- Max Blau, For the AJC
Somewhere in the rustic foothills of Jamaica, Norma Bell longed to leave her parents’ sugarcane farm near the rural village of Catadupa. And eventually she did.
Norma found her way to Montego Bay around age 17. She got a job at a jewelry store. There she met a man named Charles, a Holiday Inn security guard, who asked her on a date. Nine months later, on Dec. 29, 1974, their first son came into the world. To Norma, O’Neil was everything. Charles wanted everything for his family — including a small slice of the American Dream.
Charles moved to Delaware, where he toiled on farms and in factories, and returned home about once a year. In his absence, he mailed presents to O’Neil. One stood out from the rest.
Even today Norma lights up at the thought of 5-year-old O’Neil, clad in a red jumpsuit, running out their front door toward the street with those boxing gloves. This was long before he grew into a force of nature, a champion. She can still picture him, standing atop the light post, posing for passersby like he was on top of the world.
In 1982, Norma boarded a plane with her boys, O’Neil and baby Omar, to join her husband. They settled into a three-bedroom ranch in a middle-class neighborhood in Dover that seemed as quiet and safe as Montego Bay. Delaware’s similarities, though, only went so far. Snow never covered Jamaica’s white-sand beaches. The word “jerk” never referred to selfish people — just spices. O’Neil never had to be held back a grade, now he did, as he adapted to this new American life.
Still, boxing consumed O’Neil’s waking thoughts.
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