All for them: McNeal turns adversity into motivation


Elliott Pratt

A tattoo featuring two faces stretches across Willie McNeal’s chest.

On the right side of his chest is a portrait of a woman’s face — on the left, a man’s. In between the two faces is a cross with the words “Rest In Peace” written on a scroll.

It serves as a reminder of the long road McNeal has taken to get to this point as a redshirt senior heading into his final season as a wide receiver for WKU.

McNeal’s mother, Linda Jackson died when he was 13. His father passed away two years later.

“Life wasn’t easy,” McNeal said. “My family would struggle. Living with my mom, who was a single parent, she did her best to take care of me and my brothers and sisters. With my mom’s passing, I moved in with my brothers and sisters. I’ll say it wasn’t as rough as it was just living with my mom. It still wasn’t easy.”

When his mother passed away, McNeal moved in with his oldest sister, Malinda Greene, who is 11 years older. Greene also took in McNeal’s other sister and four other brothers, while at the same time, raising four children of her own, all in one house.

“In school and football, I always try to push for her — to make her happy,” McNeal said. “Playing football I know really makes her happy. I try to make plays for her. She can’t really afford to come to home games, so she watches games on TV and on the links online she can watch.”

…she took care of us. I appreciate my older sister for that. Everything I do, I do for her.”

McNeal never thought about college growing up with his neighborhood friends in Bradenton, Florida. The topic of discussion was always which of their favorite NFL teams they’d play for.

That changed when Willie was offered a scholarship to play football at WKU in 2008.

McNeal knew the blessing in front of him was too good to waste. Terry Obee was WKU’s receivers’ coach in McNeal’s first year on the Hill. He saw an ambitious kid wanting to maximize the opportunity before him.

“Where he came from was a little different than being here,” Obee said. “He learned how to come here and work his butt off from where he came from. The kid knows how to survive. He knew how to take advantage of everything at this university.”

McNeal made noise right out of the gate as a redshirt freshman in the return game. He earned freshman All-American honors as a kickoff returner averaging 22 yards per return, including a 90-yard return for a touchdown against Kentucky.

At the time, McNeal was riding high. He and previous running back Bobby Rainey were the Toppers’ two highlight machines on a 2-10 Topper squad.

McNeal finished the season second on the team with 1,408 all-purpose yards and was eager to touch the ball on every snap in any way he could get it.

Former coach Willie Taggart called McNeal a playmaker despite being “the littlest guy out there.”

“He always wants the ball, which I love,” Taggart said in 2010. “He doesn’t just talk about it, but he is about it. He constantly plays fast. If you watch the kid, he’s just going faster than everyone else. He’s not necessarily faster than all of them, but he plays faster.”

McNeal’s play finally caught up to him the next season.

McNeal suffered tears to his right anterior cruciate ligament and right posterior cruciate ligament when two linemen fell on his knee in a drill during the spring of 2011.

McNeal was sidelined for the year, and humbled for much longer.

“Football is not always promised,” McNeal said. “With my injury, it lets me know that it can be taken away.”

McNeal returned in style in 2012 and hasn’t looked back. He’s led the Hilltoppers in touchdown receptions in each of the past two seasons.

McNeal embraces his accomplishments on the field and makes plays for his family in honor of what he’s gone through to get to this point, but the bigger honor comes off the field.

“It wasn’t a fantasy life,” McNeal said on his upbringing. “I didn’t get everything I wanted, so I never asked for anything. I think that’s what gives me the grind now. I’m mature enough to know I have to get an education. I graduated last semester and now I start my master’s this fall.”

The name “Uncle Willie” is a common calling in the WKU locker room these days. McNeal is one of the oldest players on the team, having been at the university since 2009.

It’s a name he’s earned among the youth of the team not only as the elder statesman of the group, but as a sign of respect for what he can teach them.

“It’s funny, coming in as a freshman, we used to pick on older guys,” McNeal said. “I used to call him old man and stuff like that. Now I’m the old man. So we have the little thing in the locker room where everybody calls me Uncle Willie.”

“I like the jokes and stuff like that and the fact that guys respect me as the older guy.”

Obee remembers coaching a freshman who had never had the luxury of a stable household. Now when he sees McNeal, he sees a man who has grown up before his eyes.

“He wasn’t always doing everything perfectly,” Obee said. “Sometimes he would have a hiccup here and there, but Willie has matured big time since he’s been here. He’s taken advantage of every opportunity. He’s doing well in school and he’s on top of it. He knows how to take care of business now. From where he came from, that’s a huge change.”