Part 2: Leon Neal, the Father and the Son, Took Lessons from a Near Tragedy
In their national championship season, the 1991 Washington Huskies opened at Stanford and then took a week off to prepare for a big road trip to face Nebraska in front of a national TV audience.
In the opener, Washington's Purple Haze defense forced five turnovers and the offense had its way with the Cardinal by rushing for four touchdowns and picking up two more through the air. Final score: UW 42, Stanford 7.
That set up the much-anticipated game in Lincoln, Nebraska. It was Don James vs. Tom Osborne. The Huskies against the Huskers.
Not everyone would head to the Midwest. As young players redshirting and not on the UW travel roster, freshman running back Leon Neal and six others decided to go home to California for the weekend.
Neal and his Husky teammates Michael Steward, Richard Washington, Joel Rosborough, Doug Barnes, Eric Battle and Reggie Reser, plus Neal's friend Adrian Jamison, climbed into a rented van and drove south.
“We had the idea of let’s all get together, rent a van and drive back home for a day,” Neal recalled.
The plan was to switch drivers throughout the trip. Driving through Oregon, Rosborough was behind the wheel when Neal dozed off.
The running back awoke to see lights coming toward the van on Interstate 5 in southern Oregon near Medford.
“A car had crossed the median,” Neal said.
In the ensuing accident, the van rolled an estimated eight or nine times. Everyone inside survived. The other driver, a 23-year-old man who was drunk and seemed to purposely drive his vehicle into oncoming traffic, was a fatality.
Neal and the other football players from the van were dubbed the "Medford Seven" by news organizations. Some of them never fully recovered from the scary mishap.
“I think it had more damage mentally than physically on Richard Washington and Michael Steward,” Neal said of his two teammates who were badly injured. "They were never the same."
Some of those involved had their football careers blunted by the accident. As redshirts, most of them were able to recover physically throughout the year and get ready for the following season. Yet some of them struggled with it.
“It’s a tough situation that we will always remember and it’s a tough situation that brought us together," said Neal, whose perspective on life changed. “You just can’t take anything for granted. You have to live each day to the fullest."
Neal went on to have a successful UW career, becoming a starter at times and sharing running-back duties with Napoleon Kaufman and Rashaan Shehee, and he played the 1997 season in the NFL for the Indianapolis Colts.
Today, he uses his experience from the accident to teach life lessons to his children, who include running-back recruit Leon Neal Jr. from Garfield High School. He tells them to stay focused on their goals. He uses the mantra "preparation through separation" to prepare for football and life beyond.
“The harder you prepare, the better you prepare, and the more you focus on attention to detail, you are better prepared to separate yourself from your opponent,” Neal said.
Leon Neal Jr., a Garfield senior, has to work even harder to draw recruiting attention in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. Washington's high school football season recently moved to the spring. The signing period for recruits begins in December, which will precede the season rather than follow it.
Regardless, the younger Neal remains focused on getting ready for whatever adjustments need to be made in dealing with COVID-19. He runs lifts weights and runs on his own to meet the football goals he's set.
“He has been preparing like crazy, not only this season but his whole life,” Leon Neal Sr. said. “This has been a process for him since age 6, when he made up in his mind as to what he wanted to do.”
Dad, the former NFL player, encourages his son to stay motivated. Football gets more competitive with each level.
“There's always someone out there who is working to become one day better than the last,” Leon Neal Jr. said, referencing his father's advice.
“All of the offseason training and things of that nature, that’s all been him,” the father said of his son. “He's going to be first one in the sprints, he's going to be the first one in the weight room and he's always going to be the one doing the extra push-ups on the side."
A grisly traffic accident nearly three decades ago showed the entire Neal family how fleeting life can be. Dad lived it. His son has learned from him.