Father of the Year Nominee: Rob O’Neal

A heavy metal drummer puts down his sticks and picks up a new passion.

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Rob O’Neal hasn’t been a father for very long (three months to be exact), but if you ask him, becoming a dad is already his greatest passion. And this is a guy with no shortage of passions. The 31-year-old Memphis native is a nature lover, voracious reader, avid gardener, and accomplished drummer in the underground heavy metal and hardcore music scenes. “Rob has such diverse interests and is really passionate about everything he does, which is what initially attracted me to him,” says Kate, Rob’s wife of three years. That, and the fact that “he’s a hard worker and just a really great guy.”

Now, with his infant son Rowan in the mix, Kate is thrilled to add “wonderful father” to the list of Rob’s attributes. “His patience impresses me every day,” she says. “With a baby, you can’t plan for anything — you just have to roll with the punches as they come. But he is so patient, so kind, and so silly — he loves having fun with Rowan. I couldn’t do this with anyone else, that’s for sure.”

Just last fall, Rob’s life looked a lot different than it does today. He was drumming in two different bands — a jazz-metal duo and a hardcore group. Rob has pretty much been a drummer his entire life. After banging on pots and pans with wooden spoons as a tyke, then graduating to a toy drum set, Rob officially began drumming (with lessons and all) at age 11, joined his first band at 15, and began touring at 19. Influenced by everyone from Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham to Helmut’s John Stanier to “the greatest drummer ever,” jazz wizard Tony Williams, Rob continued honing his chops and playing gigs all around the nation through his mid-twenties.

After taking a few years off from the road, Rob joined his two most recent bands as a hobby while cleaning and repairing swimming pools by day for real income. But when the hardcore group started taking off and the tour schedule got more demanding, Rob began doubting his desire to stick with either band. He and Kate were still settling into newlywed life and busy turning their recently purchased East Memphis house into a home, and Rob yearned to spend more time “putting down roots and having more stability.” Plus, the couple had just begun trying to get pregnant.

Finally, last November, Rob decided to hang up his drumsticks. “He grappled with that decision for a really long time because music has been such a big part of his life, well, forever,” Kate says. “So he definitely had to make a sacrifice there, but I think it was a right decision for him and for us.”

The timing proved fortuitous: About a week later, the couple learned Kate was pregnant. Rob switched gears, got a full-time job at a cemetery, and the promise of fatherhood opened up a new passion in him, one that has since matched his love of drumming. He embraced his soon-to-be new reality with fervor. Rob read and read about pregnancy, parenthood, and what to expect when expecting.

“I read as much as I could until my brain split,” Rob says. “But to be honest, I was disappointed in the selection of books for expecting fathers. There is so much great info available for women, but for men, most of the books felt very ‘Dude! You’re going to be a dad, bro!’ Like, they had to make jokes to entice men to read them. I don’t need a joke to want to know what going on with my wife’s body or what to be prepared for. I wanted a more serious approach.”

Ultimately, Rob found in value in Armin Brott’s The Expectant Father and a few other titles, some of which he still calls upon today — sometimes subconsciously. “We had to take Rowan to the hospital recently, and I somehow remembered to grab a poopy diaper out of the trash, put it in a Ziploc, and bring it along, which I must’ve read about in one of those books,” he laughs. “My wife kind of looked at me funny, but she didn’t say anything. Then at the hospital, they said, ‘oh, you have that? Great, we’ll send it to the lab.’”

Rob admits that even a million dad-to-be books couldn’t have completely prepared him for fatherhood. Although having a three-month-old is tiring and stressful and mind-boggling at times, Rob is in love with his son and passionate about every aspect of caring for him. He eagerly holds and burps Rowan after his feedings so Kate can get some sleep, and he loves letting the baby fall asleep on his chest, which, to Rob’s sadness, he is getting too long to do comfortably. “Now I am starting to understand when other dads say ‘enjoy it because it’s going to go quick,’” he says.

Kate can only gush about her husband’s intimate involvement. “No task is beyond his scope,” Kate says. “He helps with anything and everything, from bath time to story time to staying up at night to comfort Rowan.”

Additionally, Rob happily cleans up the house, maintains the yard, and does whatever he can to make new parenthood easier for Kate. “To think I would have some issue helping out? That’s crap,” Rob says. “We both work, we’re both tired, so I can do some dishes and fold laundry. Also, I am aware that Rowan sees how I treat his mom and that will soak in more at this age than we even realize.”

Rob already has big plans for Rowan once the boy gets a little older, from identifying birds in the backyard to planting perennials to raising caterpillars together. “I think it’s very important to have him out in the natural world early on, so I am hoping he actually wants to do some of these things,” Rob laughs. He’s also eager to buy Rowan his first drum set or at least pull his out of the closet and let his son try them out.

“Three months into fatherhood, I feel not overwhelmed but overcome,” Rob says. “It’s been such a change, but I feel overcome with joy even in the midst of the harder moments. I just want to be best man, husband, and father I can be.”