A matured Reggie McNeal eventually becomes the real deal
By Rusty Burson
12th Man Magazine
Looking back now on a collegiate and professional football career that was ultimately filled with far more exasperation than exhilaration, former Texas A&M quarterback Reggie McNeal—once known by the nickname "Real Deal"—acknowledges that an appropriate moniker to describe the last decade for him could be "real ordeal."
The 29-year-old from Lufkin is now out of football after appearing in just a handful of regular-season NFL games in 2006 and spending four years in the Canadian Football League. He is hindered—some days more than others—by a bad back as a result of a serious injury he suffered in the CFL; he’s endured a series of bad financial and physical breaks since leaving A&M; and he’s undoubtedly been the victim of some bad decisions, some of his own and some made by others regarding him.
He does not, however, have a bad attitude regarding anything. In fact, McNeal’s mature outlook on life and positive perspectives regarding his past and his future are as promising today as the raw athletic skills he first brought to College Station in 2002.
He readily concedes that his football career could have been—and should have been—so much better, but he refuses to be bitter. And, while he can’t go back in time to make amends for a football career gone awry, he is back at A&M these days finishing up his degree plan in hopes of one day entering the coaching profession.
He is taking 12 semester hours this fall, driving in from Houston two days a week, and he plans on taking 12 more hours in the spring to earn his degree and walk the stage.
He no longer has elaborate, pie-in-the-sky plans based on earning fame and fortune as a professional athlete. His focus has shifted from using A&M as a stepping stone to the NFL to using an A&M degree as a foundation for his future in the real world. And, while he was once only concerned with net yards and his future net worth, he is now fully aware of the value of the Aggie network.
"I wish I had the same level of the maturity then that I have now," said McNeal, who was quite possibly the most highly touted and celebrated high school quarterback prospect to ever sign with Texas A&M. "There is so much now that I have seen and I know, and to this day, I still feel like I am misunderstood by some people because I am not the most vocal guy. I am laid back, and I guess some people take that as me being lazy or not caring. That’s not the case at all, but I did make my share of mistakes as a student-athlete here, and I’d love to have the chance to go back in time and do some things differently.
"But, while I have some regrets, one thing I have never regretted is being an Aggie. I wish things had worked out differently for me and the teams that I played on, but I have always been proud to represent A&M, and I really want to earn my degree from this university. Sometimes, it takes being away to realize just how much you appreciate A&M. I’ve been to two games already this year (Florida and South Carolina State), and I can’t tell you how good it has made me feel to be welcomed back by the fans. This university is one in a million."
Interestingly, the same was often said about McNeal as he was producing one heroic performance after another in high school. After leading Lufkin to a 15-1 record and the 2001 Class 5A Division II state title, McNeal was viewed as the "can’t-miss kid," a dual-threat gunslinger with a rifle arm, amazingly fast feet and a larger-than-life prep reputation that made him appear to stand as tall as the East Texas pine trees in his hometown.
"He is special, there’s no doubt about that," McNeal’s high school coach, John Outlaw, said on National Signing Day in 2002. "He is going to do some great things at Texas A&M. He’s not going to disappoint."
McNeal seemed well on his way to achieving his collegiate rock star/Superman status as a true freshman, playing in the first game of the ’02 season—as opposed to redshirting—and later leading A&M to a stunning upset of No. 1 Oklahoma. In the 30-26 win over OU on Nov. 9, 2002, McNeal came off the bench and stepped into stardom by tossing four touchdown passes. In the aftermath of that glowing performance, McNeal appeared on the front page of The New York Times and was quite literally the national media darling in college football.
At least for one week.
Unfortunately, the victory over OU turned out to be the most memorable mountaintop moment of McNeal’s collegiate career…and it was immediately followed by a deep dive into the valley. One week after the euphoria of the OU triumph, McNeal started the first game of his collegiate career, but he didn’t complete it. He injured his ankle against a bad Missouri team, and the Aggies lost in double overtime. A&M then lost to Texas, 50-20, to finish the regular season at 6-6.
The man who recruited him and vowed to tailor the offensive future around him, R.C. Slocum, was fired; Dennis Franchione, who brought in a rather archaic offensive philosophy, was hired; and the Herculean accomplishments that so many predicted for McNeal never really transpired.
In fairness, McNeal was magnificent at times during Franchione’s first three seasons at A&M, leaving Aggieland with career records for total offense and total passing yards that have since been broken. But in his four years at A&M, McNeal was part of only one winning season (7-5 in 2004) and the Aggies’ overall record during that time was just 22-25.
Meanwhile, the man who McNeal had so often been compared to—first in high school and later in college—led Texas to the 2005 national championship. Vince Young and Reggie McNeal first appeared together in a photo in the Houston Chronicle’s recruiting coverage. Later, they appeared together on magazine covers and various websites.
Young, who attended Madison High School in Houston, redshirted his first season, and Mack Brown and the Longhorns designed their offense around his numerous skills. In 2004, Young led the Longhorns to an 11-1 record, and a year later, he capped the national championship run with a dominating performance against USC in the Rose Bowl. Young then decided to leave early for the NFL Draft, where he was selected by the Titans with the third overall pick.
McNeal was also selected in that same NFL Draft, but after several injuries and a couple of up-and-down seasons in Franchione’s option-oriented system, McNeal was selected in the sixth round by the Cincinnati Bengals...as a wide receiver.
"It really ticked me off when Coach Slocum was fired, and I was honestly very close to leaving A&M at that point," McNeal said. “I love this school and everything that has to do with the people, what it represents, the support you receive here and so forth. But I knew the type of offense Coach Fran ran, because he recruited me at Alabama and I didn’t go there because I didn’t want to be part of that system.
"After it was announced that Fran was coming here, Coach Outlaw told me that Miami had a scholarship waiting for me if I wanted to transfer. But I ultimately decided to stay because Coach Fran said he was going to open the offense up. In hindsight, that wasn’t the case, and that ’03 season that included the 77-0 loss to OU was worse than anyone could have imagined. There were a lot of reasons for that, but I just never really felt like I was a good fit in Fran’s system. We had a pretty good season in ’04, but it didn’t end well in ’05."
The ’05 season ended with McNeal being injured in a loss at Oklahoma, and he did not even suit up in the season finale against Texas, although that was not by his choice, he says.
Despite the extremely disappointing end to his collegiate career, McNeal was so impressive at the NFL Combine and in workouts in College Station—where he ran back-to-back 40-yard dashes in sub-4.3 times—the Bengals took a chance on him as a receiver. But he didn’t receive much of a chance to ever play. In fact, the only statistic McNeal recorded in the NFL came on Dec. 18, 2006 when he lined up at quarterback and scrambled for eight yards on third down, giving the Bengals a first down.
That was it. No other carries. No catches. Nothing. He was released on Sept. 1, 2007, and he began searching for a place to land in the CFL. He had some decent seasons north of the border, but there wasn’t much money to be made, and an injury officially ended his dream of playing well enough in the CFL to eventually receive one more shot at the NFL. He was released on Aug. 12, 2011 by the Edmonton Eskimos, and he came back to Houston to be close to his 5-year-old son and to contemplate his future.
Ultimately, he decided to finish what he started at A&M. He is now back in the classroom two days a week, and he is looking for part-time work to help him cover expenses while he is finishing his degree. And in addition to returning to the classroom, he also served as the honorary captain prior to the Sept. 22 game against South Carolina State. When he was introduced prior to the game, McNeal received a resounding ovation.
"It was a great feeling to be recognized, and I had chills going down my body," McNeal said. "It was a feeling that I can’t explain. It felt like I never left, and I just wish I could have gone out there and played. What really struck me, though, was how people stopped me in the parking lot before and after the game and told me how much they appreciated me. What other fan base would do that? I didn’t have the career here that I had hoped, but they still appreciate me…only in Aggieland.
"I will say that I’m jealous of this offense that Coach (Kevin) Sumlin is running here. He was my offensive coordinator in my first year here under Coach Slocum, and this is the offense I envisioned. I love watching Johnny Manziel out there running around, making things happen and electrifying the stadium. I look at him and think he could be a lighter-skinned version of me. He has a lot of talent, and this system really fits him. It’s nice to see."
It also would have been nice to see the system fit McNeal many years ago. But there’s no point worrying about the past anymore, McNeal says. He is back at A&M on a mission, attacking the rest of his degree requirements with real zeal.