketball. He started at age 29, finding his way back to his hometown of Pittsfield in 1986. Whether it was at Berkshire Community College, Williams College, Pittsfield High School or Taconic High School, Bob was never far away from a court. He played the game into his 50s. He refereed everything from high schools to summer-league games.

Most importantly, he taught the game to his daughter, Angela. The same way he couldn't be away from basketball, she can't be away from some kind of field of play. A junior at Taconic, Angela plays volleyball, basketball and tennis.

"I get really bored in the offseason," she said. "That's what keeps me going."

It should come as no surprise that Angela's favorite coach is her father. Her friend and Taconic teammate, Nyanna Slaughter, feels the same. Slaughter played for O'Neil from the age of 4, be it in YMCA, Boys & Girls Club of Pittsfield or Taconic programs.

"He was like a father to me," Slaughter said. "I've known him since I was so young. Any time I was down, he was always there to pick me up and tell me I was going to be OK."

That kind of positivity rubbed off on Angela and Bob's wife, Betty.

"He loved to be silly," Betty said. "He loved to take things light. He had a really good sense of humor. Even if they weren't funny, he was telling a joke."

That positive nature faced its toughest test in May 2011. That's when Bob O'Neil learned he had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), more commonly known as Lou Gehrig's Disease. The nerve-cell disease which affects voluntary muscle movement has no known cure, and often claims those who have the disease within 5 years.

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Early this spring, Betty went to her daughter with an idea. She'd learned of a road race in Falmouth that would benefit Compassionate Care, a non-profit organization which had been helping the O'Neils with medical equipment since Bob's diagnosis. Compassionate Care's founder, Ron Hoffman, had told Betty about the run.

Angela liked the idea, but felt the 7-mile distance was a bit much.

"I didn't know exactly what I was getting myself into when I said yes," Angela said.

Plus, there was a lot of money to be raised -- Compassionate Care was hoping Angela could earn $1,500 in donations.

"We tried to find out things about it to know if she could do it," Betty said. "I think the biggest thing was, how are we going to raise the $1,500?"

That's when family and friends stepped in.

The entry deadline was in June. By June 10, Lynsay Bell, a former player of Bob's, had set up a website for Angela to collect donations.

"Once she got our web page set up, we were able to email family and friends," Betty said. "A lot of our donations came through emailing
people."

There were flyers posted around Pittsfield. A 3-on-3 fundraising basketball tournament was organized. Slaughter coined a team name, ‘Bob's Believers,' for former THS player Steffon Charles' team.

From June to mid-August, when all money was to be collected, Angela raised $3,805.

All she had left to do was run.

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Although he stopped coaching and working in 2011, Bob O'Neil was still passionate about sports. He always wanted to know how Angela was doing, be it in training, practices or games.

"Every single day," Angela and Betty said at the same time. "Every second."

"I knew, deep down, it was making him unbelievably happy that I liked basketball so much," Angela said. I wouldn't have loved it as much if it wasn't for him, especially with him being my coach."

As the disease progressed, though, it was getting increasingly tough for Bob to see his daughter play. That never stopped him, though, from
trying.

Betty said Bob would ask her, "Can you call somebody that is a director of the AAU, and ask them if they have an outlet so I know I'll be able to plug in my machine that will help me breathe?"

May 25, 2012, was the last time Bob O'Neil left his house. All he wanted to do was see Angela play tennis. A Western Mass. tournament berth was on the line for the Braves against Pittsfield.

"We were bound and determined -- and Bob was -- that we were going to get him there," Betty said. "He wanted to be there."

Bob's brother, John, helped Betty get him to the courts. He was there to see Angela win her No. 3 singles match in straight sets, and Taconic win the match.

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In January, Betty took a family medical leave from Stearns Elementary School to care for Bob. She extended the three-month leave to the end of June, with the help of the Pittsfield Schools.

In January, a a private caregiver was there 30 hours per week for Bob. By early spring, a caregiver was on hand 15 hours a day, every day. That went up to 20 hours a day by May.

One hour per day, it would just be Angela and Betty caring for Bob. Remembering that fact caused Angela some brief regret.

"I felt like I was lazy at times, though," Angela quietly said, looking down.

"Don't judge yourself," Betty quickly and firmly said, eyes focused on Angela, knowing her daughter had no need to feel guilty.

Slaughter said Angela would ask the question any child would ask about a father's illness: Why him?

Bob, ever the optimist, wouldn't ask why.

"The thing that I most admire about Bob is that he never felt sorry for himself," Betty said. "He never said ‘why me'. And he never complained. Not once."

"Even knowing about it when he walked out of the doctor's office, he prayed to God and thanked him that it was not me or Mom," Angela added.

Slaughter would also go to the O'Neil house as often as possible, even staying over many nights with her friend and her coach.

"As it really got close," Slaughter said, "I'd still stay overnight, two nights or something, to see if she was OK. We'd go down there with him."

Bob asked Slaughter, the girl who he said was like a second daughter to him, to take care of Angela and Betty.

She was there for her friend and second family, staying at the house the morning of July 17, when Bob O'Neil died. He was 64.

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More than anything, Angela O'Neil knew the pride her father took in her athletic accomplishments.

"He would say how proud he was of me because I picked [sports] up and was doing pretty well," she said. "I got the MVP in tennis, and even when he was sick, he would make me bring the plaque to show visitors who hadn't seen it."

That's why she had to be on a basketball court the day her father died. She had told her dad just days earlier that she would dedicate a game to him. This was the one.

Taconic had a summer-league game that night. Slaughter played, as did seven other girls who had played for Bob. Slaughter led the team in a pre-game prayer, and before they took the court, the players abandoned the usual "Braves on 3" huddle break in favor of Bob's favorite "Intensity on 3" break.

That the Braves lost by single digits to Lee didn't matter. That Angela missed an open 3-pointer off the back of the rim near game's end didn't matter. She still scored in double figures, surprising many with fast-break points along the way.

"It was that burst of energy I felt again," Angela said. "I was still satisfied with how I played. I was proud of our team. None of us ever gave up."

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Betty set up at the 5-mile point in Falmouth to watch her daughter run. She has the same pride in her daughter that Bob did.

Angela had been training for weeks, whether running, biking or playing basketball. She adopted her friend Nyanna Slaughter's team name, "Bob's Believers." She may have been training, but she was nervous about the race. She expected to collapse at the 5-mile mark. She expected she would throw up at some point.

Still, that wouldn't stop her from running -- and it didn't stop her at the 5-mile mark, either, when she passed by a cheering Compassionate Care contingent.

"I kind of felt like I could make it the last 2 miles," she said. "The one thing I'm not going to forget is everyone was saying, ‘You're almost there.' "

Angela was 150 feet away from the finish line when a runner she didn't know looked at her and said, "Come on. We're going to finish this." She sprinted the last 125 feet, finishing in 1 hour, 20
minutes.

"I felt something from within and just flew to the finish line," she said.

Now that she's finished a 7-mile race, Angela is getting information from her friends about other races that benefit the fight against ALS. She plans to run for Compassionate Care again next summer, with much better training this time.

"It's all a blur, these past two months," she said. "I know he was proud of me for raising money and wanting to do it."

Perhaps Angela had a little more support than she expected that day.

"The day of Bob's funeral, there was a monarch butterfly flying around the house," Betty said. "I just felt like that was Bob. Then we went to the Bahamas, and we saw one on the beach. I have never seen a monarch butterfly on the beach.

"Then, when her race was over "

Betty pauses to chuckle, recalling what she saw.

" there was a monarch butterfly," she said.

For her, it was a sign that, just one more time, Bob O'Neil was there to see his daughter compete.

To reach Matthew Sprague:
msprague@berkshireeagle.com,
(413) 496-6254.
On Twitter: @EagleSportsZone.