Three years ago it would be hard to imagine DaVonte’ Neal’s life on and off the field taking the road less traveled.
He was a high school star at decorated Scottsdale Chaparral. The top prep football player in the state and one of the more coveted athletes on the west coast. Neal, it seemed, had life in the palm of his hand.
With the accolades came more pressure from friends, coaches, even his own father. He called a press conference at a Kyrene elementary school to announce his college choice but didn’t show until hours after the scheduled event. He transferred from Chaparral to Central High for the spring portion of his senior year.
Neal chose Notre Dame and played sparingly as freshman in 2012. He was used mostly on special teams returning punts. The former Gatorade Player of the Year didn’t fit in South Bend.
So he came home.
After redshirting last season, he’s back on the field this spring as a member of the Arizona Wildcats. Neal’s also a father now. His priorities on and off the field have changed.
“I would say God has a plan,” Neal told Sports360AZ.com’s Brad Cesmat in an extended interview Wednesday morning. “I would say the year away [from football]…I think it was a good idea. Let my body develop. Get adapted to handling school, football and having a baby all at the same time. I think that year was needed.”
To this day people still question Neal’s past decision and his priorities moving forward. They won’t soon forget the packs of kids who attended his letter-of-intent announcement when he didn’t. Kids who looked up to Neal as a young role model in the community.
Outwardly, he’s become immune to his critics.
“To me it’s all motivation,” he explained to Cesmat. “There are going to be a lot of people who say bad things about you…you can’t really worry about what other people say. You have to go out there and be yourself. No matter what you do there’s going to be people who talk about you. Keep my family close. Keep all the negativity out.”
On the field, no one questions the 5’10, 180-pounder’s skills which fit perfectly in head coach Rich Rodriguez’s high-paced offense. He’s been practicing at wide receiver and running back, as well as returning punts. He’s hoping to return kicks and said he wouldn’t be surprised to hear his name called to the defensive secondary, as well. Neal’s that kind of athlete.
Which is why when word got out he wanted out at Notre Dame, Arizona wasn’t the only in-state school looking to add his services. There was interest from Arizona State until the coaching change late in 2011.
“I was really good friends with Bryce and Dennis Erickson,” Neal said of the former ASU coaches. “The thoughts…of [transferring to] ASU left once those guys left. I was close with those guys. I knew them very well. Rich Rod and his staff stepped up. I liked what I was hearing from those guys…I knew UofA would be an option.”
Neal has been reunited in Tucson with his former Chaparral head coach Charlie Raigle, who’s now on Rodriguez’s staff. His former prep quarterback Connor Brewer is in a battle for the starting job after transferring in from Texas last year.
The ‘Cats have won two consecutive bowl games and Rodriguez said last weekend his team will be fun to watch this fall, even with the uncertainty at quarterback this spring.
Neal seems to agree.
“This Arizona team is going to surprise a lot of people this year. I’ll be the first to say it. This Arizona team is really going to shock the world.”