A Look Back: Reggie McNeal

Coming out of Lufkin High, quarterback Reggie McNeal was one of the premier athletes coming out of the state. Then he moved on to do big things at Texas A&M and from there to the NFL. Lots have gone on since that time. Scout.com had a talk with McNeal to see what is the latest.

Reggie McNeal's talent has always been there, front and center above most of his contemporaries. It just took awhile before his focus and maturity came along for the ride.

Oh, he can still throw a football 60-plus yards on one knee, run a blistering 4.3 in the 40-yard dash, and at 6'2, the lean-built 200-pounder looks ready for his book of redemption to write a new chapter in a similar manner to Ben Roethlisberger and Michael Vick.

Over the past three years, McNeal's journey has taken him through a humbling fall from grace, the tragic loss of a close friend and the birth of his first son. Through it all, the former "can't miss" quarterback from Texas A&M has found himself and is now rewriting a story that seemed headed for the "wasted talent" section of the library of sports potential.

"I'm where I want to be in life," said McNeal. "The only thing missing is another chance to play in the National Football League. If I get a chance to do that, I'll be grateful and will make the most of it."

McNeal has spent much of the last year rebuilding an image that was tarnished by the failed expectations from his college career and a brief NFL stint. Having spent the last three seasons with the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League, the Lufkin native is bidding for an opportunity to sign with an NFL franchise.

Armed with a new agent (Bill Mattis) and the tutelage of a Hall of Famer (Elvin Bethea) McNeal has spent most of his time working out, studying film ("I have to admit that I'm a film junkie"), preparing to return to college and speaking to high school athletes about avoiding the mistakes he made along the way.

"It's important to talk to these kids," the 27-year-old said. "They can hear it from a coach, but sometimes it can go in one ear and right out the other. I think that as an athlete who has been where they want to be, it can make more of an impact. They need to know that all of your blessings can go right out of the door if you take them for granted."

The father of 3-year-old Reggie, Jr., the senior McNeal points to the birth of his son (August 9, 2007) as the moment the lights came on. At that moment, the single-minded life of the party embraced responsibility for his past transgressions and officially started on the path toward reviving not only his NFL dreams, but his life altogether.

"That day," he said with the smile of a proud father. "That day I realized I wanted my little man to always be proud of me. No one ever questioned my athletic ability; it was always a question about the decisions I made off the field. He's my driving force and I don't want to do wrong by him."

McNeal has spoken to dozens of high schools and has also hosted a series of football camps. He is excited about hosting a camp in his hometown of Lufkin, where he won a state 5A championship and was named the top offensive player in the nation in his senior year.

He has also dedicated his efforts in returning to college; McNeal is taking online courses to begin completion of his Kinesiology and plans to attend Texas A&M during the summer to finish the final hours of an unfinished goal.

The page has been turned on his topsy-turvy career under center in College Station. McNeal experienced the highs of being named top the All-Big 12 first team as a junior and the lows of a disappointing senior campaign that led to a 5-6 record and questions about his leadership skills. There was also the challenge of going from R.C. Slocum to Dennis Franchione as head coach to go along with three offensive coordinators (including current University of Houston head coach Kevin Sumlin) and a variety of quarterback coaches that helped contribute to his roller coaster stint.

"I will always love Texas A&M," he said. "It's been awhile since I've been on campus, but that's only because of my schedule with the (Toronto) Argonauts. I don't hold any ill will toward anyone there. The past is the past. At the end of the day, I'm always going to root for the Aggies."

A return to the NFL is as close as it has been since McNeal was released by the Bengals prior to the beginning of the 2007 regular season. He has made contact with several teams and is expected to sign a contract within the next couple of weeks.

McNeal had a chance in 2006, when he was selected by the Cincinnati Bengals in the sixth round of the draft. Originally selected as a wide receiver, McNeal made his only regular season appearance under center late that year when he recorded an 8-yard run on a Monday night against the Indianapolis Colts.

An arrest for allegedly pushing an off-duty Houston police officer at a club in December 2006 helped label him as a party hound who seemed more focused on the limelight that came with being the NFL, a tag McNeal readily admits helped contribute to his struggles.

"Wrong friends....wrong crowd," he said. "It was easy to get caught in the trappings of being in the league. There would be mornings where we'd have team meetings at 8 a.m., and I would come in having partied until 6 a.m.

"The moment you get drafted is the moment you become a man. When you're a pro, most of your time is focused on working out and practicing. You have to be smart about utilizing your free time. I didn't do that."

McNeal's stint with the Bengals allowed him the opportunity to forge a friendship with Chris Henry, an equally talented yet troubled receiver who struggled to avoid the pitfalls that attempted to swallow both he and McNeal whole. The pair became good friends and stayed in touch while Henry slowly found his way in Cincinnati and McNeal doing the same in Toronto.

The bond was broken on the afternoon of December 16, 2009. The pair had their usual conversation about football, life and family; shortly after they hung up, Henry got into an argument with his fiancée, resulting in his getting thrown out of a moving truck, where he suffered a devastating brain injury that killed him the following morning.

"I miss him.... there's not a day I don't think about him," said McNeal. "He helped me tremendously, not just on the field, but off it as well. What really hurts is that Chris was heading in the right direction with his life...there are times during the day where I know he's looking down on me to make sure I'm on the right track."

Henry, along with Pro Bowlers Chad (Johnson) Ochocinco and T.J. Houshmanzadah, provided McNeal with a first-rate lesson on becoming a receiver. Those lessons have served him well in his time in the fast-break nature of the CFL, where he has caught 80 passes for 1,090 yards (13.6 ypc) and five touchdowns in his three seasons.

The door remains open for McNeal to return with the Argonauts this July, but while he welcomes the chance to play in Canada, the book on his NFL life represents an unwritten story that needs a happy ending.

"We'll see what happens," he said. "We're making calls and feel confident we'll have something in place before the (NFL) lockout.

"Most of all, my life looks pretty good now. That took some time to be able to say that, but I'm going to keep grinding daily on and off the field to make it better. I want people to remember this version of Reggie McNeal instead of the one that came fresh out of college. I want my image and name stand for something greater than what it once was."

-Ahmard Vital-

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