Chronicling the peaks and valleys Don McNeal experienced during his youth, the book expresses his philosophy on overcoming adversities as well as the life lessons learned growing up on a farm and through his participation in athletics.
The former Alabama All-America defensive back's collegiate career was highlighted by playing on two national championship teams at Alabama (1978-79). As a member of the Miami Dolphins, McNeal participated in two Super Bowls (1983 and 1985) during his 10-year professional career. The athletic journey may not have occurred if not for the persistence of one individual and a change of heart in another.
Persuaded by his high school football coach, McNeal reluctantly agreed to become a member of the Escambia County Blue Devils. "My first year of football, I didn't really want to play," McNeal recounted. "My high school coach asked me to come out and play. I said I could not because my father was a farmer and we plowed a mule every day of my life and I didn't have an opportunity to play. My father needed me on the farm and I knew he was going to say ‘No.' Coach insisted that I go and ask him. I said. ‘Okay, I'll go ask him, but I know he's going to say no. So I went and asked my father that particular night and my father did say no. But later on that night he came back to my bed and he changed his mind. He said you can play but you're going to have to stay after school and catch up with your chores. That's how I started playing. I played my first year, my junior season. I had a great time and I liked it and I decided to keep on."
In the fall of 1974, a power outage interrupted play during the the 3A semi-final contest against Pell City dictating a change in venue and illustrating to McNeal how a community can bond with a team to create an affinity amongst its citizens. "We were playing in a game that would propel us into the championship game and the lights went off," McNeal said. "We were playing and it was so cold and all of a sudden the lights went out. We had to get on the bus in Pell City and go 30 miles to Childersburg. We finished the game. What was so great about it was all of our fans got in their cars and followed the bus to watch the finish of the game. It was great. It brought the community together. The next weekend we won the championship against Sheffield (7-6)."
In this day of expansive technology where communication across continents seems unlimited, it's hard to envision a world without a telephone. But that was McNeal's plight the day he received a telephone call from Coach Paul Bryant offering him a scholarship. "I remember the first time I talked to him," McNeal said. "I grew up without a telephone in my house. My neighbor would call to me from down the street. I ran up the street to get the telephone. The first thing he asked me was how was my father because I think he knew of my mother's passing. He called me on the telephone and offered me a scholarship to The University of Alabama and of course I said yes."
McNeal recalled his first meeting with Coach Bryant and the words he uttered establishing on and off the field behavior for his players. Speaking about Coach Bryant, McNeal said, "He was a mild mannered guy who was highly respected. The first day I met him he said, ‘Wherever you go, whatever you do, always show your class. Don't let anybody out-class you. If someone hits you on the side of the head on the football field, don't get a stupid penalty. The time will come where you have the opportunity to hit them on the field legally.' He stressed that a lot. Always show your class."
McNeal experienced some bumps along the road as he made the transition from high school to college. He had his mind set on playing wide receiver while at Alabama but the threat of plowing a mule along with some frank conversations with Coach Bryant set him on a path to become one of Alabama's greatest defensive backs as he was selected to be a member of the school's All-Centennial team in 1992.
McNeal said, "I was recruited as a wide receiver. I had a great senior year in high school. I thought I was going to go to Alabama and star as a wide receiver. I'm starry-eyed and seeing Coach Bryant in the tower. So the first couple of days we had a drill that the quarterback would warm up by throwing to the receivers who were running fly routes. My number was called. The ball is snapped and I'm running down the field and I beat my defender and I'm wide open and then I dropped the football. My number was called again and I'm wide open and I dropped the football. Coach Bryant from the tower spoke into his microphone and said, "McNeal, go down there and play defensive back." Under my breath, I said, ‘I don't want to play defensive back. I'm a wide receiver. I want to be a star.' I went down and played defensive back and deliberately got beat. I didn't want to play defensive back. Coach Bryant saw that and said go back down there and play wide receiver. So I was happy to go back and play wide receiver. I dropped the football two more times. Again Coach Bryant said to go down and play defensive back. I deliberately got beat again. Coach Bryant called to me and said, ‘Don McNeal, come here.' He hollered down there for me to come over to him because he didn't want anyone else to hear or embarrass me. He said, ‘McNeal, let me tell you one thing. Listen, I know what you're trying to do. Playing defensive back, you're not trying. You better go down there and try your best because if you don't I'm going to send you back to McCullough, Alabama, and you're going to be plowing that mule.' I didn't want to do that because I got tired of that mule. I went down there and played defensive back. A running play was called and I took on the lead guard and the fullback and made the tackle. Coach Bryant said, ‘That away to go, that's what I'm talking about.' I played defensive back from that day forward."
His position coach at Alabama was someone that McNeal grew to respect and understand over the course of time, after an inauspicious beginning as a freshman. He said, "Coach Bill ‘Brother' Oliver–I love Coach Oliver. He's one of the greatest coaches. I didn't know it at the time. He had a big influence on my life. My first year at Alabama, I thought he didn't like black people. He would stay on me so much, I really questioned if he liked me. After my first season, he taught me so much how to play defensive back, the technical side of it. My sophomore year when I came back, he said, ‘I'm going to stay off your back. You can make it now.' He's a great coach. He really set the foundation for me to play defensive back in college and in the pros. I owe a lot to him and I just want to let him know that."
Living at Bryant Hall, McNeal developed lifelong friendships with teammates such as Curtis McGriff, Tony Nathan and Dwight Stephenson. "We pulled pranks on each other and had a good time. We lived in the athlete's dorm, which they don't have now and everybody in the dorm was great. Dorm life was fantastic for me. My roommate was Curtis McGriff (former New York Giants player). We were roommates from the time we got there until he moved out his senior year. We became close. We are still close today."
Of all the team and individual awards bestowed on McNeal, one specific honor ranks high. "The thing that I will never forget is you get a lot of opportunities to win accolades and awards at The University of Alabama but what sticks in my mind and that I like most of all is the fact that my teammates voted me co-captain my senior year. That is big. You get to have your name along with your handprints and footprints imprinted in the concrete Walk of Fame at Denny Chimes which will be there for life. As I walked around and saw Joe Namath, Lee Roy Jordan, Kenny Stabler, Ozzie Newsome and right around the corner, I saw my name, Don McNeal. That is a memory I will cherish for the rest of my life. I appreciate that about The University of Alabama. As aco-captain, you had access to Coach Bryant to discuss things that concerned the team or he would tell me something that he wanted to tell the other players."
Preceding the two famous goal line plays in the 1979 Sugar Bowl, McNeal made the play of his life when he knocked Penn State wide receiver Scott Fitzkee out of bounds at the one yard line to prevent a tying touchdown in the fourth quarter. Discussing the tackle and the goal line stand, McNeal said, "We were all saying we cannot give up this touchdown on the goal line. They better run it because they cannot pass, that was my perspective. People ask me, how did I make that play? You can never practice that play. You just play football. I was covering my guy and I looked out of the corner of my eye. The ball was thrown and I went up and I hit the receiver and threw him out of bounds about the time he caught the football. All I can remember is my roommate; Curtis McGriff came up to me and told me that's a great play. I didn't know that, I was just playing football. We had two goal line stands and we won that football game. It was just instincts and I was glad I was there to make that play. We prepared hard and had a good time on Bourbon Street but we also took care of our responsibilities. We were excited to be there and we weren't over-confident."
An atmosphere of excellence permeated Alabama not only on game day but also during the daily practices according to McNeal. "Every game, we tried to go out and give our best. I didn't have a lot of interceptions (six). People just wouldn't throw it my way. I remember playing against LSU my senior year (1979). We won 3-0. Our defensive team said collectively, they have a great field goal kicker. We cannot let them past the 50-yard line. And that's what we did. We just worked hard Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. Saturday was a party. No showboating or anything like that. We just played football. We knew we were good. We just wanted to go out and prove it everyday."
About four years ago, McNeal found that he was diagnosed with MS (Multiple Sclerosis) and has relied on his faith to sustain a positive attitude. Talking about his circumstances, McNeal said, "I‘ve turned it over to God. I have a faith that's running real high. My faith is in Jesus Christ. He said in his word, ‘You can do all things in life thru Christ who strengthens me because the greater one lives in me.' I've turned it all over to him. I can't worry about it because I have too much to do. I have to go out and be a light for a lot of these young people and others in this world. I have a nickname for MS. Instead of multiple sclerosis, I call it ‘My Savior.' God is going to take care of it. He can handle it. I can't handle it so I'm going to go do what I have to do. I take a shot (injection) every night and vitamins and stay as healthy as I possibly can."
As a motivational speaker for Sports World Ministries, McNeal travels all over the country speaking to kids about drugs, alcohol and suicide. He is very committed to his faith and speaks about his message. "At the end I have a chance to tell them how I came to Jesus Christ. I am in the process of receiving my masters in counseling. Sports World Ministries is an organization based out of Indianapolis made up of 10-12 former athletes who speak all over the country trying to get kids to do the right thing. Our motto is you're not born a winner, you're not born a loser, you're born a chooser. You've got to choose to do the right thing. The right thing is through Jesus Christ. We try to be positive role models to young kids."
McNeal is also a pastor and part of a ministry team for the New Baptist Testament Church in south Florida where he counsels youth. McNeal's life has led him to assist others as he declared, "If I can touch someone else, and encourage somebody to be the best they can possibly be than that's what it's all about for me."
He still follows the progress of Alabama as much as he can living in Coral Gables, Florida with his wife, Rhonda. "I am a big fan of my alma mater. We've won 12 national championships so everyone's got to catch up to us. Alabama will be back." He travels to Tuscaloosa these days not only to rekindle his relationship with his beloved university but also as a proud Dad to visit his daughter, Jessica, who competes as a sprinter for the track and field team at Alabama.
Describing some of the relationships in his life, McNeal said, "I have a great family, great wife, great daughter, great brothers and sisters and great friends." What better can be spoken by a man about his family and friends?
Although McNeal's Dad died in 1985, his words and lessons will be passed on and inspirational for generations due to a son who understands that the game of life is still about the team.
Copies of the 124 page book "Home Team Advantage" can be purchased by clicking on the website, HYPERLINK "http://www.powerpublishinginc.com" www.powerpublishinginc.com or by calling 1-317-347-1051. Don McNeal will be making an appearance in Tuscaloosa at the A-Day Spring Football game, Saturday, April 21, at a site to be determined.
EDITOR'S NOTE: A.P. Steadham is a special features writer for ‘BAMA Magazine and BamaMag.com, concentrating on the lives of former Alabama athletes.