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Kerry Neal: Linebacker credits family for helping him succeed

Andrew Gastelum | Thursday, November 11, 2010

He began the journey as a boy, and the road turned him into a man.

Senior linebacker Kerry Neal vowed that Notre Dame has changed him into the person he is today, admitting that he came here as a boy out of high school — albeit a 6-foot-2, 220-pound boy.

“This four-year run has been great,” Neal said. “I have really grown as a man with everything that I have accomplished and Notre Dame has really opened my eyes up to a lot of things.”

The linebacker came to campus as a highly-touted recruit from Bunn, N.C., a small, rural city from which Neal finds inspiration.

“I play for my hometown and for all the people there that are able to see me do something I love,” he said.

Of those people, Neal finds a special place in his heart for his mother, who worked two jobs to support the family, and his grandmother, who cared for Neal when he was younger.

“They mean everything in the world to me and I am doing everything to help give them a better life,” Neal said. “I feel like I owe my life to them.”

In his first three years at Notre Dame, Neal totaled 70 tackles and five and a half sacks, with most of them coming as a defensive end during his sophomore and junior years. But this year, under the new 3-4 defensive scheme, Neal made the transition to outside linebacker almost seamlessly. He has since recorded a career-high 32 tackles through nine games this season, eight more than his previous personal record of 24 tackles in his sophomore year.

“At first, I was really nervous at making the switch, but I worked out in the summer and improved my agility,” Neal said. “Now I am much more comfortable being able to run in open space and use my athleticism to the team’s advantage.”

The move to linebacker made Neal realize the importance of offseason work and taking advantage of every opportunity to get better.

“There are no days off in the offseason,” Neal said. “You have to come with [the effort] every day and work harder than the other man.”

But football isn’t the only matter that Neal has striven to improve in. Off the field, the linebacker takes great pride in his studies and asserts that the quality education was a major factor in coming to Notre Dame.

“At Notre Dame, you can get the best of both words,” said Neal, who committed to Notre Dame before taking an official visit. “In order to play football, you have to have good grades and it’ll all pay off once you get that degree from one of the best schools in the country.”

Neal plans on graduating with a degree in sociology, from which he hopes to give back to the community if he doesn’t play in the NFL.

“I’m never going to put a stop to my dreams [of playing in the NFL], but if that doesn’t work out I’ll have a degree,” he said. “I love working with kids and would love to give back to the youth, knowing how much I have been through in my life.”

In addition to leaving with a degree, Neal could graduate being the only senior in the class of 2011 to play in every game of his Notre Dame career. But when asked what he will remember most about his college experience Neal didn’t mention his performance on the field or putting on a gold helmet. Rather, he spoke of the friends he made while playing football.

“I wouldn’t be the same without the bonds that I have made with all of my friends and my roommate [senior running back Robert Hughes],” the senior said. “We are all brothers and it’s like being in a giant family with moments that I will never forget.”