It was the spring of 2005. Mike McNeill was a junior in high school. He was at home in Kirkwood, and he had just gotten the mail. There was a letter from Nebraska, but he wasn't quite sure what it meant. He thought they were offering him a scholarship. He asked his mom to read the letter. Afterward, she thought the same thing. They weren't quite certain. So they actually called the Nebraska recruiter and asked, "Does this mean you are offering a scholarship?" The recruiter laughed before telling them yes, they were offering.
McNeill didn't play any organized football until his freshman year at Kirkwood. He was too busy playing select soccer (indoor and outdoor). He loved soccer. However, he tried football and his skills were undeniable. McNeill exploded his junior year for the Pioneers catching 44 balls over 800 yards as the tight end position. (Keep in mind, the other target was a guy named Jeremy Maclin.) McNeill kept getting bigger and stronger. He is now 6-foot-4, 235 pounds with 4.6-second 40-yard dash speed and a 35-inch vertical jump.
Those physical gifts, along with great hands, is the reason Mizzou, Kansas, Illinois, Wisconsin, Colorado and Texas Tech—along with Nebraska—also offered scholarships. At Nebraska, McNeill set the school record for receptions by a tight end with 32 in his sophomore season. He started for three years and scored a touchdown against Mizzou in Columbia. He went undrafted but the Colts signed shortly afterward. He spent last season on their practice squad before making it with the Rams this year. McNeill is not starting but he's playing quite a bit and getting some work on special teams.
At age 24, Mike McNeill's best football is ahead of him. I caught up with him shortly before he got on the team plane for London.
They were the first to offer. They believed me in right away. They had an NFL coach at the time and I thought he could help me get to the League. When I visited there, there was no better facility or game-day atmosphere.
How painful was draft day?
It was disappointing. It does go through your mind, Why didn't I get drafted? or Was I good enough? However, I knew I would get a chance. The Colts called during the draft and told me that they wanted me to come to Indy.
When did you know you had some real talent?
I was never really much bigger or stronger. I was athletic. I was fairly smart in the way I ran my routes. I did some good things my junior year. I started lifting weights. I knew I had chance to get to college and play.
How about the awe stage of being in Indy with Peyton Manning?
It was crazy. I grew up watching him—everybody did. He was a really nice guy. I didn't get to play with him because of his injury. I did play catch with him. He was fun to watch in meetings and be around. His knowledge of football was incredible.
What are your goals and how do you achieve them?
Right now, I am a backup. My goal is to be a starter. I have a decent skill set, but I have to be a little heavier and a little stronger.
What is that NFL paycheck like?
It's awesome. You get to play the game you love. I have friends who sit in a cubicle and they get a fraction of what I get. It's definitely a blessing.
Five Things I Think:
1. Twenty-seven of the players on the Rams roster from last season are no longer playing football. How bad was that organization? The worst five-year run in NFL history.
2. The Cardinals have more flame-throwing young right-handed pitchers in the organization than they have ever had. The Bill Dewitt era is the best we have ever had it.
3. Why would any woman need to have surgery on her body? All they have to do is go to Lululemon and buy those athletic clothes, and you look like Jessica Alba. It's like a successful diet without having anything do with food. You lose 20 pounds by putting on the clothes. OK, enough of my thoughts on women's clothes.
4. It's a sign of age or maturity—or me just being boring—but I find myself watching the political shows more than SportsCenter nowadays.
5. I don't know what Lindenwood University has more of: new, brick-and-stone buildings or beauty pageant contestants enrolled in school.