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When his mother remarried, the family moved to the Carson-Wilmington area, a few miles north of San Pedro, and two years later McNeil was the most sought-after high school player in California.
"I remember Woody Hayes once came to Banning High to talk to me about going to Ohio State," McNeil says. "I visited Washington and Nebraska. At Nebraska they took me to see their weight room. I'd started bodybuilding in high school; I'd compete in the weightlifting contest in our league. The Nebraska weight room wasn't impressive. Boyd Epley, their strength coach, said they were going to put in a new one. [That weight room, completed this year, is among the most impressive in the college ranks.] It was snowing that day. The wind was bitter; I mean the hawk was really flying. I kept slipping on the ice. I thought, uh uh, this is definitely not for me."
USC was firmly in the hunt, naturally, but McNeil says, "I just didn't feel right there. It wasn't my personality. It's hard to explain, but did you ever go someplace and you just didn't feel comfortable? What it finally came down to was Frank Gansz and UCLA. They did a very smart thing when they assigned him to recruit me, because he was one of the finest people I ever met."
McNeil played behind Theotis Brown, now with the Seattle Seahawks, and James Owens, now with the Buccaneers, his first two seasons. Then in 1979 the Bruins tailored their offense to McNeil, using the I formation, which he'd run out of at Banning High, and the yardage started piling up.
McNeil rushed for 1,105 yards his senior year and made a couple of All-America teams, those that picked three backs. The other two spots were filled, unanimously, by Heisman winner George Rogers and the sensational freshman, Herschel Walker.
McNeil had been projected as a high draft pick all along, possibly even a first-rounder, but the pro scouts wanted to know if he could catch the ball. The question was answered in the USC game, the next to last of the season. Third and long, UCLA trailing 17-13 with a little over two minutes to play, ball on the UCLA 42. Jay Schroeder, the quarterback, was flushed out of the pocket and he threw to McNeil, running down the left sideline, but he didn't get much on the ball, and Jeff Fisher, the USC cornerback, stepped up to go for the interception.
"People have written that the ball bounced off Fisher's pads," McNeil says. "Anyway, that's what he told everybody. But I'd like to get the record straight. He had intercepted the pass, and I tipped it out of his hands. Dennis Smith, their free safety, dove for the ball; Ronnie Lott, the roverback, was coming from the other side. He'd come clear across the field. I tipped the ball from my left hand to my right and kept going."
Fifty-eight yards for the winning touchdown. It was one of those plays that will live forever in scouting lore, a little triangle of extreme talent battling for a football, three first-round draft choices—Smith (Broncos), Lott (49ers) and McNeil (Jets)—in one frozen tableau. McNeil won, and in their little notebooks the scouts wrote, "Has hands. Feet. Ball adjustment. Concentration."
"That play," says the Patriots' director of player development, Dick Steinberg, "was probably worth $300,000 to McNeil." Instead of a first-round draft he was now a high first-rounder, very high. The Jets chose him No. 3, after New Orleans had taken Rogers and the Giants Lawrence Taylor. Most scouts had McNeil rated higher than Rogers on speed and pass-catching.
The Jets were a funny kind of offensive team. In 1979 they had led the NFL in rushing without placing a runner in the top 12. Five backs shared the load, operating behind one of pro football's finest offensive lines—Marvin Powell and Chris Ward at the tackles, Randy Rasmussen and Dan Alexander at guard, Joe Fields at center. The team finished 8-8. Next year the Jets switched gears and tried to go long ball with Wesley Walker and Johnny (Lam) Jones. They threw more than they ran, and the season ended at 4-12.