Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, step right up and meet the latest oddity in the NFL's traveling sideshow, kick returner Gerald McNeil of the Cleveland Browns. He's cool, he's slippery and, yes, he's small—from Killeen, Texas, he's the Ice Cuuuube!
With two lightning-strike touchdown returns to his credit already, McNeil is becoming one of this year's football folk heroes, his legend fueled by a surefire nickname and a decidedly non-NFL shape, the same factors that spawned America's favorite cartoon character of 1985, William Perry. But the Cube, as he's called, is a different kettle of fish from the Refrigerator, to mix kitchen metaphors. Not only is McNeil, at 5'7", 140, a tad smaller than the leviathan Perry, but also he's on the opposite end of several other spectra. Perry lumbers, McNeil darts; Perry is layered with baby fat, McNeil is tightly packed; Perry struggles with his speech, McNeil is garrulous.
All this attention is nothing new to McNeil. "He's always been a phenomenon at every level he's played," says Gerald's brother and agent, Pat. The Cube was an All-America wide receiver at Baylor from 1980 to '83, where his ice capades set school records for receptions (163) and yards receiving (2,651). Then came the move to the USFL's Houston team, where McNeil caught 58 passes for 1,017 yards in '85. Finally, last August, McNeil joined the Browns after the great emancipation freed the USFL's masses yearning to seek employment elsewhere.
Let historians note that the nickname was conceived on McNeil's first day in training camp with the Browns. Oddly enough it has absolutely nothing to do with Perry. McNeil was sitting in the cafeteria with punter Jeff Gossett when Gossett noticed a spilled ice cube on the table. "Look at this," Gossett said, "how slippery it is. That's you. I'm going to start calling you our Ice Cube."
Through it all, McNeil's family has been his foundation. The youngest of four boys, McNeil, 24, is also by far the smallest. His oldest brother, Danny, goes 270 or thereabouts. Ira, next in line, is 6'2" and 175. Pat weighs in at 210. "It's pretty funny, looking at family pictures," says McNeil. "It's like I don't belong there." But how does the Cube avoid being converted to crushed ice? "Even when you get a shot at him, you never get a clean one," says Cleveland head coach Marty Schottenheimer. "He's got such tremendous speed [4.4 officially, though he's run several 4.3s] and quickness." His return averages—13.6 on punts, 25.8 on kickoffs—rank him third in the league in both categories.
McNeil's next goal is to get more playing time at wide receiver. Given his past receiving success, that seems likely. A marriage to Paula Harris, 22, of Houston, is also in the offing. His brother Pat thinks a more settled life will cause Gerald to fill out some, perhaps to as much as 160. Not to worry, Fridge.