"The love of my life": Late grandmother is Bills running back Cedric O'Neal's inspiration

(WKBW) - The summer of 2016. Cedric O’Neal, a rookie running back in the National Football League, was on cloud nine.

It wasn’t perfect by any means.

Instead of being a high draft pick — or even a draft pick at all — O’Neal was intent on trying to work his way up the Philadelphia Eagles depth chart as an undrafted player out of Valdosta State. With a largely unsettled running back room, the opportunity was even there, too.

O’Neal was ready to get it going. That was until his world got turned upside down.

Just two days before the camp was about to begin, O’Neal vividly recalled a day he won’t soon forget.

“I got the call around like 11 or so at night. It was my mom, she was crying. I knew. When you get a call that late, it’s never anything good,” O’Neal said. “And she was like, my grandma had passed away.”

His grandmother — “Miss” Juanita O’Neal as he so affectionately referred to her — had a profound effect on his life. She helped raise Cedric along with his brothers and sisters and even admitted that she was hard on them, but also instilled life lessons along the way — teaching them to take care of themselves and to not depend on anyone to do it for them.

“The love of my life. My grandmother,” he said. “She was the puzzle that kept it all together.”

Juanita O’Neal had been suffering from a bout with Alzheimer’s disease — which can take an emotional toll on a family with how up and down it could be from one day to the next.

“Sometimes she knew who I was, sometimes she didn’t,” O’Neal said.

Even through the tough times, the loss of his grandmother cut the running back deeply. With it being so close to the biggest opportunity of his life, he tried to focus on the task at hand.

It wasn’t easy.

“It had an effect on me,” O’Neal admitted. “But, I knew I couldn’t let that stop me from doing what I had to do — because she wouldn’t want me to do that. She’d just hug me and would just tell me ‘Baby, everything will be fine and keep fighting.’ I knew that she wouldn’t want me to stop.”

He fought, but O’Neal fell short.

He was cut once on August 21, 2016. An injury to the running backs in Philadelphia brought him back for the final preseason game, but it was merely a tease. He was released by the Eagles again just days later.

Channeling the spirit of his grandmother, fighting for everything he can get, O’Neal didn’t give up after the emotional and professional setback. It took time, but eventually, the Buffalo Bills came calling.

In mid-December, the Bills extended O’Neal a contract to join their practice squad. Over those few weeks, O’Neal impressed enough to warrant a new contract for the next year, and with it, a new opportunity.

An opportunity, that with some turnover at the running back position, the running back has a chance to not only make the roster but can even earn a substantial role behind star runner LeSean McCoy. He’s taken advantage of it through the offseason and had a strong spring.

He finds his motivation to carry on, to make it through, to fulfill his NFL dreams, and most importantly, to make his family proud through Juanita O’Neal.

“I learned I can get through anything. Just losing her is the biggest thing — the biggest loss that has ever happened to me in my life,” Cedric O’Neal said. “I know that if I got through that, I know that I can get through anything. As far as anything that comes my way, I can fight — I can get through it — and life still goes on.”

And he does it all with her right by his side — both literally and figuratively.

“She’s a beautiful, strong woman that I will never forget,” he said. “I’ve got a picture of her beside my bed every night and I kiss it before I go to sleep and when I get up and come to work.”

Twitter: @JoeBuscaglia

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