Later this week, Jaye McNeil will travel 3,000 miles from his Somerton home to play in the biggest football game of his life. How does he think it will go?
“I’m thinking eight carries, 75 yards and at least one touchdown, maybe two,” the 13-year-old said Thursday night from a chair in his family’s living room. “We’re going to blow them out.”
McNeil, a seventh grader at Baldi Middle School, was recently selected for the Junior Rank Junior Academic All-American 13 and Under East Team, which will play against its Western counterpart on Friday in Anaheim, Calif. Both teams are composed of junior Academic All-Americans from around the country and were nominated for both their skills on the football field and successes in the classroom, where Jaye, a running back, carries a 3.29 grade-point average. (A minimum 3.0 is required to qualify.)
His team consists of 27 players from places as far and wide as Virginia Beach, Georgia, Texas and the Carolinas. One of his teammates, a 6-foot-4, 270-pound 13-year-old from Brampton, Ontario, will be blocking on Jaye’s offensive line.
“When he found out and was able to do some scouting of the other players, he texted me and said, ‘Oh my God, look at some of these linemen!’” Jaye’s father, Tyrone Sr., said. “He said that nobody would be able to tackle him with this line blocking for him.”
If anything, the McNeils are a football family. Tyrone Sr. began playing as soon as he was allowed as an 8-year-old growing up in Lancaster County. He earned a football scholarship to West Chester University, which provided an education that would steer him to success later in life. He and his wife, Kenney, settled down in the Philadelphia area and had five children, the first two of whom are girls.
Then came the boys, which meant football was not far behind.
First was Tyrone Jr., who recently completed his junior season at George Washington High School. A rising offensive and defensive lineman, Tyrone Jr. is already receiving interest from college programs such as Temple, Rutgers and Southern Mississippi, according to his father. There is also 8-year-old Adrian, a budding athlete in his own right at such a young age.
And then there is Jaye, who ultimately may create the biggest waves of any football player in the family. Having been at it since he was 5 years old, Jaye has received guidance and instruction from his father and older brother. This tutelage extends beyond the football field, as the McNeils preach the importance of academics more so than the traditional “football family” likely would.
“No matter how good you are, my dad always told me that if you don’t have the grades to match the football skills then nobody will want you,” Jaye said. “If you’re committed to football, then you have to be committed to your studies, too.”
Tyrone Sr. said Jaye witnessed his older brother’s academic struggles during his freshman year at Washington and saw how hard his parents were on him in order to get him headed in the right direction. Not only that, but the family told a story of Jaye missing an opportunity to run in the Penn Relays as a sixth-grader at Baldi because his grades were subpar at the time.
“He’s seen the flip side and how hard I rode his brother when he got lazy with his school work,” Tyrone Sr. said. “Now, he (Jaye) makes sure he does his work and doesn’t make the same mistakes because he doesn’t want to hear Dad fussing no more.”
Tyrone Jr. seems to have learned from his mistakes, too, and is much more focused on being a positive role model for his younger brother.
“I tell him to keep working hard and just stay away from the negative,” Tyrone Jr. said while he proudly and playfully rubbed Jaye’s head. “God always has something positive planned for you if you’re dedicated. I’m proud of him, and he deserves everything coming his way. He’s a good kid.”
The family planned to leave for Southern California on New Year’s Eve and return to Philadelphia the night of Jan. 4, right after Jaye’s game. Tyrone Sr. whispered “Disneyland” when asked what the family was most looking forward to doing together. (He didn’t want to spoil the surprise for young Adrian, who was playing close by.) However, the McNeils are treating it as a business trip, an opportunity for their son to see how he stacks up against some of the best and brightest national talent in his age group.
Already receiving interest from prestigious local high schools with renowned football programs (St. Joseph’s Prep and Archbishop Wood are among those courting Jaye), the McNeils are hoping this opportunity serves as an accelerant in Jaye’s development. He will go to California as a running back — Jaye’s favorite position — but may transition into quarterback as he continues to grow into his body.
“He’s a natural running back, but once you hit six-two or six-three, you’re too big to be a tailback,” Tyrone Sr. said. “He’ll be too big of a target, and the kid’s got a cannon. When you can hit someone in stride from 40 yards away at 13 years old … I can’t coach that.”
Jaye, also a talented baseball player, hopes to stay at running back but said he’d be willing to play quarterback if that’s what his future team asks of him. In addition to spending so much one-on-one time with his sons, Tyrone Sr. also credited the coaches with the Southampton Knights and Somerton Youth Organization for bringing Jaye along as a football player, as well as his teachers at Baldi for holding him accountable in the classroom.
“One of the things I love about this game in California is that it’s not just about football,” Tyrone Sr. said. “He earned his spot through football, but also through working hard in school. I put the extra pressure on him because I wanted him to be able to achieve under it. He needed to understand that it’s an academic honor too, and he’s stepped up to the plate in that respect.”
For his part, Jaye is a normal 13-year-old kid who probably won’t fully digest how life-changing an accomplishment this trip to California is until later in his life. That said, he is confident and not at all intimidated by the big stage.
“I just watch my older brother and it makes me want to go to high school even more so I can experience what he is experiencing for a winning team,” Jaye said. “I want to be a captain one day, and the best way to do that is to see how I stack up against all these kids. I want to be the best out of all of them.” ••
Sports Editor Ed Morrone can be reached at 215-354-3035 or firstname.lastname@example.org