Florida's Mike McNeely becomes fake-kick folk hero


GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Twenty-four hours later, there's still no getting the smile off of Mike McNeely's face.

On Saturday, his fake-kick touchdown sparked the Florida Gators to a 38-20 upset over then-No. 11 Georgia in Jacksonville.

On Sunday, he worked at a Publix supermarket in Gainesville, as scheduled, from 1 to 8:45 p.m.

It was far from a normal shift.

McNeely took photos with fans and signed autographs on tickets, pictures and even receipts. He gave some high-fives and some hugs and, of course, bagged groceries, helped customers to their cars and collected shopping carts.

"I bag and cashier," he said after the game Saturday. "Sometimes, I call myself a 'bashier.' I only work on Sundays. Publix is really flexible with me. I’ve worked with the company since ’08."

It's been a whirlwind season for McNeely, a fifth-year senior wide receiver.

As a walk-on, he thought the most unforgettable day of his life had come in late August when head coach Will Muschamp, himself once a walk-on at Georgia, surprised McNeely and senior kicker Frankie Velez with scholarships.

Last week, McNeely found out he was accepted into UF medical school. Nothing could top that, right?

Then Saturday happened.

In the second quarter against Florida's biggest SEC rival, McNeely lined up as the holder for a 38-yard field-goal attempt on fourth-and-9. He ran the ball off right tackle, untouched, for a 21-yard touchdown that tied the game 7-7.

"It was a great call," McNeely said. "It was drawn up perfectly. The guys blocked. I know Tevin [Westbrook] had a great climb and Clay [Burton] kicked out. Frankie faking helped. All the linemen blocking, it was perfect. Hump [D.J. Humphries] said he had a knock-down.

"All I had to do was run. It worked just like it did in practice, so I knew where to hit it."

On the sideline, McNeeley was mobbed by teammates. His shoe came off, so he had to scramble to be ready to play on the kickoff coverage unit seconds later.

Momentum swung clearly to Florida's side, and McNeely's score brought the first six of 31 unanswered points.

"We really did start rolling after that, so that was great," he said.

The highlight of McNeely's life ranked No. 9 in Saturday’s "SportsCenter" top 10 plays. His postgame news conference was surreal, with dozens of media members crowding around his chair outside the Florida locker room at EverBank Field.

“For the rest of my life, I’ll be able to tell that story," he said. "It really is a lifelong memory.”

So is the thought of one former walk-on helping out another, as McNeely's TD keyed the victory that might have saved Muschamp's job.

Like the rest of his teammates, McNeely had heard all the criticism and felt all the pressure his coach was under. Playing a part in such a big win, he said, was extremely gratifying.

“We love Coach Muschamp," McNeely said. "He’s an awesome guy. We support him. He’s got all of our support. So we’re just so happy for him and thankful for him."

The feeling is mutual, as Muschamp spoke glowingly about McNeely after the game.

“Walk-on or scholarship, it doesn’t matter to me. The guy is a good football player," Muschamp said. "I mean, he’s earned his scholarship now.

"But he’s a hard-playing, quick, good athlete. I mean, he can line up and play receiver as well as some of our guys. That’s the type guy he is. I didn’t even blink putting him back there."

Muschamp said he uses McNeely's work ethic at Publix as an example for other players "all the time."

He's not alone.

On Sunday, Publix manager Dane Santiago described McNeely as a “phenomenal” employee who has rarely missed work on Sundays, even when his shift comes just hours after football games.

“He doesn’t get any special treatment or anything like that," Santiago said. “He’s gotten top marks in school, but he’s also done that here. All of his evals are considered role-model status, which is the top tier you can get.

"[He] shows up on time, does exactly what we ask him to do, if not more. He’s got a great attitude while he’s here -- always positive.”

McNeely, who makes close to $10 an hour, said he’ll continue to work at Publix until medical school starts next August.

He's excited about the next phase of his life, but for now, it's all about the Gators. Beating Georgia has given a slumbering team the shot of adrenaline it needed to finish the season strong.

It all started with McNeely's fake-kick touchdown.

“It’s great to get the ball rolling in the right direction," he said. "I’m looking forward to going back to work on Monday."