On Sept. 21, 1969, a football rocketed off the right leg of a Hearne-born, A&M-educated punter and soared through the Denver air. New York Jets rookie punter Steve O’Neal — along with the record-setting crowd of 50,583 at Mile High Stadium — watched from his team’s own end zone as the ball kept going and going.
“It took off. Normally when I rolled out and peeked, the ball was coming down, but this ball was still going up,” O’Neal recalled Friday, on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the 98-yard kick that set a still-standing record for the longest punt in professional football history.
O’Neal played football at Texas A&M from 1965 to 1968 before being drafted by the New York Jets in 1969.
In the second quarter, the Jets began a possession at their own 20, but two Denver sacks of quarterback Joe Namath pinned the Jets just outside their own goal line.
“I actually thought I was going out to punt after a safety, and the closer I got, I realized, they’re putting the ball almost on the goal line,” he said, chuckling.
With his team pinned back, O’Neal said he looked in the brief huddle at starting running back Matt Snell, who was O’Neal’s personal protector on punts, and told him, “Matt, whatever you do, don’t back up…he backed up,” O’Neal said, laughing. “Thinking back on it, it probably helped me because in a situation like that, you tend to overstride. It shorted my last step and I got into that one.”
The ball sailed over the Denver Broncos’ returner Billy Thompson and landed at the Broncos’ 33-yard-line before bouncing — and bouncing again — all the way inside the one before being picked up.
“It’s amazing that it’s been 50 years — just the whole process is kind of like a fairy tale when you look at the Jets having won a Super Bowl championship,” he said.
News stories at the time indicate that the crowd was then the largest to watch a sporting event in the state of Colorado. The Jets were coming off an AFL championship and a Super Bowl III upset victory over the Baltimore Colts in early 1969.
“New York was a fun place — I’d never been to a city that big,” O’Neal said.
O’Neal reflected that he and Jets quarterback Joe Namath “had a lot of people in common,” including Gene Stallings, who was A&M’s head coach from 1965 to 1971 after a six-year stint at Alabama.
O’Neal was born and raised in Hearne, and he played football and ran track at Hearne High School before attending A&M.
He described himself as an “ask-on” to the Texas A&M football team — he came to A&M on a track scholarship.
“Stallings had found out that I could punt, and he sent word through the track coach for me to come talk to him,” O’Neal recalled.
“I missed the first day that he expected me to be out there because I had a late lab, and when I got out there, they were gone,” O’Neal said.
“When I showed up the next day, I kind of got chewed on a little bit. He said, ‘Boy, where’ve you been?’ Stallings then told an assistant coach to watch me punt, and said ‘If he can punt, come get me,’ ” O’Neal said with a laugh. “The assistant did go get him, and then he asked me if I’d like to punt at A&M.”
O’Neal led the Southwest Conference in 1967 with a 42-yard punting average, and Texas A&M won their first SWC championship since 1956, according to a section on O’Neal in Rusty Burson’s book Texas A&M: Where Have You Gone?
He was named a First-Team All-American in 1968 before being drafted in the 13th round by the New York Jets of the AFL in 1969.
He said that the situation itself — punting from the one-yard-line — is rare.
“I was only in that situation one time,” O’Neal said. “I had some situations where I might have a shot at a 96-yarder, but this was inside the one all the way to inside the one.”
The Broncos ended up winning the game, 21-19.
O’Neal said he has known his wife, Judy, since he was about 5 years old, but that they had never dated until the week leading up to the Denver game.
“She got a job offer in New York, and somebody gave her my phone number since I would be the only person up there that she knew,” he said. “I was headed out the door to go in to the city and then the phone rang. I stopped and answered it and she said ‘This is Judy,’ and I said, ‘Judy who?’ I wasn’t expecting her to call me ever.”
O’Neal said he picked Judy up and took her to Broadway Joe’s to eat and then a bar, and then introduced her to his roommates. He said he asked her out again two days later, just before the team left New York and flew to Denver.
“She likes to say that ‘We had two dates, basically, so I take credit for the punt,’ ” O’Neal said with a laugh.
O’Neal’s connection to the Denver area continues, as he and Judy’s daughters — and grandchildren — live in Denver and nearby Aurora.
He attended dental school during his six-year playing career, which also included one year in New Orleans playing for the Saints. He practiced dentistry for nearly 40 years in Bryan before retiring. He and Judy live in College Station.
O’Neal said he and Judy will be at Kyle Field this afternoon to attend the A&M-Auburn game.