Oct. 3, 2011
BERKELEY - By Tim Miguel - Cal Athletic Communications
No question, an All-American defensive back was the key to Cal's 1999 football team.
A little over a decade ago, if you heard Cal football fans roar in applause or heard the boom of the cannon going off in Strawberry Canyon, there was a very good chance the reason behind the excitement was Deltha O'Neal.
A two-time Pro Bowl selection during his nine-year NFL career, O'Neal served as the centerpiece of the Golden Bears in 1999, leading the team in scoring despite his contributions coming on defense and special teams. The versatile cornerback and kick returner displayed an uncanny knack to find his way into the end zone, tallying an incredible six touchdowns on returns.
This November, O'Neal will join other Cal greats with induction into the Cal Athletic Hall of Fame.
"It feels great to be honored as a Cal Hall of Famer," O'Neal said. "This shows your accomplishments as an individual and a team leader. `Hall of Famer' - not too many people can say that."
O'Neal tied for the NFL lead in interceptions in 2005 with 10. He has not played in the league since 2008, although he had a tryout with the Indianapolis Colts last season. Currently, he is spending time with his children in Atlanta and stay-ing in shape in case another club gives him a call.
During his senior year at Cal in 1999, O'Neal certainly earned his share of attention. Most notably, he racked up a school-record nine interceptions, taking four of those picks back for touchdowns (also a school record).
But O'Neal didn't stop there. He also brought back a kickoff and a punt for a score - both in the Big Game vs. Stanford - for a total of six touchdowns on the season. O'Neal's tremendous '99 campaign ended with a long list of honors, including consensus first-team All-American, Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year and the Pop Warner Trophy as the top senior on the West Coast.
Looking back on that '99 season, O'Neal's recalls his 100-yard interception returned for a touchdown against Oregon as his personal highlight. Although the Ducks held off a late Cal comeback, the pick-six gave O'Neal an NCAA record four interceptions returned for scores in one season.
"The last home game of the year against the Ducks was my favorite memory, giving my team the best opportunity to win the game," O'Neal said.
O'Neal still holds more than a dozen school records and sits atop the NCAA record book for interceptions returned for a touchdown in a career (5) and a season (4, 1999). Despite all the notoriety, O'Neal never felt any sort of strain with always being called upon to do so much for his squad.
"I wouldn't call it pressure, but more like a countdown to the end with a group of guys that you broke bread with for four seasons," O'Neal said of his final campaign in Berkeley.
If O'Neal's days in the NFL truly are over, he still has his sights set on going back to school and earning a degree in busi-ness, remaining in good health, and most importantly to him, being a good father.
The 26th Cal Athletic Hall of Fame Induction Banquet will be held Friday, Nov. 11, at the Greek Orthodox Church confe-rence center in Oakland. To order tickets for the event, visit BigCSociety.org or call (510) 333-5927.