Saturday changed everything for the fifth-year senior -- except his work schedule. After his touchdown sparked Florida to end a three-game losing streak against Georgia and possibly saving Will Muschamp’s job, the former walk-on still had his Sunday afternoon shift at Publix.
“(That) was the most interesting shift that I’ve had,” McNeely said. “I really enjoyed it. It was fun.”
Customers stopped to take pictures with McNeely. He signed autographs on store receipts for multiple shoppers, while his fellow Publix employees kept joking with him about the newfound fame. McNeely even recalled one man taking multiple selfies with him at the grocery store after checking out.
McNeely’s parents were observing all of it. They went to the game in Jacksonville and stayed at their son’s apartment in Gainesville on Saturday night following the game. They all went to breakfast and church on Sunday morning before McNeely had to work, but his parents weren’t ready to leave yet.
McNeely’s brother also works at Publix, so they spent time at the store observing all the craziness that came to the store.
“I think one of the more unique things is having people who I don’t know recognize me,” Michael McNeely said. “That certainly has never happened before in my life.”
The dream of the play began early last week. Florida was putting in its game plan for the Bulldogs when the coaches approached him about the idea of the play. They ran through it multiple times at practice, but there was one thing Florida had to see before running the fake in the game.
Generally when teams line up to block a field goal being attempted from the hash, the defense loads up the field side, leaving the boundary -- the shorter side of the field -- with fewer players on it. McNeely and the Florida special teams unit had to make sure that was the case since they were running the fake to the boundary.
What followed was his first touchdown since the all-star game that followed his senior season of high school football on a 25-yard post pattern. This one was much bigger, both for himself and on a national level.
It was another big moment in a three-week span for McNeely, who found out on October 15 that he was accepted into Florida’s medical school.
“There’s a lot more popularity involved with (the touchdown),” McNeely said with a smile. “They’re both unbelievable. I’m just so thankful for these opportunities. The Lord has blessed me so much. I don’t know that I’d rank one more highly than the other. They’re both just so incredible.”
Education was always an important part of McNeely’s childhood. He never knew what an offseason from sports was, going from football to basketball to baseball with soccer also in the mix. But if those grades started to slip, his parents wouldn’t have hesitated to yank him off the field.
The threat of no sports was a serious one. McNeely’s grades were always good, garnering football interest from Dartmouth and Harvard. It didn’t work out with either school, and McNeely isn’t sure if he would have gone anyway. The chance to wear a Florida uniform meant a lot to him.
“If I could go back, I would definitely choose this every single time," McNeely said.
What made Saturday special was the surprise element. McNeely wasn’t a familiar name to almost any Florida fans. He received a scholarship at the end of fall camp, and it was obvious how much the coaches and players respected him. It has only grown this year.
McNeely’s teammates have talked about his unselfishness. He’s one of the first to put his arm around a player having a rough day and offer encouragement. That’s why the other Florida players have enjoyed McNeely’s moment in the spotlight so much. They see the quiet player usually in the background now ending up on the most famous sports websites and television shows across the country.
“I've always just gone about working my hardest and doing my best,” McNeely said. “That's the way I was raised. My mom and my dad -- I was also taught growing up, regardless of who's watching, the Lord's watching and you should work to please Him and not others. I had the opportunity to play, so I certainly didn't receive this type of press or anything like that, but it's not as though I wasn't having the opportunity to go out there and play.
“It's been wonderful this year, but it's not as though I didn't have any reward. I think it's such a blessing to play for the Gators anyway. That in itself was a dream come true and certainly enough of an inspiration for me."