Mike McNeely was hesitant to pick up the phone and call his dad.
It’s the Thursday before the Florida Gators are to take on the Georgia Bulldogs and McNeely, a redshirt senior receiver that mainly played special teams, had big news but it was top secret.
It was a long road to get to this point. As a senior at Palm Harbor University High School in Clearwater McNeely set school records for receptions and yards in a single season. He placed second in the district in the high jump for his track team and was named the MVP of his basketball team. He dreamed of getting into the University of Florida but Will Muschamp and his staff hadn’t shown interest when he was in high school.
“Towards the end of my high school career it looked like that dream was done because I was going to go to UF just to be a student,” he told Gator Country. “I didn’t have any guarantees to play college football at all.”
McNeely walked on and made the team. He spent four years playing scout team and special teams, busting his butt to make the team better. His effort didn’t go unnoticed and before the 2014 season, in front of the entire football team, Will Muschamp awarded him a scholarship for his redshirt senior season.
“I don’t think receiving a scholarship changed my outlook at all,” he said. “My goal was to always go out and make a positive impact for the Gators however I could in whatever role Coach Muschamp assigned me.”
Little did he know when the team is jumping up and down around him on the practice field, celebrating his newly earned scholarship, that he would make a play and forever cement his place forever in one of college football’s greatest rivalries.
The 2014 season started well Florida won its first two games before a road loss at Alabama. The team bounced back with a win at Tennessee but dropped to 3-3 with home losses to LSU and Missouri. It set up a matchup with Georgia. The Gators came in 12-point underdogs facing No. 8 Georgia (6-1/4-1).
The Monday of game week Muschamp Florida installed a fake field goal. Instead of punter Kyle Christy going into hold for a field goal, McNeely would run out there in his place, take the snap and run off to the right, behind Tevin Westbrook. The play worked in practice, as expected.
“For the most part the defense knows what you’re doing because they hear the call,” McNeely said. “They give you a look but you don’t know if that’s what the defense is going to do until you run the play.”
McNeely’s dad answers the phone. He’s on a business trip and in the car with a few colleagues. His son is hesitant to talk about the play that was installed the Monday before the game. Mike asked his dad if he was on speaker, he couldn’t risk giving letting the secret get into the wrong hands, let give Georgia any kinds of heads up, even if it was just his dad and a few colleagues in the car.
“When he said no I just said if you see me go into hold on a field goal pay attention.”
The game came. Georgia scored first on Nick Chubb’s 39-yard run with 9:02 left in the first quarter. Florida started the second quarter with the ball trailing 7-0. Behind the running of Kelvin Taylor and Matt Jones the Gators put together a 14-play drive but it stalled at Georgia’s 21-yard line.
Muschamp made the call. The fake field goal was on and McNeely was on the field.
“There were no checks. We were going to run it,” McNeely said. “I guess Coach Muschamp could have called a timeout but that was the call. Basically there was no check plan. That was the play we were running.”
He got on a knee, looked at Frankie Velez and signaled for the snap, here we go, it’s on. Georgia’s special teams were giving Florida the same look they had seen all week in practice.
The long snapper didn’t hear him. McNeely didn’t panic. He called for the snap again, this time it came.
Clay Burton pulled from the left side of the formation and blocked his man. Tevin Westbrook pushed his man almost into the end zone and David Sharpe pancaked his. The lane opened up for McNeely and the speedy receiver took off untouched into the end zone
In the celebration with his teammates he lost his shoe. His brother, on the drum line in the band, lost his mind and forgot to play his part of the fight song after the touchdown.
“Obviously that was a huge touchdown but I didn’t realize the impact that play would have. We scored but the game keeps going on,” McNeely said. “As a player you have to leave plays in the past, good or bad, and continue playing, focusing on the play in the moment so you can perform and do the best job you can.”
Florida went on to win the game 38-20. It was Muschamp’s first win over his alma mater and a sweet moment for McNeely, who suddenly became the most famous Publix employee in the world and the big man on campus.
“In Gainesville people would come up to me at work at Publix, or people on campus would start recognizing me that may not have recognized me in the past,” he said.
Along with his shoe, which he fortunately got back before the extra point was converted, he also lost track of the ball. The Monday after the game an equipment manager found McNeely. Because the play was a field goal the football that was used was a kicking ball that had unique markings on it. The manager was able to look at picture online and found the ball that McNeely scored with. It now sits in a case at his parents home.
The touchdown wasn’t even the best thing to happen to McNeely that month. Two weeks before the game he was accepted into medical school at Florida. As much as he dreamed of wearing the orange helmet with Gator script on either side, he dreamed of being a doctor.
“I had always hoped to go to medical school and when I was accepted at UF it was a huge relief,” he said. “Until you get the call that you’re accepted really your next year is up in the air. So that was a huge relief and very exciting.”
McNeely is in the middle of his third year of medical school now. He went to every home game in 2015. Sitting in the stands was strange, especially watching guys he knew play while he was confined to a seat in the stands, now a “professional student.”
As medical school ramped up he’s only been able to attend one game this season (LSU) and has only caught bits and pieces of games. He’ll be in the stands this weekend at EverBank Stadium, watching his Gators and rooting for a similar upset to the one he helped happen just three seasons ago.