Throwback Thursday: DaVonte' Neal's Signing Day Fiasco, And The Problem With NLIs
One of the most bizarre recruiting stories in college football history is a cautionary tale, and not for the reasons people think.
Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports
It took nearly an hour for the children of Kyrene de la Esperanza Elementary School to be told what they probably already knew: DaVonte' Neal wasn't showing up.
It was February 21, 2012, and Neal, a 5-foot-10 wide receiver and cornerback from Phoenix, was the only high school recruit of consequence yet to sign a National Letter of Intent. All year long, he had wrestled with where to attend college. Now, nearly three weeks after National Signing Day, he finally had decided.
He wanted to do something special for his announcement—bold and flashy, as well as personal. Years earlier, Neal had moved to Arizona from Akron, Ohio as a nine-year-old with a penchant for fighting. He credited Esperanza with turning his life around, and wanted to show his gratitude.
The school called a special assembly for 9:30 A.M., herding nearly 600 students into an auditorium where a projector, a podium, a media throng, and Neal's letter of intent—sealed inside a FedEx envelope—awaited.
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The students, ranging from kindergarten through fifth grade, came prepared, brandishing homemade cutouts of Neal's face glued onto sticks. They waved them like foam fingers, but a little less feverishly as the minutes ticked by. Why was he late?
Faculty filled the time by making speeches. Neal's third grade math teacher testified to Neal's resilience, how he willed himself from a below-average math student into a passable one, all to help further his dream of earning a college scholarship and one day playing in the NFL. You can be like DaVonte', the children were told, and so they chanted "Just like me." Only where was he?
Finally, they could no longer wait. The students shuffled back to class. The media dispersed. Hours later, Neal showed up, accompanied by his father and his girlfriend. They apologized profusely for their absence, citing an unnamed family emergency that transpired around 2 A.M. that morning. DaVonte' signed his letter of intent for Notre Dame and held a press conference for a handful of reporters. He hopped on the school PA system to make sure the student body knew that he missed seeing them that morning. He didn't intend for things to go this way.
Still, the damage was done. This was the double-edged sword of being the only recruit left on the board: He had a monopoly on the recruiting world's focus and, consequently, nowhere to hide. Recruiting sites slammed him. One local columnist branded the event "a sad, rude, and classless display." Craig Morgan, covering the event for FOX Sports Arizona, panned it as "a classic case of self-absorption," before going on to mock the children's chant from hours earlier: "You don't want to be like DaVonte' Neal."
Five years later, Neal's story lives on as one of the most bizarre and mysterious moments in recruiting history. But to those closer to it, it endures for a different reason. Many believe that Neal had minimal say over what transpired, including where he ultimately signed. In that respect, Neal—who did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story—is far from alone. And the bigger problem underlying his "sad, rude" day hasn't gotten any better.
DaVonte' Neal was a sensation from the very beginning. As a fifth-grader, he attended a USC football camp and was quickly bumped up the eighth grade group, where he won MVP honors. Years before his college decision made national headlines, his high school decision was celebrated in local press.
He chose Cesar Chavez High School and as a freshman was named all-region as both a wide receiver and defensive back. That spring, he anchored the 4x100 relay team that won a state championship. He netted his first pair of scholarship offers from Boston College and Arizona State, an uncommon distinction for freshmen today and nearly unheard of eight years ago.
After his sophomore year, Neal transferred to Scottsdale's Chaparral High School, one of Arizona's top football powers. The Firebirds won state titles in each of the two next seasons. David Huffine, Chapparal's defensive coordinator at the time, estimates that eleven defensive players and nine offensive players from the 2011 team played college football. One of them, offensive guard Wes Schweitzer, now lines up for the Super Bowl runner-up Atlanta Falcons. The coaches were even more successful: Vince Amey, the defensive line coach, is now a full-time assistant at Arizona and Charlie Ragle, Chaparral's head coach, just moved to Cal after his own stint at Arizona. The former running backs and tight ends coach, Dave Ziegler, is now the pro personnel director for the NFL champion New England Patriots.
But Neal was the central attraction. His track star speed had blossomed even further; six years after his graduation, he still holds Chapparral school records in the 100 and 200-meter dashes. It made him unstoppable on the field. As a senior, Neal scored 35 total touchdowns and tallied over 1,000 yards both rushing and receiving. He averaged a first down each time he carried the ball, and nearly two every time he caught it.
"He was unmatched in terms of his agility level," Huffine says. "His ability to start and stop, his ability to cut and run. His burst was really something you don't get at the high school level ... You start watching the film and you're like, 'Wow. That was incredible.'"
On top of that, Neal seemingly had all the intangibles. His workouts were the stuff of local legend, punctuated by endless 3.5 mile runs up a steep, gravelly hill known as "Thrill Hill" while the grueling Arizona sun beat down on him. The once-disorderly third grader had become favorite among his teachers, who according to Huffine he habitually addressed as "sir" and "ma'am."
"He was a really, really coachable kid," says Richard Obert, who covers high school sports for the Arizona Republic and had known Neal since his eighth grade year. "He had a really good attitude, a team player. Never 'me-first.' A really excitable kid, real excited, real gung-ho."
"He's got a heart of gold," Huffine says. "I think the world of him."
Unsurprisingly, nearly every school in the country wanted to sign Neal. As the calendar crept toward National Signing Day, scuttlebutt had four schools as leading contenders—Arkansas, Arizona, North Carolina and Notre Dame.
Behind the scenes, however, Neal's choice had come down to two schools, Arizona and Notre Dame.
Every high school recruitment has a decision-maker. Typically, it's the recruit in question, making the biggest choice of his or her athletic career to date.
But not always.
The process can be exhausting. Coaches bombard prospects with text messages. Reporters dig for scoops. Fans pounce on social media. The inquiries are endless, and so the teenagers at the heart of the process often turn to someone they trust—a parent, a coach, a family friend—to serve as an intermediary.
"They try to find someone that can buffer that," Obert says. "Somebody that can help them get through that because it's hard enough just trying to get through school and get through classes and all that other stuff to qualify to play Division I NCAA football."
In Neal's case, that someone was his father, Luke. The elder Neal once had been a football star in his own right, a high school teammate of NFL receiver Keyshawn Johnson who later earned a tryout with the local Los Angeles Rams. Luke had opened a training facility in Phoenix called The Athletes' Factory, where he worked with several NFL players. He also had coaching stints at both the high school and junior college levels.
In other words, Luke knew what his son was facing. More importantly, he knew his son. It was Luke who devised, and named, the Thrill Hill workouts. It was Luke, after once describing himself as "a deadbeat dad," who vowed to change and facilitated DaVonte's move from Akron to Phoenix, along with Neal's mother, Kito Williams. The two had been attached at the hip ever since; today, they even look alike, each sporting shaved heads, round faces and slight but explosive frames.
According to Obert, it was only natural that DaVonte' "was really leaning heavily on his dad for all of his recruiting stuff"—and according to Obert, Luke was eager to lean back.
"The dad really liked Notre Dame," he says. "He really wanted his son to go to Notre Dame and was pushing for that."
It's impossible to confirm Luke's motives at the time; an attempt to contact him via The Athletes' Factory was unsuccessful. Jason Jewell, who has covered prep recruiting in Arizona since 2002, said that he "never thought of him as a bad guy and I know the coaches at the high school never thought of him as a bad guy at all."
Still, it's not hard to speculate about why Luke would have preferred that his son play for the Irish. Notre Dame was a college football blue blood on the rise, a program that played in the national title game during DaVonte's freshman year. Notre Dame also had an excellent academic reputation. On paper, it had every advantage over Arizona.
Yet for months, it was widely speculated that Arizona was where DaVonte' truly wanted to be. Perhaps it was the allure of being a hero in his home state, or maybe it was playing time. His longtime girlfriend, Marie, would be staying in Arizona, too. Obert theorizes that the biggest draw was Cody Ippolito, DaVonte's best friend and a linebacker at Chaparral who had already signed with the Wildcats.
Regardless of the reason, Jewell says, "Leading up to [the announcement], everything everyone told me was, 'Arizona. Arizona. Arizona.' And then he ends up going to Notre Dame, because that's what I heard dad wanted him to do."
Jewell wasn't the only one who heard that. According to an ESPN report, Ippolito, who was in crowd that morning, told others in attendance the very same thing.
Jewell says the entire decision—and that bizarre morning at Esperanza—came down to the one trump card DaVonte' couldn't overcome: the National Letter of Intent. The NLI is one of the most exploitative contracts in existence, and among its myriad problems is a clause stating that any player under 21 years of age must have a legal guardian co-sign it to make it official.
In other words, DaVonte' Neal could sign a hundred letters of intent to Arizona, but they'd worthless without Luke Neal's signature, too.
Jewell also had caught wind of one more development. Onlookers had been skeptical about the Neals' claim that their elementary school appearance was derailed by a family emergency in the middle of the night. "I had heard he jumped out of the car when his dad was driving him to [the announcement]," he says. "He didn't want to go to Notre Dame and he jumped out of the car. That's what I was told."
Obert was among the media members who spoke with Neal after he signed with the Irish. Both DaVonte' and Luke dismissed any suggestions that DaVonte' wanted to play elsewhere. "I talked to both of them directly and they denied that," Obert says. "They said he wanted to go to Notre Dame, but I don't know. I could sit back and say, 'Oh yeah,' but I'm guessing. I've just got to go by what they told me, and that's what they told me they wanted to do."
Those who know DaVonte' Neal say that's exactly the sort of thing he would do. Neal wouldn't just seek his coaches' approval on the field, Obert recalls: "He'd run through a wall for them." Why would it be any different for his own father?
"He's a pleaser and he wants to be doing everything in his power to make people around him happy," Huffine says. "I think sometimes that can catch up with him a little bit."
In the end, then, it was predictable that Neal would sign with the Irish, no matter how much the recruiting buzz—and perhaps his own desire—pointed toward the Wildcats. A year later, and after catching just one pass as a freshman, Neal announced his decision to transfer from Notre Dame.
His destination was Arizona.
Four more years have passed. DaVonte' Neal is a college graduate now. He is also a father to a three-year-old daughter named Baylee. In multiple media interviews, Neal cites her and Marie as the reason he transferred home. The Arizona Daily Star described DaVonte' and Baylee as "inseparable"—just like DaVonte' and Luke.
Maybe the NFL truly is in his future, the way he planned it. If not, Huffine says, "He's got better things in his life he's going to be doing."
Huffine still remembers the morning of the elementary school celebration that wasn't—how he scrambled to find a way to help when he realized things were going south, and the dismay he felt while watching someone he calls "a tremendous individual" get labeled many things he wasn't.
"I know he didn't want to turn it into what it turned into," he says. "He got painted into a picture of himself that I don't think was accurate at all ... He wanted it to be a great experience for people he grew up with and I think [it became] a situation that was a bit out of his control. But he's the name and therefore he's the one who's going to have to answer for it."
Jewell estimates that roughly 80 to 90 Division I-caliber football players graduate from Arizona high schools each year. Compared to football hotbeds like California, Florida, and Texas, it's a relatively small number. Still, he braces himself each season for the next wave of parents who meddle in their sons' recruitments.
"Probably not to this extreme, but I deal with a parent or two or three every year where they're heavily, heavily involved," Jewell says. "It's not as uncommon as you think ... It's not the norm, but at the same time it's something you deal with every year."
In recent years, the NCAA has enacted various measures attempting to ease the recruiting stress placed on high school athletes. There are mandated periods of limited contact with schools and coaches, and periods of no contact at all. This year might usher in the first-ever early signing period for football players, so that the recruits who have made up their minds for good can end the hounding two months early.
So far, however, there is no circumventing the need for a parent to cosign a NLI. And that gives tremendous leverage to any parent who chooses to wield it. The canon of wild recruiting tales is rife with examples, from running back Alex Collins' mother absconding with his letter to prevent him from signing with Arkansas ,to defensive back Floyd Raven's mother forging his signature and faxing a letter to Ole Miss when he really wanted to attend Texas A&M.
Perhaps the closest parallel to Neal was Florida linebacker Matthew Thomas, who told his mother he wasn't ready to sign with anyone on National Signing Day 2013, and asked if he could postpone his decision. "She said I couldn't do that," Thomas told the Miami Herald, and instead pushed him to commit to Florida State. "She said, 'FSU is a good school—pick them. It's close to home.' I wasn't agreeing with it. But I felt like I was being disrespectful to her if I didn't sign. So I made her happy."
When Thomas wanted out of the agreement that May, Florida State refused to release him from the contract he never wanted to sign in the first place.
Jewell says there's a solution to the problem, and it's a simple one: Let prospects sign their own letter of intent starting at age 18.
"They're an adult when they're 18," he says. "You can join the army at 18. You can go to war at 18. But you can't sign a letter of intent at 18? You have to have your parents sign with you until you're 21? I think that's ludicrous. I think you can take the parents out of it completely."
For now, there are no plans for that to happen, which means the next DaVonte' Neal is only a matter of time. His story had a happy ending. It should have had a beginning to match.
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