The CR Interview

Don McNeal

The co-captain of Alabama’s 1979 national championship team talks about his textbook tackle on Penn State’s Scott Fitzkee, the enduring influence of his father, and the dark day when he was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis
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Photo courtesy of Bryant Museum.
McNeal was a three-year starter for Alabama teams that finished a combined 34-2, winning three straight SEC titles and two national championships.

More than a decade ago, Don McNeal was dealt a devastating blow. But he has shown remarkable determination in dealing with Multiple Sclerosis, becoming an inspiration to his family and friends and audiences across the country who have heard him share his very personal story. He grew up tough, one of 11 children raised by a widowed sharecropper near Atmore, Alabama. But in Tuscaloosa, he became a prototypical defensive back during a golden age—the man whose perfect tackle set up the Goal-Line Stand in the 1979 Sugar Bowl against Penn State. In his senior season of 1979, the consensus All-American co-captained a defensive unit that ranks among the greatest in Bama history. McNeal, later selected as a member of Alabama’s Centennial Football Team, was a first round draft choice of the Miami Dolphins, where he enjoyed a long and distinguished career. Twice named the club’s Player of the Year, he was later honored as a member of the Dolphins’ Silver Anniversary Team.

 

CR: Tell me about the pivotal moment that started you playing football.

McNeal: Coach Brantley stopped me in P.E. class [at Escambia County High School] and asked me to come out. I could run fast and jump high. I guess I was a good athlete and he saw something in me…I said, ’Man, I can’t play football. I’ve never been exposed to it at all.’ But he kept hounding me and I said I would try it, [believing] my dad would say no. Initially, he did say no. He said, ’You’ve got too many things to do in the evening time. You’ve got to tend to this mule, you’ve got to feed these chickens. Slop those hogs.’ Because we lived on a farm and there was a of stuff to do. I was happy he said that, because I really didn’t want to play anyway. Dad said no initially but eventually he changed his mind. He said, ’Don, I don’t think anything’s gonna happen out of this football but you go out and play. But you better give your all.’ And I did that. And he was grateful, he really was.

CR: Tell me about your dad.

McNeal: My dad was a sharecropper. He was a man. He raised us all by himself. My mother died when I was six years old. I have six sisters and four brothers. There’s 11 of us. My father raised us all by himself. Sharecropper. Grew cucumbers. Peas. Beans. Grew corn. My dad raised us all by himself. He didn’t really have to do that. But he made the statement, and I’ll never forget it: ’Together we stand, and divided, you guys will fall away.’ I remember the day of [my mother’s] funeral, and I was a little boy. When I got a little older, I asked my dad, ’Why did you stay there with us?’ He said, ’Because I love you guys.’ And see, I thought my dad was the meanest person in the world, because he used to whip my butt every day. I had a whuppin’ every day of my life. I thought my father hated me. But I found out I needed that discipline, and that my father loved me tremendously. So talk about role models? Everybody talks about Michael Jordan and all those guys who play basketball and football as role models. No. My role model is my father. That’s my role model. As I talk about him now, I get kind of choked up. I really do.

CR: What did your father teach you about the value of hard work?

McNeal: Oh, man. He taught me so much about working hard. See, I had to plow a mule my whole life growing up. I plowed a stinking mule. I hated it! But my father made me do things that I didn’t want to do and I’m so glad he did. People say: ’Sounds like your dad was a mean man.’ But you know what? He wasn’t mean enough. Because he taught me the value of life…stay there, keep working, don’t run out on my family. And that’s one thing I will never do. And my father taught me about that.

 

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