"Most people say 'how can you spend all your time with them.' I just say 'I just could and it'd be one of my best days,'" he said. "They're my best friends."
Stephanie, 10, and Papi, 8, are the reasons McNeal steps onto the football field. Every night, after the redshirt junior finishes up class, Stephanie calls him before she falls asleep. When he's not scoring two touchdowns at USC's Spring Game or terrorizing defensive backs during practice, he's visiting Papi.
"I love them and they love me and I just feel good when I'm with them," McNeal said.
For a guy who burns through tackles like they're cobwebs, McNeal's physicality is only translated off the field in hugs when he sees other members of the McNeal family.
And McNeal truly was a star as a Gondolier, rushing for nearly 1,400 yards in the 2007 season, scoring 19 touchdowns, while playing two-ways. In 2006, this star became an All-L.A. City first team player who ran for more than 2,000 yards and scored a whopping 42 touchdowns. By star, Kolbrenner means McNeal is a menace on the football field, with a ball in his hands or not.
"My teammates and I idolized him for the way he was on the field. The only way you could impress us was on the field. He always seemed to defy authority because he knew he was the best. He played as if he had nothing to lose," Kolbrenner said.
That nothing-to-lose mentality might have gotten McNeal into trouble last year at USC. The man nicknamed for his moody behavior became academically ineligible for the 2010 season. After redshirting his freshman year and making only brief stints on special teams in 2009, the sideline has become too-familiar-for-comfort for Moody.
"When he went to USC we all kind of saw his obstacles we thought 'wow this is going to be nearly impossible he has all these guys in front of him' but I don't think that phased him at all," Kolbrenner said.
McNeal knew the competition would be steep before committing to USC. As he wavered between schools he would babysit Stephanie and Papi. He knew as a Trojan he'd be in a good position to show his skills, in front of NFL scouts and, most important, in front of Stephanie and Papi.
"You pretty much take it as their life is in your hands, and you want to be in the position to make their life better," he said.
McNeal is the prototypical scat back, using his low center of gravity to move quickly and dodge defenders, and he lists Barry Sanders as his role model. But McNeal said he has another role model in Jaguars' power back Maurice Jones-Drew and thinks he can play both running back styles if needed.
"[Coach Kennedy] Pola said to play like [Drew] because I want to prove that a small guy can start in the league and produce at a high level," McNeal said.
Producing at a high level doesn't seem unrealistic after McNeal's trailblazing Spring. When injuries plagued main tailbacks Marc Tyler and Dillon Baxter this offseason, McNeal showcased his abilities. He built confidence through badly needed repetition. That confidence led Lane Kiffin to say McNeal has "come a long way." On the Trojans' final offseason depth chart, McNeal saw his name on par with Tyler and Baxter.
But earning the starting running back spot in the fall isn't just a goal to McNeal, it's a responsibility--no a duty-- to Stephanie and Papi.
"To earn that this year, that'd probably make them cry," he said. "Instead of the camera showing me on the sidelines they'll show me running the ball like in high school."
It's not about size or grades now, that's chump stuff for McNeal, stuff he's battled. And he's not hoping for change in 2011, he's demanding it. For Stephanie and Papi.
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