In a perfect world, junior tailback Curtis McNeal would not have fumbled on the goal line to end last Saturday’s triple-overtime thriller against Stanford.
In a perfect world, McNeal would have taken the first-and-goal carry and plowed his way through the defensive line en route to his third touchdown of the night.
But if there’s anything you should know about the player who now stands as the face of the Trojan backfield, it’s that his life has never been filled with pathways to paradise.
After his father was affected by a life-altering stroke when he was six years old, McNeal spent his early years in South Los Angeles’ Pueblo del Rio housing projects.
“To me, living in the projects was fun, but that’s all I knew,” McNeal said. “As I grew up, I started realizing what was around me. In high school, I saw firsthand the different side of life that existed. There were different avenues I could have taken. I tried to open up my mind and really ask myself what did I truly want in life?”
That answer came through football.
Despite his 5-foot-7, 180-pound stature, McNeal burst onto the map with a statistical marvel junior season at Venice High School in 2006, when he ran for 2,008 yards and 42 touchdowns.
In 2007, McNeal would follow up his All-L.A. City first-team campaign with a sensational senior season, in which he rushed for 1,400 yards and 19 touchdowns and was named the city’s offensive MVP.
“Mentally and physically I believed I could do better for myself,” McNeal said. “My sister Sonja always pushed me to become a better version of myself and showed me that there is a better side to life. College for me represented a new door, almost like a new life.”
Though he was offered a scholarship to USC by then-USC coach Pete Carroll to play for the Trojans after graduation, McNeal’s college experience got off to a rocky start.
After redshirting in 2008, McNeal was forced to the back of a tailback rotation led by proven veterans Joe McKnight, C.J. Gable and Allen Bradford. He registered just six carries for 33 yards in 2009.
“If you have told me after 2009 that I would be where I am now, I’m not sure I would have believed you,” McNeal said. “On one hand I would have believed I could, just because I know who I am and what I’ve been through. At the same time, that experience was really hard for me.”
Unable to cope with the hardships he faced on the field, McNeal’s attitude toward school and football began to take a nose-dive. With post-season probation and a regime change taking the spotlight in his sophomore year, his love and passion for the game were quickly erased by apathy.
McNeal was eventually ruled academically ineligible for the entire 2010 season, a point he refers to as “one of the biggest wake up calls of [his] life.”
This year began much the same way 2009 had for the hard-nose back from South Los Angeles. Having missed an entire year because of academic problems, McNeal had to prove himself to USC coach Lane Kiffin and his coaching staff on the field and off of it.
But the moment the whistle blew this August, there was a renewed sense of spirit in No. 22. A year away from the game had clearly changed him, and for the first time in his collegiate career, he ran as if each snap were a privilege.
Each stride was filled with newfound meaning, almost as if he were proving something not only to himself but to those who never believed he would one day reach the lofty expectations he set out for himself.
“I probably do run with a bit of a chip on my shoulder these days,” McNeal said. “Especially with my height and where I came from, people have always wanted to doubt me. They used to tell me, ‘You can’t do this or you can’t do that.’ So, when I run the ball, I let the opponent know that taking me down will never be easy. It’s always going to be a fight, because I never want to give up even an inch.”
If McNeal’s nay-sayers thought his fall camp fortitude was a mere facade, his first eight games have quickly erased any doubts. Due in part to D.J. Morgan’s fumbling issues and Marc Tyler’s lingering shoulder injury, McNeal has been the Trojans’ go-to tailback in the last month.
After scoring his first two career touchdowns against Arizona and California, McNeal has shown a propensity for the bright lights, posting back-to-back career-high performances against Notre Dame and Stanford — a combined 263 yards rushing and two touchdowns of 25 and 56 yards a piece.
While McNeal’s numbers have quickly made him a household name in Southern California, it’s his resolve and heart of which he’s most proud.
“Most people would likely have doubted that after being academically ineligible or after falling down the depth chart amongst so many talented running backs, I would push myself all the way up to the top,” McNeal said. “I grew up over these last few years, and now I’m finally able to see it all pay off.”
Despite his game-ending fumble against the Cardinal — which kept him up most into the early hours of Sunday morning — McNeal will be asked to fulfill a new role on Friday against Colorado, the starting tailback position.
It’s a role that culminates an unbelievable journey 15 years in the making.
“I think this opportunity says a lot about my journey and that I kept fighting through all of the hardships I have faced, whether it be with growing up, school or football,” McNeal said. “This is only the beginning for me. My journey is just taking off. I’m trying to graduate from college and maybe one day reach the NFL. My dream is that the next chapter is even better than the one I’m currently living.”