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The Bradsher Beat
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 (PA) College.

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 never attended.

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 personally.”

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 lost man.

“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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02/23/2007 01:13:10 AM

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