Rams' Mike McNeill dreaming of more
Sally McNeill's dreams have come true. Her son, Mike -- who grew up playing football with his six best friends in her backyard, set records at Kirkwood (Mo.) High School and went on to play for the Nebraska Cornhuskers -- has come home to St. Louis.
The McNeill family used to alternate Sundays at the Edward Jones Dome, passing Sally's father's two season tickets among themselves. They'd pile into the 15th row and cheer for the Greatest Show on Turf: Kurt Warner throwing to Isaac Bruce, Torry Holt and Az-Zahir Hakim. Now, when Sally and her husband, Allen, go to Rams games, they watch their son. She couldn't be happier.
While Mike's mom is happy, he isn't satisfied. He hasn't fulfilled all of his dreams.
"It's an amazing feeling," McNeill, 24, said. "I don't know how many people in professional sports can play in their hometown. But I'm not a starter. I haven't furthered my career as much as I've wanted. I have bigger goals and aspirations."
A 6-foot-4, 235-pound tight end, McNeill signed with the Rams for the final two games of the 2011 season after bouncing back and forth between the active and practice rosters of the Indianapolis Colts as an undrafted free agent. He played in four games but never made a catch.
"I learned last year that you never know what's going to happen," McNeill said. "It's not even necessarily competing [with the other players at your position]. It's proving your worth day in and day out.
"It's a fluid business. You can't be thinking, 'Am I going to get released, or am I going to play this week?' You have to be in the right state of mind to do the things you need to do on the field. It's there, and it's real, but you can't think about it."
The fluctuating nature of the NFL roster forces McNeill to push himself to stay focused. He prides himself on being "even-keeled."
"It's never as bad or as good a day as you thought you had," McNeill said. "Don't ever be too happy with where you are or too upset with where you are."
It's a lesson he learned while playing at Nebraska. McNeill had a productive career with the Huskers, setting school tight end records for career receptions (82) and single-season catches (32) and finishing with 1,072 yards and 11 touchdowns.
Bill Callahan was coach during McNeill's redshirt and freshman years before Bo Pelini took over for his final three years. McNeill said Callahan -- the former Oakland Raiders coach who is now the Dallas Cowboys' offensive coordinator -- ran an NFL offense that taught him the terminology he now uses on the field. From Pelini, in addition to X's and O's, he learned discipline and hard work.
But McNeill credits Nebraska assistant coach Ron Brown with developing him into the player he has become.
McNeill recalled scoring a touchdown and celebrating with a dance. When he looked to the sideline, Brown was shaking his head.
"[Brown] said, 'Act like you've been there before. Act like you've done that before,'" McNeill said.
When McNeill caught his first pass in a regular-season NFL game for the Rams against the Detroit Lions this season and got a much-needed first down, he didn't celebrate. He was just doing his job.
"First and foremost, I set a high standard for Mike," Brown said. "I wanted him to challenge himself as a young player. I felt like Mike hadn't reached the bar that God had set for him. I challenged him to reach that. I wanted him to understand that humility was going to be crucial. If he was his own worst critic and put his nose to the grindstone, he could reach more."
Brown's guidance has stuck. McNeill carries that competitive mentality into each workout, each practice, each game.
"I want to be the best," McNeill said. "That's what drives all athletes who make the draft."
But Brown isn't worried McNeill's drive for perfection will lessen his love of the game.
"Mike McNeill, I guarantee you, will never die of an ulcer over this game nor will he not have fun," Brown said. "He'll celebrate [his achievements] in his heart and mind. When you're truly a confident player and when something good happens, you say, 'That is who I am, and because that is who I am, I'll be back again soon.'"
So when McNeill makes a play, he'll celebrate on the inside, Brown will send his congratulations from the sideline in Nebraska and his parents will cheer.
"He was an undrafted free agent who had enough grit and determination and kept battling and made an NFL team," Brown said. "It was a dream come true for him."
It was. But now he has a new dream, and he's got some work to do.