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O'Neal feels welcome

5-3-04, 4:05 p.m.


Deltha O'Neal inherited Corey Dillon's locker, but not the baggage.

Yes. No. 24 wants to be here.

(And college free agent running back Nick Ayers, from Cincy's East Side Glen Este High School and the Bengals' summer home of Georgetown College, is wearing Dillon's No. 28.)

"It seems like they want me to be here and it feels good," said O'Neal as he got his locker straightened out Monday. "It makes you feel alive again. It makes you feel like you're out of the dungeon in the dark corner and where everybody is throwing stuff at you."

One man's dungeon is another man's Nirvana.

They were traded within a week of each other last month, and just like Dillon sees New England as his shining city on a hill, O'Neal sees Cincinnati as a beacon. A fifth-year cornerback, O'Neal is three years removed from the Pro Bowl, a year removed from Broncos head coach Mike Shanahan's doghouse, and now a leader in a Bengals' secondary looking for some of the 14 interceptions he had in Denver in 2001 and 2002.

In the 21st century, Bengals cornerbacks have 22 interceptions.

"I can see it," said O'Neal of the sense he is now in a leadership position. "But I just want to play a role. I'm looking to fit in and do what I have to do to win games"

Pro Bowl receiver Chad Johnson is already looking to him. Johnson hung a note on O'Neal's locker that read, "You and Me." And then he signed the nickname he gave himself.

"7-11," because he's always open. He can't wait to sell the goods against O'Neal in practice. O'Neal can't either.

"7-11," said O'Neal with a smile. "That's my dog. We're just having fun and it's going to be fun. It's good competition. It's going to be nice going against someone like that in practice. He's trying to turn the page on his game, and so am I."

This isn't O'Neal's first brush with Johnson. They have a mutual friend in Los Angeles, and before O'Neal's Broncos came to Cincinnati for last year's opener, his buddy passed on Johnson's challenge.

"He said, 'Chad is saying he's going to burn you,' but I didn't take it personally. It was all friendly," O'Neal said. "It's nothing personal. There's no rivalry. We're on the same team."

Ironically, O'Neal did such a good job covering Johnson in that opener, it's one of the reasons the Bengals decided to swap first-round picks with Denver and make him the starter opposite Tory James.

Five days after the trade, the NFL schedule came out and O'Neal admits he sat up and took notice of the Oct. 25 game. The Broncos come to town for Cincinnati's first Monday Night Game in 15 years.

I'm licking my chops on that one," O'Neal said. "I can't wait, but I'll let my actions speak instead of my words."

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