Florida Gators very own “Rudy”

The life of Daniel “Rudy” Ruettiger was immortalized forever in the 1993 when TriStar Pictures made the movie Rudy.

If you’re reading this story, you’re likely familiar with the underdog story of an undersized kid and his dream to play football. Ruttiger dreamed of playing for Notre Dame so much that he applied four times to get into the university, only receiving acceptance on that final attempt.

He then walked on to the football team only to find out that his name wouldn’t go down in the official record books until he played a single down in an actual game. A walk-on, Ruettiger worked his way to the scout team — a thankless job where players simulate the opposing offense or defense and take a pounding from the first string each week. Ruettiger worked and worked and in his final game playing for the Irish played in three plays, recording a sack and became the first player ever carried off the field in Notre Dame history.

The Florida Gators have their own “Rudy” this season in former walk-on Michael McNeely.

McNeely was a standout receiver at Palm Harbor University in Clearwater, Florida, setting school records in yards and receptions in 2009. He placed second in the district as a high jumper and was also named the MVP of his basketball team in 2008-09 and 2009-10. A great student, McNeely considered both Dartmouth and Harvard before deciding to walk on at Florida and pursue his dream of playing football for the Gators.

He worked tirelessly and earned a role on special teams. McNeely’s effort has made an impact on his teammates.

“You get the same McNeely every day. You’re having a bad day and that’s a guy that’s going to come up and he’ll talk to you,” starting defensive lineman Jon Bullard said. “Just push you in practice if he’s see’s you’re having a bad day. If you got yelled at and you’re down on yourself or something, that’s just the type of guy he is. He doesn’t always play a big role, but when he do, he do it to the best of his ability as hard as he can and we appreciate it.”

McNeely has worked part-time at Publix while maintaining grades good enough that he was accepted to Florida’s medical school and participating on the football team. He bags groceries and tends to a cash register, calling himself a “bagsheir.”

When fall camp was wrapping up, Will Muschamp gathered his football team. He awarded kicker Frankie Velez and McNeely scholarships. At the time, McNeely called it “the best day of my life.”

Then, last week before the Georgia game he received notice that he was accepted into Florida’s medical school. Not a bad way to kick of the week.

Finally, the game on Saturday arrived. All week Florida had worked on a fake field goal with McNeely as the holder. The team saw the play work over and over again in practice but it’s a lot different running something successfully in practice versus running it in a game against rival Georgia.

The Florida Gators behind 424 rushing yards upset the Georgia Bulldogs 38-20.  Florida Gators vs Georgia Bulldogs. November 1st, 2014. Gator Country photo by David Bowie.
The Florida Gators behind 424 rushing yards upset the Georgia Bulldogs 38-20. Florida Gators vs Georgia Bulldogs. November 1st, 2014. Gator Country photo by David Bowie.

From 31-yards out, the Gators dialed up the fake but Will Muschamp admitted that he was ready to call a timeout and nix the whole thing if the Gators didn’t have the right look.

They did.

“It was a great call,” McNeely said. “It was drawn up perfectly. The guys blocked. I know Tevin [Westbrook] had a great climb and Clay [Burton] kicked out. Frankie faking helped. All the linemen blocking, it was perfect. All I had to do was run. It worked just like it did in practice, so I knew where to hit it.”

The play worked, springing the spright McNeely into the end zone to even the score with Georgia. The play was the catalyst in Florida’s 38-20 win over Georgia and it couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy.

“I was so happy to see McNeely score,” senior center Max Garcia said. “I don’t think there’s anyone on this team more deserving to be the hero. He’s just a great dude.”

Garcia took a minute, apologizing for the emotion that had overcome him. His eyes welled up with tears and his voice cracked.

“I get emotional talking about him,” he said fighting back tears. “He’s a hard worker man. He’s just motivation for the team and guys like him are why we are going to be able to be successful because he cares about this program. I love him.”

Nov 1, 2014; Jacksonville, FL, USA; Florida Gators field goal holder Michael McNeely (31) runs the ball in for a touchdown during the first half against the Georgia Bulldogs at EverBank Field. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Nov 1, 2014; Jacksonville, FL, USA; Florida Gators field goal holder Michael McNeely (31) runs the ball in for a touchdown during the first half against the Georgia Bulldogs at EverBank Field. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Following the best week of his life, McNeely returned Sunday afternoon to Publix, where’s he’s been apart of the company since 2008. This shift was a little different than normal. There were a lot of congratulations and pictures being taken.

He’s earned it and not for his lone play on Saturday.

Michael McNeely is everything that’s right about college sports. He’s an excellent student, hard working on and off the field and he somehow finds time to build the kind of relationships that make a 6-4, 310-pound offensive linemen break down in a room filled with reporters.

“I think if we had a whole team full of McNealy’s, we’d be a national championship team just because of the way we plays,” Garcia continued. “Everything he does on and off the field is championship level.”

He never dreamed that he would be able to earn a scholarship, get into medical school at Florida or score a touchdown against Georgia. He’s done all of those things this season and the touchdown that became the catalyst against Georgia could very well propel his football team the rest of the way this season.

 

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Nick de la Torre
A South Florida native, Nick developed a passion for all things sports at a very young age. His love for baseball was solidified when he saw Al Leiter’s no-hitter for the Marlins live in May of 1996. He was able to play baseball in college but quickly realized there isn’t much of a market for short, slow outfielders that hit around the Mendoza line. Wanting to continue with sports in some capacity he studied journalism at the University of Central Florida. Nick got his first start in the business as an intern for a website covering all things related to the NFL draft before spending two seasons covering the Florida football team at Bleacher Report. That job led him to GatorCountry. When he isn’t covering Gator sports, Nick enjoys hitting way too many shots on the golf course, attempting to keep up with his favorite t.v. shows and watching the Heat, Dolphins and Marlins. Follow him on twitter @NickdelatorreGC

1 COMMENT

  1. Great article Nick. It’s nice to get a glimpse into the team off the field, and it sounds like McNeely is really an emotional leader for this team. It’s sad he doesn’t see the field on offense, but maybe we need to find a way to work him into the game plan. It sounds like Max Garcia would get a jolt of energy playing with him on offense. Maybe some other guys would too. Maybe he could have the same effect that Treon had in the UT game. That’s a lot of maybes, but if it pays off then MAYBE Muschamp wouldn’t look so bad at the end of the year.