<
>

Davonte Neal's new beginning

2/23/2012

AHWATUKEE, Ariz. -- At 11:30 a.m. ET Tuesday, Davonte Neal was supposed to mark a new beginning.

Three weeks after national signing day, the No. 8 overall prospect in the ESPNU 150 had the national stage all to himself. He was going to declare a winner among four finalists -- Arkansas, Arizona, Notre Dame and North Carolina.

The novelty was not just its timing. Neal and his father, Luke Neal, who's played a significant role in his son's athletic career, planned to give a delicate twist to an old tradition.

Instead of signing his letter of intent at the high school from which he graduated, Scottsdale (Ariz.) Chaparral, one which he led to two state championships, Neal chose to announce at his former elementary school, Kyrene de la Esperanza in Ahwatukee, Ariz., a suburb southeast of Phoenix.

The symbolism of the setting was twofold. One, it was the place a 9-year-old, believe it or not, turned his life around.

A troubled child growing up with a single mother in Ohio, Davonte moved to Arizona with his father -- a man missing from most of his young life. Perhaps the product of figurative rebirth -- for Luke Neal endured his own struggles as an adult -- or stark realization and opportunity, Luke wanted back into his son's life.

Upon agreement with Davonte's mother, all three eventually headed out west, rendezvousing back on the path of life, hoping to leave their pasts in the dust.

"Mistakes happened often for me when I was in Ohio," Davonte Neal said. "I was in trouble all the time, suspended from school. Being at [Kyrene de la Esperanza] really structured me. You don't always have to fight. Fighting isn't the thing. There are other ways to resolve problems. This school helped me realize that."

Dr. Cheryl Green, principal of the elementary school and ostensibly master of ceremonies for Tuesday's event, fondly recalls Davonte's three years there.

"I remember the very first time I met him, he talked about playing in the NFL," Green said. "My kids ran track with him. It didn't matter what team you were from, everyone would stop to watch him run."

Neal wasn't just the prototypical prodigy: bigger, stronger and faster. Sure, a mythical athlete during recess endeared him to his peers, but it was an unassailable resolve in his studies that endeared him as a pupil.

Martha Takacs, Neal's third-grade teacher, told a story during Tuesday's event for the 600 elementary students of Neal's overcoming his struggles in math class -- never giving up. The moral, that there was one common denominator of a strong work ethic, had the children enraptured.

"Neal is very resilient," Green said. "He knew what he wanted to do, and he was not going to let anyone distract him from his goal."

But on the day one of Neal's greatest goals had been realized, with laudations crescendoing in the well-crafted tales of Neal's teachers, the yells of children who waved sticks glued to cut-out pictures of Davonte Neal's face seemed to fade as Green did her best to buy time: Why was the man of the hour an hour late?

Soon the collective fidgeting rate of the filled-to-capacity crowd seemed to create its own electrical current. As the minutes past, the moment of planned declaration continued to tick away; anxiety in the auditorium became increasingly palpable.

There was something else Green said about Neal that seemed to resonate on this day.

"There was always something going and somehow [Davonte] was always in the middle of it," Green said.

As calls from Green to Luke Neal's phone a half-hour after the planned announcement went unanswered, the principal decided to call off the event.

The symbolism of the setting -- an opportunity for an hour of purity, a respite from the unscrupulous interests that so often mar the sanctity of the life-changing decision-making process of an elite high school athlete -- quickly came crumbling down with reports that the reason for the no-show was that Neal and his father were fighting over which school he should choose.

Those reports centered on Arizona linebacker Cody Ippolito -- Neal's former teammate at Chaparral -- who was in attendance and wearing an Arizona sweatshirt during the time Neal was supposed to announce. Ippolito claimed that Neal wanted to go to Arizona while his father wanted him to go to Notre Dame.

Those reports went national. Neal's special day had become a public relations disaster.

It was supposed to be so simple.

"I kind of think of it as we are a neutral environment, we are away from all of the politics," Green said before the event.

The afternoon passed with reporters seeking answers and Twitter churning rumors. But later in the day, Neal and his father would arrive at the school. This time they wouldn't tell the media. Those who came back for Neal's college announcement -- that he would sign with Notre Dame -- made it only because they were tipped off by someone not linked directly to the Neal family.

After Davonte Neal's press conference in front of a handful of reporters on a stage that just hours earlier had seen an array of cameras searching for something to shoot, Davonte and Luke Neal explained why they didn't make it.

"It was a family situation that we would like to keep private right now," Luke Neal said. "We are going to try to deal with it within ourselves first."

Luke Neal said that someone in his family had been seriously injured, though he did not disclose any further details. Just weeks after one of Davonte Neal's cousins was killed in a car accident, Luke Neal said that another tragedy had beset the family in what should have been a time of celebration.

Tuesday's events would likely unsettle any 18-year-old.

"Things, you can't control them, it happens," Davonte Neal said.

While much should be said about Davonte Neal's pure physical ability -- a 4.47-second 40-yard dash, fluid hips, the strength to jar big receivers off their routes-- it's the appearance of unflappability that leaves the longest impression.

Neal, who somehow handled Tuesday with equal parts aplomb and grins, rarely deviates from an essence that seems to be fused from his challenging life experiences and an unalterable vision of his future.

"I don't what to be that person stuck in the 'what if,' stuck in the past, can't get past it," Neal said.

With his sights set on starting for the Irish at slot receiver as a true freshman, Neal said he chose Notre Dame for a chance at greater national exposure and an opportunity to earn the kind of degree that would provide a lucrative fallback option.

"It's not just about going to a school to get a degree and a mediocre job, you want to get a millionaire job," Neal said.

From the drawn-out recruitment process, to his saying he wants to win a Heisman Trophy, Neal doesn't shy away from grandiosity. He seems comfortable talking about the upper stratosphere without giving the impression he's just hot air and hubris, though Neal proves it's not a line that can always be straddled.

"My dad has taught me to stay grounded," Neal said. "No one likes a big-headed jerk. Just stay humble, stay grounded, and people will like you more for the person that you are and not the person you think you will become."

Sure, it's true that as a freshman, he once signed an autograph at a restaurant for a 4-year-old using a crayon. But that child was the son of one of Neal's mentors, Ray Pino, a teacher at Neal's first high school, Cesar Chavez. Pino wanted to see how Neal, already a nationally publicized athlete who'd received a football scholarship offer, would handle it.

"It just floored him," Pino said. "That was the reaction I was looking for."

Early Tuesday, a video montage for Neal showed him cross-training on the now legendary "Thrill Hill," just blocks away from the school. It's a 2.5-mile cross-country trail that Neal would find himself on in the middle of many Phoenix summer days, where temperatures rise upward of 110 degrees.

The odd thing was that Neal didn't look miserable. He was running, but not running away from the heat, or the moment, for shade or cover.

Maybe Neal has built himself up to look that way so that he can handle days like Tuesday. Maybe he wants no part of the circus that seems to have enveloped him the last two years.

"I'm just happy that it is all over," Neal said of Tuesday's decision. "Happy that the madness is over and I can put all of this behind me."

Maybe this really is a new beginning.