Marshall: Top Prospect Has Strong Bloodline

Phillip Marshall writes about the background of's No. 1 football prospect in the state of Alabama, Michael McNeil.

Michael McNeil can close his eyes and almost see him--the smiling man, throwing the football and shouting encouragement.

Those days in the yard with his father were delicious for a little boy growing up in Mobile. Michael Campbell looked forward to the day his two sons--Michael and Patrick McNeil--would do as he had done and play football.

But he never saw it happen.

When Michael was seven, his father was murdered, taken from his wife and two sons for the few dollars he had in his pocket.

"My daddy played football and always wanted to see me play, but he never got the chance," McNeil said on a hot day last summer. "He used to play with me a lot. I've always loved football. He never saw me play, but I play for him now. He's with me every time I play."

McNeil plays the game in a way that would surely make his father proud. His father would surely have been proud Tuesday, when he announced he would sign with Auburn next week.

"I work hard," McNeil said last summer. "I'm never going to be satisfied. I'm always going to try to get better."

Clifton McNeil, his grandfather sitting nearby, smiled. Athletic excellence is in the McNeil family bloodlines.

Clifton McNeil was a star wide receiver at Grambling. He played wide receiver for the world champion Cleveland Browns in 1964. He led the NFL in receiving with the San Francisco '49ers and made All-Pro in 1968. Older folks who knew him in his days at Central High School in Mobile say he could have had a long career as a major league baseball player.

When his son-in-law was killed, Clifton McNeil stepped in to help his daughter, Melodie Campbell, raise his grandsons. Today, he coaches wide receivers as a volunteer for the Davidson ninth-grade team. Patrick will be a sophomore linebacker next season.

"Their dad and I were very close," Clifton McNeil said. "His dream was to watch his boys play football. That's what he was talking to me about. His dad was a magnificent athlete himself."

Michael McNeil is rated as the No. 1 prospect in the state by The Huntsville Times and his hometown paper, The Mobile Press-Register.

Clifton McNeil, strong in his faith, says he believes his grandson is doing what he was meant to do, and that his father is proud to this day.

"Michael reminds so many people of his dad--the little crazy humor he has, the way he talks, his mannerisms," Clifton McNeil said. "I know his dad is proud. I believe, without a doubt, that Michael's dad is his biggest fan. His spirit is there with his son and his family."

Michael has opportunities his grandfather never had. Clifton McNeil was good enough to play in the Southeastern Conference. He was an outstanding student. But because he was black, the door was shut.

"I dreamed of playing for Michigan State or Florida A&M, and I had offers from both of them," Clifton McNeil said. "I ended up going to Grambling. My dad said ‘You want to let God open your eyes and go where He wants you to go.' I knew my dad wanted more for me than all the coaches and everybody else. It was the best decision I ever made in my life."

Clifton McNeil prays now that his grandson has made a decision that he one day will view as fondly as he views his decision to go to Grambling.

"You always have reservations," Clifton McNeil said on the day his son announced he would attend Auburn. "That's with any school. It would have been that way whoever he had chosen. Until he gets there and you see those relationships develop, you have those feelings as a parent."

Davidson coach Fred Riley has no doubt Michael will make an impact at Auburn. He's that kind of player, Riley says, and that kind of person.

"When Michael came as a ninth-grader, we knew we were going to finally have a true safety," Riley said. "We had just sort of rolled somebody back there as best we could. We hung our hats on him early."

It quickly became obvious that was a good move.

"When he was a 10th-grader, you could see flashes that this kid was going to be special," said Riley, who sent tight end Gabe McKenzie to Auburn in 2005. "We could do so many things in the secondary because of him. He totally controlled some games."

With sprinter's speed, McNeil is a ferocious hitter on the field. Off the field, he is soft-spoken, a favorite of his teammates, his coaches and his teachers.

"I never look down on anybody," McNeil said. "My teammates and I are all equal."

McNeil and his grandfather had a plan for the recruiting process and they stuck to it. When the decision was finally made, the announcement was low-key, like the player and the grandfather.

And on the day he finally made the big decision, when he stood on the brink of a great adventure, Michael McNeil remembered where it all started. He remembered the smiling man throwing a football to a little boy.

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