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McNeal encourages students to make the right choices

Life can be cruel and it doesn’t play with you. You need to be a classy person who makes the right choices, spends time with the right people and sets high standards for yourself if you want to succeed.

Those words of wisdom came from a college and pro football standout who now ministers to youth across the nation as a motivational speaker.

Alabama Sports Hall of Famer member Don McNeal, who played for legendary Alabama football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant on two National Championship teams and went to the Super Bowl twice with the Miami Dolphins, spoke to students from Crenshaw Christian Academy and Fort Dale Academy on the FDA campus Wednesday. McNeal first caught scouts’ attention as a player for Escambia County High School, where FDA headmaster David Brantley then served as his football coach.

McNeal said strong mentors like his third grade teacher Mrs. Biggs, Brantley, Bryant and Dolphins coach Don Shula helped point him in the right direction.

“My father had the greatest impact on me. He raised 11 kids by himself after my mother died when I was young; he set the standards in my life . . . I got a lot of whippings, but I realized it was because he did love me and he wanted me to live right,” McNeal recalled.

He talked about a relative who had such promise but “wasted it away by listening to the wrong voices and making the wrong choices.”

“My cousin is dead today. He ruined his liver with drinking. I’ve got a friend who was a fantastic athlete. Right now, he is probably looking for crack cocaine on the streets of Miami. His family is suffering because he made bad choices. He can’t say no to drugs, and they are paying the price,” McNeal said.

When confronted with a failed tackle that allow the game-winning touchdown by the opposing team in Super Bowl XVII, McNeal said he wanted to drown his sorrows in alcohol and drugs.

“I even thought about doing away with myself. But I knew I had to make the right choice,” he said.

A lay pastor, McNeal says his Christian faith has helped sustain him through all the difficult times in his life, including being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.

“I have MS, that’s why you’ll see me wobbling a bit here and there. But I just keep praying and ask for you to pray I can be delivered from this,” he said.

McNeal, who was presented with an FDA shirt and hat by quarterback Hunter Armstrong, shared a prayer time with the students and signed many autographs following his talk.

“Remember – you’re not born a winner, you’re not born a loser. You’re born a chooser,” he said.

Brantley recalled his former Escambia County High student as a great football player who has done even greater things with his life since his retirement. “The impact he has had as a speaker is even more important,” Brantley said. “I’m very proud to have him here to share with our students.”