Only Leslie O’Neal knows if the physical pain caused by a major knee injury was greater than the mental anguish of not knowing whether the knee would ever heal properly.
“I had a lot of doubts,” O’Neal said Friday. “Sometimes you just couldn’t see progress on a day-to-day basis. Or even a week-to-week basis. But then I started focusing on progress on a month-to-month basis. And that helped my head.”
Sunday afternoon in Miami, O’Neal will play football for the first time in 22 months. The Chargers activated the defensive end Friday and placed defensive lineman Keith Baldwin on waivers.
“We’re excited to have him back,” Coach Al Saunders said. “It will be a big boost.” Saunders said he didn’t want to use O’Neal on more than 10-20 plays.
Saunders said the plan is to bring O’Neal along slowly. To that end, he said the Chargers will utilize O’Neal only in “obvious” pass-rushing situations against the Dolphins.
O’Neal was the Chargers’ leading tackler and sacker as a rookie when he went down with the injury against the Colts in the 13th game of the 1986 season. The gravity of the injury left both doctors and coaches unsure about the prospect of O’Neal playing football again.
“I didn’t have any doubts,” said Lee Williams, a Charger defensive end. “I figured he’d be back.”
O’Neal went through regular practice with the team this week for the first time since the injury. “It’s a big step for Leslie and an exciting step for us,” Saunders said.
O’Neal’s major concern will be curbing the urge to do too many things too soon.
“It’s just a matter of trying not to do too much,” he said. “I want to accomplish something as far as production. But the most important thing is just to get accustomed.”
The bad news for the Chargers is that running back Gary Anderson, their leading rusher, is “very questionable” for the game. Saunders said Anderson and injured quarterback Babe Laufenberg are the top candidates for Sunday’s two-man inactive squad. Mark Malone will make his first start as a Charger in place of Laufenberg.