INDIANA COUNTY SPORTS HALL OF FAME: Neal used talent, teammates and coaching to produce solid career
• EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the third of an eight-part series profiling the individuals who will be inducted into the Indiana County Sports Hall of Fame. Tomorrow: Sue McMurdy.
Some people inherit their athletic skill. Others get it from their environment.
For the most fortunate ones, however, like the case of Steve Neal, the best of both worlds proves the best recipe for success.
In an era in which Indiana High School football flourished greatly, Neal, a 1973 graduate, distinguished himself by doing what came natural to him: throwing a football.
A textbook pocket passer with tremendous arm strength, nifty footwork and a tenacious will to win, Neal established career records at Indiana before starting for two years at IUP under his father and head coach Bill Neal. Years after his playing career ended, Neal followed in his father’s footsteps and became a successful football coach, guiding Conneaut Valley High School to prominence in the late 1980s.
Neal, along with seven other exceptional homegrown athletes, will be inducted in the Indiana County Sports Hall of Fame at its annual banquet and induction ceremony Sunday at the Rustic Lodge.
“I’ve loved football ever since I can remember, and ever since I can remember, I’ve always had a football in my hands,” Neal said. “I think it’s the greatest game in the world, and I think quarterback is the greatest position in sports. You have the potential to be a leader every day, and you’re central to everything that happens with the team. I wouldn’t have traded being a quarterback for anything.”
Neal vividly recollects his earliest memories of standing on the sidelines and watching his father tirelessly attempt to perfect his craft. For years, and in the midst of several moves from his birthplace of Washington, D.C., Neal soaked in the sights and sounds that accompanied watching a college football game alongside his dad. In that time, Bill Neal became a larger-than-life figure to Steve.
The Neals settled for a year in Monroeville, where Steve saw little time as a quarterback on Gateway Junior High’s team.
A year later, though, Bill Neal landed the head coaching job at IUP, a move that would bring Steve to Indiana for the rest of his junior high and high school careers.
That year, Neal, who grew considerably in the offseason, started at quarterback for the Indiana Junior High School team, performing well enough to catch the attention of longtime varsity coach and current IUP assistant coach Bernie McQuown.
Neal took over as the starting signal caller for a thriving Indiana High School team two years later as a sophomore.
With the aid of standout wide receivers Mike McGinnis, Courtney Makin, John Kurtz and Todd Godlaskey, among others, Neal kept Indiana’s winning ways going. He also set school records for career completions (214), passing yards (2,912) and touchdown passes (40), and he set the standard for touchdown passes in a game (5), marks that all still stand today. In addition, Neal’s 15 touchdown passes in a season and 251 passing yards in a game remained school records for more than 30 years.
“They made me look good, and those guys deserve a lot of credit,” Neal said. “The receivers I had when I played at Indiana were the best receivers anyone could have asked for. They were amazing football players, and many times they made my job easy. I couldn’t have done it without them.”
McQuown, the head coach at Indiana for 21 years who is in his 27th season as an assistant at IUP, agreed with Neal’s sentiments regarding players like McGinnis, Makin, Kurtz and Godlaskey.
“He certainly had help, but every quarterback should. It’s a team sport,” McQuown said. “There’s no question about it: He had great kids giving him great protection and he had great receivers. But it was just one of those situations that Steve took full advantage of, and through leadership and ability, he was able to bring great success to Indiana.”
McQuown described Neal’s playing style and what made him such an effective quarterback.
“We had such great quarterbacks the whole way through and Steve was the third one,” McQuown said. “In my opinion, he was just the ultimate high school quarterback. He wasn’t the speediest, but he was good at everything he did, and no one could put the clamps on Steve. He had tremendous arm strength and accuracy, and he was our team leader the day he stepped on the field as a sophomore. It was like having a coach, and a good one at that, on the field for three years. He was one of the best leaders and the best pure passer I’ve ever coached.”
At the time, Indiana played in District 6, which did not yet have postseason playoffs, Neal played in what many considered a de facto championship game against State College in 1972.
Neal led a touchdown drive with about 2? minutes to play in the game to give the Indians a 26-24 lead over State College, which entered the contest on a 18-game winning streak.
But on a controversial play that’s still talked about today, a State College player returned the ensuing kickoff 88 yards for a touchdown to lift the Little Lions to a 30-26 win. The debate still rages as to whether the return man, Kenny Decker, stepped out of bounds on the return.
“I always thought of those as the golden years … the best years of Indiana High School football,” Neal said. “The tradition was to just win, and the support from the team, the school and the entire community was just unbelievable. We had a lot of big rivalries — Johnstown, Punxsutawney, DuBois and the Ebensburg teams — but the game against State College my junior year was the pinnacle. Everyone looked at that game like the unofficial state title game.”
Using his high school accolades as a springboard, Neal verbally accepted an offer from Rice University following his senior year.
In a strange twist, however, Rice never made good on its promise to award Neal a scholarship. Instead, the school’s coaching staff decided to give his scholarship, which was the 30th and final scholarship the school was offering, to a Notre Dame recruit that committed to Rice at the last moment.
Yet rather than giving up or even fighting the unfair situation, Neal took his talents elsewhere and joined the football team at Potomac State College in 1974. Neal won the starting job at quarterback as a freshman and held it for the remainder of his time at the two-year junior college. In that time, Neal grew physically and mentally and guided Potomac State College to a record of 15-4.
Neal’s development at Potomac State opened a door for him to play under his father at IUP in 1976.
Neal naturally landed the starting role at quarterback for IUP in 1976 and 1977 and spearheaded a pair of teams that went 8-9-1.
While Neal admitted that playing under his father nullified any notions of disappointment he felt from losing nine games in two years at IUP, he also talked about the challenges that accompanied being the coach’s son.
“He never, ever put any pressure on me to pursue football, but football was my dad’s life, and it became my life, so I tried to do everything in my power to please him. I didn’t think there was any greater honor than pleasing my dad,” Neal said. “It was certainly an honor to play for my father, but at the same token, it was an awkward situation. I came in and followed one of IUP’s best quarterbacks, Lynn Hieber, who was drafted by the Cincinnati Bengals, a few years after graduating. It was tough following a legend, and there wasn’t a day on the practice field where I didn’t know where my dad was.
“That’s because I took it very seriously when he told me, ‘If you’re going to play here, you’re going to have to stand out. You can’t just be as good as the other quarterbacks. You have to leave no doubt that you’re the best.’”
Years after leaving IUP, Neal accepted the head coaching position at Conneaut Valley High School, where he led the Indians to their first and only district title in 1987, the year before the PIAA playoffs began. The Indians finished 10-0-1 that year, captured the District 10 Class AAA title and became the first Crawford County school to win a district football championship.
In nine seasons with Conneaut Valley, Neal amassed a record of 50-29.
Neal elaborated on his father’s influence on his coaching career by saying, “He used to come up and coach with me, even though he never worked with high school kids and his whole career was collegiate football. I begged him to help with summer camp, and he gladly did it every year that I coached. What he taught me and my staff was amazing. I have to give him a lot of credit for the success I had as a coach.”
STEVE NEAL, at a glance ...
Family: Father, Bill; mother, Judy; stepmother, Cass; sister, Jan; and brother, Bill.
Education: Graduated from Indiana High School (1973) and IUP (1977).
Occupation: Teacher and athletic director
Career highlights: Has held four passing records at Indiana High School since 1973. Started at quarterback at IUP for two seasons before coaching Conneaut Valley to its first and only District 10 title, in 1987.