Head of the Class

Flex your muscles: Jaye McNeil, a sev­enth-grader at Baldi Middle School, has been se­lec­ted to par­ti­cip­ate in the Ju­ni­or Rank Ju­ni­or Aca­dem­ic All-Amer­ic­an 13 & Un­der game to be played on Jan. 4 in Ana­heim, Cal­if. MARIA POUCH­NIKOVA / TIMES PHO­TOS

— Thanks to his tal­ents on the foot­ball field and in the classroom, Jaye McNeil is headed to Ana­heim for the game of his life.

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 em­or­rone@bsmphilly.com

You can reach at emorrone@bsmphilly.com.

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