Football odyssey for Bowie State's McNeil leads him to a championship in his backyard

jochavez@capgaznews.com

The next phone call Douglas McNeil III takes could send him anywhere in North America.

Portland, Denver, Seattle, Vancouver, Albany. These are some of the cities that McNeil — who won Arena Bowl XXXI with the Washington Valor on Saturday — has found opportunities since he graduated in 2013 with a bachelor of arts degree in public relations from Bowie State University.

“You’ve got to be precise on the moments,” McNeil said. “When I get released, I have to reset. If I leave to go to Canada and I didn’t do my laundry, I could be there for six months (but I’m still going).”

“You have to know this is what you want to do because if it’s not, you’re really just wasting your time.”

McNeil caught three touchdown passes and returned a kickoff for another score in Washington’s 69-55 win Saturday in the Arena Bowl over host Baltimore Brigade at Royal Farms Arena. It’s just 20 miles from New Town High School (Owings Mills), where he graduated in 2006.

The Valor picked up the 6-foot-3 wide receiver on June 27 after he played with the Brigade and the Albany Empire, two of just four Arena Football League franchises.

McNeil scored one touchdown between Albany and Baltimore, but he torched his former teams with 11 touchdowns in five games with the Valor.

“Playing the teams that let me go, I was more fueled than the flame I already had,” he said. “When my name and number was called, I just knew I had to answer the bell.”

McNeil went undrafted in 2013 and signed with the AFL’s Portland Thunder for the 2014 season. He caught 23 touchdown passes and had 964 receiving yards in 11 games, including the postseason.

He caught the NFL’s attention and spent the next two seasons in the Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks organizations. When Seattle took on the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLIX in 2015 he was at the game in Glendale, Arizona.

McNeil said he took a moment to appreciate his journey while he warmed up with the rest of the Seahawks at University of Phoenix Stadium.

“Knowing the work we put in, seeing it on the field, it’s amazing, man,” he said. “I’ve come a long way and I still get to do something that I really love to do.”

But life on the fringe in pro football doesn’t come with occupational or financial security. After parting ways with Seattle, McNeil found himself living in New Jersey, where he briefly worked in a clothing factory.

“Basically stocking dresses,” McNeil said with a laugh. “You got to do what you got to do. Never being stagnant.”

McNeil caught on with the BC Lions of the Canadian Football League as a member of their practice squad in 2016. He was cut after the 2017 preseason and came back to the Baltimore area, where he kept busy as a personal trainer and working with a security firm.

“He never gave up,” said his mother, Helen McNeil. “Even when people didn’t have confidence in him, even when (he was told) he wasn’t good enough for the NFL … he just continued to push, stay in the gym every day and push because he always believed that he was going to make it one day.”

This is the side of McNeil that friends and family saw as he transitioned into adulthood. McNeil describes his younger self as “a kid who failed but also a kid who came back and corrected and (regained) what he lost,” referring to transferring out of his first college, James Madison University, because of academic ineligibility, and putting him on the path that would lead to Bowie State.

“His career speaks for how his three years at Bowie went,” said Bulldogs receivers coach Raul Alleyne. “No matter how much success came (here), he had a desire to get better. He’s done a really good job staying on what got him there. Going out west … and working back here and getting four touchdowns in the championship game in your hometown, it’s kind of crazy.”

Alleyne said he looks forward to seeing McNeil around training camp as Bowie State gets ready for the 2018 season.

Being a presence at his alma mater is one of the ways McNeil stays fresh and gives back in his down time, which always comes sporadically, a byproduct of bouncing between leagues that have different yearly cycles.

McNeil, who recently celebrated his 30th birthday, said giving back is something he’ll continue doing after his playing days end. He speaks enthusiastically when the iDream Youth Football Camp, a program he founded to guide kids both on the field and in life, comes up.

“I feel that it’s important for kids to see the visual and aftermath of failure,” McNeil said. “You can fail but also come back and keep fighting, keep pushing.”

A single man with no kids, McNeil’s life is structured just right to allow him to take on various enterprises while looking to seize opportunity wherever it arises.

That isn’t to say McNeil doesn’t miss family and friends. He has several nieces and nephews, whom his mother described as very close to him. The Monday after the Arena Bowl, McNeil got pizza and spent the day with them.

“We adjust,” Helen McNeil said. “I think as far as (his nieces and nephews), it kind of bothers him to be away ... But the family adjusts because we still talk on the phone and he has to do what’s best for his life.”

In the meantime, McNeil said he’ll work with his youth camp and head down to Bulldogs training camp when he can.

That’s today’s plan at least. He’s also working with his agent to parlay his electric AFL postseason into a CFL or NFL invitation.

“I feel like I have one more strong push,” McNeil said.

When the phone rings, there’s no telling where it’ll take him.

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