Oct. 9, 2001
By AARON J. LOPEZ
AP Sports Writer
DENVER - The cocksure kid from California had lost all confidence. Denver Broncos cornerback Deltha O'Neal felt like he could do nothing right under the watchful eye of an unrelenting boss.
Every missed assignment, every poor decision and every rookie pitfall inevitably would be followed by the bellowing voice of defensive coordinator Greg Robinson: "Deltha!"
"It was hell. He chewed me out every day," O'Neal said. "I think it helped me out, though. I've got to be able to take criticism and learn to grow off of that and challenge myself. But give me 50 feet so I can breathe.
"When I first stepped in there, I lost all of my confidence. It was a learning process for me, but yeah, I took in the criticism. Yeah, they broke me down. They broke me down to ground zero. I was hurting."
O'Neal has done a 180-degree turnaround since those 90-degree days at his first NFL training camp in 2000.
With Robinson now the defensive coordinator for Kansas City, he had an unobstructed view as O'Neal tied an NFL record with four interceptions Sunday against the Chiefs.
It was the kind of game the Broncos have been hoping for since selecting O'Neal with the 15th overall pick of the 2000 draft.
"Even though you're a starter, until you go out there and prove yourself week in and week out, you don't have a lot of confidence," Denver coach Mike Shanahan said. "That's why I think it's important for a guy to have a big game like he did."
During his senior year at Cal, O'Neal seemed to have a big game every week. He tied for the NCAA lead with nine interceptions in 1999 and set an NCAA record by returning four for touchdowns.
Making his defensive achievements even more impressive was the fact he played tailback until moving to cornerback midway through his junior year.
"He could have been a wide receiver. I guarantee that," Shanahan said. "He has unbelievable hands."
As much as the Broncos love O'Neal's multiple talents, they made him a first-round pick with the intention of grooming him to shadow receivers, not mimic them.
Not since Tyrone Braxton in 1987 has Denver drafted a cornerback that made a lasting impact in a Broncos uniform. O'Neal could finally end the dry spell as he hones his technique and adopts diligent study habits under new defensive coordinator Ray Rhodes.
"I feel like my old self again," O'Neal said. "I feel like I am back in college, but I have to step it up another level. We have several weeks left and now we have Seattle, so I have to let this one go by."
The NFL record book will be there to remind O'Neal of his accomplishment. He became the 18th player with four interceptions in a game and the first since Arizona's Kwamie Lassiter did it against San Diego on Dec. 27, 1998.
O'Neal would have held the record by himself if he could have come down with a high throw by Trent Green in the end zone.
"That's all I'm hearing," he said. "Everybody talks about the five."
O'Neal flashes a big smile when he thinks about what could have been. Dropping a potential interception is part of the learning curve that began when Robinson and Denver's coaching staff seemingly dogged him from the practice field to the film room to the cafeteria line.
"I think most rookies' confidence gets shattered a little bit because they don't understand the speed of the game," Shanahan said. "They don't understand the involvement and the difference between college and pro. It's not a game. It's your job. Every once in a while a guy will come in and prove himself right away, but that's not the norm."
Now that he has proven capable of making quarterbacks think twice about throwing his way, O'Neal can expect a little slack at practice, right? Not quite.
"They still yell," he said. "Don't get me wrong, they still yell. I just feel comfortable out there. I feel relaxed."