Sept. 10, 2010
It Takes A Village
Senior linebacker Kerry Neal not only plays each Saturday for Notre Dame, but for the 415 residents in his hometown of Bunn, N.C.
(This is Kerry Neal's story, in his own words, as told to Alan George)
Kerry Neal is a simple man from a simple town.
Ah, man. Bunn, North Carolina. We have one stoplight. One grocery store. It's home, home as home can be, and I love it. People say I'm a celebrity there, but I don't look at it like that.
Being from Bunn is great. I have a lot of supporters there. I get back about twice a year - Christmas and summer break. Every time I go home, I go back to the high school and talk to the students, youth teams and the young players there. I stress to them the importance of setting goals and continuing to work hard. I use myself as an example that nothing is too far-fetched.
I never want to let anyone down, especially the folks back in Bunn. I know a lot of people there believe in me and support me. That's my main focus. I think I'm a pretty good kid with my head on right. I know I have a lot of people watching me, so I've got to do the right thing. People look at me as a role model, and I take that to heart. People there also tell me that I sound different now. Maybe living in the Midwest has rubbed off on me a little bit.
I grew up living with my mother and brother, who are both still such a huge part of my life. I talk to them all the time. They're my biggest fans and my biggest critics.
I'm pretty laid back and respectable, and I credit that to growing up in Bunn. Bunn taught me hard work. Seeing my mom work two jobs all the time instilled that work ethic in me. My coach would also push me to work hard, be on time and do the little things right.
Kerry takes pride in where he came from, and praises those who lit the path for him.
In my earlier years, basketball was really the big thing in Bunn. But football has pretty much taken over. I got into football because my older brother, Dallas, was a "star." It was in my competitive nature as the little brother to follow his footsteps. He used to bring home all these big trophies. I knew I had to pick up the game.
I looked up to my high school football coach, David Howle, like a father figure. He helped teach me the game of football, every part of it. And had a great influence on my life off the field. My mother worked all the time to support the family, and Coach Howle was always there for me. For example, before I had to take the S.A.T. I'd stay at his house and he'd drive me to the test site. He has a son who is around my age who plays football at Penn State, so we were always hanging out together. Every time I go home, Coach Howle is the first person I visit.
Some coaches and teammates told me during my sophomore year of high school that I could be pretty good at football if I kept working at it. There was a game against Southern Vance when I felt like I played pretty well. I had a few sacks, a few tackles and a big catch. From that day on, everything jump-started for me. I knew I could do it. I knew I wanted to play at the next level.
A lifelong Notre Dame fan, wearing the blue and gold is a dream come true for Kerry.
Back in high school, I really didn't give a lot of thought into being the first commitment in that Notre Dame recruiting class that year. Some reporters told me that I was, but I had no clue. It was the best choice for me, so I jumped on it. I always was a fan of Notre Dame while growing up, and it was at the top of my list. Coach Howle was a Notre Dame fan as well. Notre Dame football was all I heard about and I knew the school had the best of both worlds, academically and athletically. I was on the Notre Dame bandwagon just like that.
My high school basketball coach came and got me out of class one day. We went into Coach Howle's office and he told me that Notre Dame had just called to offer a scholarship. He gave me a hug while I heard the voicemail from Coach Weis. I called him back immediately and told him I was coming.
I didn't tell my mom for a while. We had a basketball game that night and she was at work. It wasn't until around midnight that I was able to tell her. But the whole school knew, and everyone else knew. My mother had no clue.
When I planned a visit to Notre Dame for the first time, I didn't have enough money to buy a plane ticket. Some people in the community helped set up a stand in front of the high school and my coaches and I sold chicken dinners. We started cooking around eight or nine in the morning, and they sold pretty fast. We wrapped up around noon. That just shows you the kind of support the community has for its own, and it's something I'll never forget. It meant the world to me.
It was an incredible feeling to be able to play back in my home state in 2008 when we went to Chapel Hill. I was proud to be back home as a member of the Notre Dame team. I rounded up 28 tickets, and it seemed like the rest of Bunn was there as well - coaches, friends and family. It was more than great.
I get a lot of messages from fans back home. There was one fan whose shoes I signed, and I thought that was pretty cool. Coming from Bunn and being at Notre Dame has helped me see the world in a different light. I appreciate the little things. I've grown from a kid into a man.
You can see Bunn in the way he plays the game: blue-collar, hard-nosed and old-school.
Coming into camp this year, I had a lot of confidence in myself. I had to push myself and push my teammates. We've had a few ups and downs these past few years. And now I just have to make the most of it. I don't really worry too much about the past. The past is the past. I just need to look forward to the great things we're going to do this season.
I come to work everyday with the same attitude - trying to get better. Whatever I can do to help the team win, I'm going to do that. I'm that guy.
Our coaches are winners. Proven winners. They've brought that winning attitude to the whole team. And it's rubbing off on all the guys. When you see the coaches walking around with their rings on...that makes you want it that much more.
You can see the differences when you look at the players. Everyone has changed. Their attitude has changed. Everybody is much more hungry. Guys are getting to the ball.
Our communication is great. Tip your hats to the coaching staff for that one. They're there for us through everything, and their doors are open whenever we need them.
Everything is different from last year. The whole system and regime is different. It's great being in this defensive scheme.
I just need to keep working hard. Whatever Coach Kelly asks me to do, I'm going to go out and do it to the best of my ability. I'm going to bust my butt and work as hard as I can. My body has changed. I've dropped a few pounds. My feet are better. I feel more comfortable. Now it's just time for me to prove myself.
As a football player, I've grown. I know so much more about the game now - what the person beside me is doing, and what every person on the field is doing. When you first get out there, everything is moving so fast. But when you go through repetition after repetition after repetition, dig into the playbook and study film, it slows down tremendously.
I love having the opportunity to play linebacker. I'm in a position to make more plays. I can use my athletic ability to come off the edge and rush. It's fun for me, and the new system is fun for the whole defensive unit. My body feels good being in the position. I give Coach Longo (Notre Dame strength coach) credit for getting me in shape to be ready for the season. It's a big difference, physically, going from defensive end to outside linebacker.
Everybody in the country might be talking down about us after the season we had. But the guys in the locker room with me - we have standards for ourselves. We know that we have talent and we're capable of doing something special this season. We just have to go out and put it all together.
I'm just focused on this season. This is what it's all about. Of course I'd have the opportunity to play on Sundays, and it'd be an honor to be able to give back to Bunn everything it has given me.
My goal for this season is pretty simple - win. I really want to win a national championship. That's my goal. That's our goal. On an individual level, I want to do my best, of course. But I just want to win.