NEWS, NOTES &
Wednesday, July, 19, 2006
By Bethany Bradsher
Seeds of faith sowed by
LeClair in full bloom
Former ECU soccer coach Devin
O'Neill is among those whose perspective on what is 'real' was clarified by
the Pirate Hall of Famer.
From a professional standpoint, Devin O’Neill
could have done something more fruitful than spend four years as the men’s
soccer coach at East Carolina. Less than three years after he left ECU, the
program he had groomed was eliminated completely.
But when viewed through the lens of heaven,
O’Neill’s stop in Greenville could very well turn out to be his most
important. And one reason that his stint as a Pirate coach was life-changing
was the fact that his office was down the hall from Keith LeClair’s.
Like thousands of others who have entered the
East Carolina orbit in the past decade, O’Neill is grieving this week as an
extraordinary man of faith and courage is laid to rest. But O’Neill is also
one of many who knows without a doubt that LeClair’s life was infinitely
more powerful in its brokenness than it was in its strength.
“He was a profound influence on me and a ton of
other people,” said O’Neill, who is now the head soccer coach at Gettysburg
When he arrived in Greenville in early 1999,
O’Neill’s coaching star was on the rise but his personal life was on the
rocks. His marriage was strained and he was, without acknowledging as much,
searching for meaning in life beyond his career.
He struck up a friendship with LeClair early on,
but their conversations in those first years didn’t go beyond coaching talk,
he said. He remembers passing by the Scales Field House lobby on his way to
the office and seeing a Bible study led by Chuck Young that included LeClair
and other members of the baseball staff. He was intrigued, he said, but he
As O’Neill’s inner struggles continued, LeClair
learned of his devastating diagnosis in the summer of 2001.
Before long, O’Neill’s wife Mimi deepened her
own commitment to Christianity, and Devin had agreed to join her in a
couples’ Bible study. As he investigated the Christian faith, O’Neill was
struck by the living example of the man who was now struggling to do
everyday tasks but still came to his office down the hall nearly every day.
“When Keith got sick, and how he handled
everything, just the depth of his faith, the courage, and just the calm, it
was just incredibly powerful,” O’Neill said. “It was just something to watch
that you said, ‘That’s for real. And that’s what I want.’ ”
O’Neill began to ask LeClair questions about his
faith in God. LeClair became one of the many friends who prayed regularly
for O’Neill. I was a part of the couples’ Bible study with the O’Neills, and
I watched as Devin journeyed from despair to hope. Many of us cared for him
and answered his questions, but I believed then and now that nothing pointed
him more solidly toward faith than his daily encounters with a man who could
have easily slipped into hopelessness himself.
“God put some great men in my life at that
time,” O’Neill said. “Keith was just so strong, and at every opportunity he
would talk about his faith and what it meant to him.”
O’Neill admits that he sometimes dabbles in
doubt about his professional path. He loves his position at Gettysburg, a
Division III college that is serious about academics and soccer. But if he
had stayed in his assistant’s position at Ohio State a little longer, and
waited to see what other opportunities had come along, he wonders, what
would have happened?
“Sometimes I think back professionally and I
think, ‘Oh, what a train wreck. Why did I decide to do that?’” he said. “And
then Mimi and I talk about it, and on a personal level. I almost shudder to
think what might have happened. It was the best place I could have been
He is in the midst of hosting residential soccer
camps for teenage boys at Gettysburg, but O’Neill is one of many people with
ECU ties trying to figure out how to get back to Greenville for LeClair’s
funeral on Friday. Even if he can’t make the trip, O’Neill will get comfort
from remembering a two-hour visit he had with LeClair in May.
“I got to tell him how appreciative I was, and
what he had meant to me,” he said.
When he could talk freely, when he could only
speak to others by computer, and in the last months when he was unable to
get words across at all, LeClair was still communicating with friends like
O’Neill. His peace in the midst of turmoil, and his overarching faith in a
God who is bigger than earthly trials has been a lifeboat for more than one
“I’ve just got to imagine that, around East
Carolina, there have got to be a lot of people whom he had a similar effect
on as he had on me,” O’Neill said.
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