It was prior to his 8th grade year in junior high when Scottsdale (Ariz.) Chaparral athlete Davonte Neal’s college recruiting process began with verbal interest from former Ohio State head coach Jim Tressel.
Five years later, the high school senior prepares to make the most important decision of his life thus far.
It is twelve hours away from the big announcement, and Davonte and his father, Luke Neal, sit on the couches in the living room of their Scottsdale home and chat.
These couches have witnessed many nights of contemplation, strategy, debate, and even bickering between the father and son duo, but tonight is not one of those nights. Tonight, the two are cool, calm, and collected. Tonight they can finally sit back and relax, as after years of deliberation, they have come up with a plan.
As they shield phone calls left and right, the two hang out comfortably and talk about Davonte’s future, his past endeavors, and everything in between. His phone continues to ring off the hook, but Luke Neal is adamant.
“I don’t want to entertain calls today,” he explains.
Who’s been calling today?
“Who hasn’t been?” he says with a smile.
The family has heard from all four coaching staffs in the running for Neal’s services next year—and then some. Top programs like Florida and Oklahoma are still reaching out in hopes of a late push for the recruit’s signature.
One may imagine that the night before a life-altering announcement would be a hectic one for a teenager. That would be the wrong assumption when it comes to Neal.
“I’m very relaxed,” he says. “This whole process has made me so much more relaxed than I used to be. I just don’t let it get to my head. My parents always told me not to get big headed, and it kept me calm. It’s business. They always told me, ‘you’re going to be there many times; when you score, act like you’ve been there before.’
“It’s exciting, just to get it done and over with. I’m excited to finally get to relax and go have fun. It’s been a wild process. It’s been long, I’m happy for it to be over. It’s just going to be another day, an exciting day tomorrow.”
“It marks the end of one chapter and the beginning of another,” his proud father chimes in.
The beginning of Neal’s next chapter will get underway at Arizona, Arkansas, North Carolina, or Notre Dame.
And despite what you may have heard, the Neals aren’t giving away any clues.
“Every school in the world has been a favorite at some point,” Davonte chuckles. “There’s no truth to any of it. I haven’t had any favorites throughout the process; I’ve just been laying low.
“We narrowed it down and came up with a top 13 list at the beginning of the season. From that list, we basically sat back and watched what happened with the coaching changes and all that, that’s how we started narrowing it down and that’s how we got it down to those four.”
That was the easy part.
After the family cut the list down, Neal and his father began to have long, intense discussions about the significant choice at hand.
“We would just go to someplace and sit in the corner where no one would notice and just have our talks,” Luke says. “Sometimes it’d be a good thing that we were in the back, because the conversations would get kind of heated. Then we’d just pick it up and go home. It ends once we leave—we’ve always been that way with football.”
But the conversation wouldn’t be over for long.
The two would often pick back up from where they left off. Whether they took place at a Chinese restaurant, a sports bar, or their living room, the meetings continued and often times intensified.
How many times did they duke it out?
“Every time we talked,” Davonte laughs.
“There were just certain things my dad thought were better for me and I thought something else would be better,” Neal describes. “We were just going back and forth about what we each thought would be better for me and my future.”
“We’re just two of the same,” Luke explains.
Towards the end of their discussions, the Neals held a family conference at a Phoenix country club on Superbowl Sunday. Davonte’s mother, father, three sisters, nephew, niece, and family friend/mentor Ray Pino were present. After three hours of deliberation and the creation of numerous pro/con lists, the group left decision-less.
Davonte and Luke discussed the topic at length three more times before they came to a conclusion.
“It was last Wednesday when we finally arrived at the decision,” Neal shares. “I basically went to my dad and told him, 'Hey I know, I know what school I’m going to’. And he was supportive of it.
“I just felt it. I felt like that was the school for me as far as after football, 40 years after college, it would help me be successful.”
Neal slept on it, revisited the decision, discussed it with his family some more, and chose to stick with it.
“It came down to what’s best for me academically and also in regards to a social life, because you know you have to be social in college,” Neal says.
“I talked to all the coaches from my top four and I just felt it by talking to this specific coach that this was the school for me just because of the respect level that they have for me and my family.
“He doesn’t know, not yet. I’ll probably call him 30 minutes before my conference tomorrow and let him know that I’ll be attending his school.”
Though he’s careful not to disclose his decision prematurely, Neal offers a statement as to what he likes best about each of his final four options.
Arizona: “Arizona is close to home, it’s a new program, they’re an upcoming program and they’re going to be good in a couple years.”
Arkansas: “Arkansas is a powerhouse, it’s in the SEC, they know how to throw the ball and they know how to get the ball to the receivers.”
North Carolina: “It’s close to my grandmother and it’s a nice town, nice people, and the facilities are really nice. The team is also really good.”
Notre Dame: “The academics; they have the best academics and they make sure that you graduate.”
They may have disagreed at one point or another, but leading up to the final hours before Davonte’s life changing fax, he and his dad are on the same page.
“I think we both won,” Luke Neal states. “I think we as a family won.
“Outside of our family, no one understands us—which is fine. It doesn’t matter what people think. For us as Neals, the best decision for Davonte is the best decision for our entire family. It doesn’t matter to us what people think his decision is, because at the end of the day, it’s for him and to put him in the best possible situation for him and his family, and we believe he will be successful.
“I always tell him, I’ll never be behind you in anything. I’ll never be in front of you in anything. I’ll always be beside you in every step of the way.”
Regardless which letter he chooses to autograph on Tuesday morning, Neal is clear about what he expects of himself next year.
“My goal for the next level is just to do my part,” he says. “To do what I can for the team, as well as in the classroom, to make sure that I can play that week and to make sure that I am playing that week.”
Tune it to FoxSportsArizona.com on Tuesday morning at 9AM to discover where Neal plans to make his contribution at the next level.