Leon Neal Jr. is an up-and-coming running back who looks up to his dad, his namesake and a former Washington Husky and NFL player. He relies on him for guidance in the recruiting process.
At one point, this drove his father to tears.
Leon Neal Sr. picked up his son following Garfield High School track practice one day. As they sat in the car, the younger Neal took a phone call. It came from Georgetown.
On March 3, the teenaged Leon realized a childhood dream, one he had carried with him since he was 6 — he received his first offer to play Division 1 football.
“It was the first time I had ever seen my dad crying over me," Neal Jr. said of that day. "It was a really special moment. I was grateful to have it with him.”
A senior at Garfield, Neal will try to duplicate or even surpass the football success of his dad. Leon Neal Sr. was drafted by the Buffalo Bills in 1996 and played a season for Indianapolis Colts.
"He's one of the hardest workers I've coached," said Kevin Jones, who once coached the young Neal. "This kid gets it. He works his butt off on and off of the field."
The running back's father, who emerged from Long Beach, California, to play a prominent role with the Huskies in 1994 and 1995, instilled the importance of hard work in his offspring.
“He always says preparation through separation," Leon Neal Jr., said. "He tells me to prepare right now for me to separate from others out of the state or the country, for me to do my best and to be better."
The son continues to hear from colleges around the country, though he won't be able to play high school football again until the spring. Social distancing prevents him demonstrating his offseason progress, but his dad says that shouldn't matter.
“He just loves to play the game of football; he loves the competition,” Leon Neal Sr. said. “He is definitely going to play. That is not even in question.”
He has that offer from Georgetown and he's been in contact with Keith Bhonapha, Husky running-backs coach, plus he's received small-school interest. There's no turning back now.
“In the spring, he's going to be the first person in the weight room," Leon Neal Sr. said. "He's going to be the one doing the extra pushups on the side. That’s the way he displays his leadership."
Neal Jr. works out with his dad and uncle to prepare for his upcoming senior season. On Monday through Friday, he lifts weights. He does power cleans at home to help with his explosiveness. On the weekends, he runs and works on footwork and running back drills.
The son is a goal-setter, and a significant driving factor for Neal Jr. is to be an even better team leader than he was this past season. He's tried to show his stepped-up approach this summer.
“I want to motivate players to get up, work out and practice,” said Neal Jr.
He's also been checking in with his teammates on a regular basis about their academic progress. He's let his teammates know that they're all vital to the team's success on the gridiron. He's gone to extraordinary lengths to make sure each teammate is academically eligible to play this coming spring.
“No matter what position you put me in, I will always always give my 100% in it,” he said.
He's tried to show compassion as a friend and teammate. He also loves meeting new people, making new friends and building those bonds. He makes every day count.
For good reason, Leon Neal Jr. has heard how his father, early in his Husky career, had a near-death experience with a bunch of UW teammates while driving to California in 1991.
"You can't take anything for granted," the older Neal said. "You have to live every day to the fullest."
Coming next: In Part 2 of this series about the Neals, we revisit an accident that nearly had dire circumstances.