Ten years ago, this interview would have been impossible. Because ten years ago, the person I spoke with wouldn't have been able to sit down outside Texas A&M’s John R. Blocker building, in the middle of the day with hundreds of students walking around, and record a quiet interview. Back then, he was the talk of the town, one of the most famous faces on campus, and was (and might still be) the most talked about recruit in Texas A&M history.
Reggie McNeal is second all time in total offense and career passing yards at Texas A&M.
Today marks ten years since Reggie McNeal took his first meaningful snaps at Kyle Field. Yes, he played in the season opener against Louisiana Lafayette, but he got his first real opportunity in a losing effort on September 21st against Virginia Tech. Now, he roams the halls of Texas A&M again as a student. His opponents are no longer Oklahoma defensive ends or Texas safeties, they're college exams like the one he had just walked out of when I met him yesterday.
Normally, it's the job of a writer to remove himself from the story, but you'll have to forgive me this personal moment. All day, I thought about what my first question to "The Real Deal" would be. After all, my time in college and his overlapped by three years, so this is a player I was a true fan of. But when we sat down, my opening question was the most obvious one. Does it really seem like it's been ten years?
"Yes and no," he laughed. "When I see all the kids here now, everybody is 19 or 20, it makes me feel like ten years was a long time ago. But being out there on the field, it feels like yesterday I was out there with them. I just love being back really, just being around the environment again is like not other."
Now a regular student amongst almost 50,000 active undergraduates, McNeal laughs when he looks back on the challenges he faced as a freshman in 2002 trying to even get across campus.
"It was rough. Real rough," he said. "Any time I stepped out, they've seen my picture on the screen or in a magazine or books or whatever. Any time I walked outside or walked the campus it was something about football with some female or some dude, that was constant. Now, everything goes a whole lot smoother when you're not known on campus as much."
"It's just a whole lot smoother now. I can just concentrate on my studies, I can just go in and focus. I don't have to worry about people bothering me, or asking me about things,” he pauses before laughing, “or asking me what we’re going to do this week or asking me if they should bet on the game."
McNeal doesn't have much work to do to get his degree, and said he already has a career in mind for when he graduates next year.
Kevin Sumlin was McNeal's offensive coordinator his freshman season at A&M.
"I plan on coaching. I want to start coaching," he said. "I go out and help the team out every once and a while when I'm here on Tuesday's and Thursdays. I have a good relationship with Coach Sumlin so hopefully, I have a year left of school, hopefully when I get done I can come right in and help out with coaching."
That relationship with Kevin Sumlin is one that McNeal has kept up with through the years when both were away from Texas A&M. Even now though, he remembers what it was like playing for the man who now leads the A&M program. He said the future of the Aggie offense was the first thing he thought of when he heard the news last December.
"We were great," he said. "'Sum' was a players coach, you wanted to play for him, he made you want to play. He made the game fun for you, that's what the game is about. When you're scoring points and putting up a lot of yards, especially for an offense it doesn't get any better than that."
"My reaction was a lot of points," he added. "They're going to be a lot of points put up in the SEC, I'm not going to lie. When they signed 'Sum' that was the first thing I thought of. I don't know about the defense, but I know the offense is going to put up points every week, especially now that they have a young quarterback. They're young right now, but once they get rolling you'll see the numbers will start improving vastly."
Speaking of the young quarterback, Johnny Manziel might be the most talked about freshman signal caller since McNeal was on campus. And he's under tremendous pressure from all angles to have a successful first season. McNeal said that even though he came in a highly touted player, he didn't have the same kind of pressure Manziel does. However, he thinks Manziel is in good hands with Sumlin at the helm.
"Because I wasn't starting there wasn't as much pressure. I could start on the sideline and ease into it by watching, the pressure wasn't on me that much," he said.
"That Oklahoma game, Sumlin was the coach then, the first thing he told me when I got on the phone was 'Young man, go have fun, you've been playing this game for years. Ain't nothing changed, just go have fun.' That's what happened the whole time I was with him."
By going out to practice, McNeal has had a chance to see A&M's current signal caller up close and personal. And he sees many of the same things that Sumlin and Kliff Kingsbury have talked about.
McNeal has been impressed with what he's seen out of A&M's new signal caller.
"He's an athlete," he said. "You can tell he's young from the way he plays, I look at it like a coach, you see the upside in him because the boy can play. He's athletic, he's got the arm, everything is there he's just young right now. Once he gets more experience and starts playing you'll see him improving, you can tell he's getting better and better each week."
The coach and the quarterback aren't the only new things in town though. McNeal shared his reaction to the announcement that A&M was headed to the SEC.
"When I first heard it I was like 'we need to get some more recruits here,'" he laughed. "The first group of guys, we can play with them. Maybe some of the second, but the SEC they have so much depth, so many people. You take Alabama or LSU, they rotate three or four lines, it's just the depth. Speed wise and everything else we should be fine."
After hearing that McNeal has been out to practice and seen the current Aggies, you can't help but wonder if he has thoughts of being a freshman again. When he looks out at the crop of young talent Sumlin has, especially at wide receiver, does he ever picture himself in Manziel's place?
"I had some good ones. Jamar Taylor, (Terrance Murphy), Jason Carter, I had some good ones," he said. "I wouldn't mind being Manziel though, he has some guys that can go. (Mike Evans), he has huge upside, big body, nice hands, knows how to use the body. Little McNeal, Swope, they have some guys."
While the receivers compare favorably, he did joke that there's one part of the A&M team he'd like to play with.
"I haven't paid too much attention to the offensive line, but those two tackles, those two guys can play. I wouldn't mind being behind them two," he said.
McNeal played for two head coaches, and three offensive coordinators during his time in College Station. Asked about the relationships he has with those coaches, McNeal said he's still close with the man that recruited him to Aggieland. As for his other head coach, well, their relationship is more complicated.
"RC, that was my guy, I won't lie," he said. "I try to keep up with RC on the regular. I had lunch with him a couple of months ago when and I just got back in school so I should be catching up with him. I'll see him on Saturday, they're having a thing for him so I'll chop it up with him then. Franchione, we had some ups and downs. For the most part it stayed on a level note, but we had some rocky times. We did, no doubt about that."
With everything that happened to the Aggies while McNeal was in college, he still said that he wouldn't change anything if he had to do it all over again.
"There's not much I would have done different, I don't believe," he said. "My four years here were great. I had a lot of fun playing, fun off campus, I got a lot of love here all the time, still do. I don't really have too many regrets."
But then he paused for a second and thought before he admitted that he might change one thing.
"Maybe," he paused again. "If anything, I would have come out after my junior year after I broke those records. That's the only regret maybe."
Even though that thought lingers, he said the positive memories far out weigh the negative ones. In fact, when he thinks of Texas A&M the first thing that pops into his mind is the same thing that comes to mind for most Aggies, The 12th Man.
"The fans," he said. "The fan support here was awesome, it's great. No matter what your schedule or record looks like they back you regardless, they always had my back. After we beat Oklahoma my freshman year, that was amazing too."
Now, ten years after his freshman season at A&M. McNeal is happy to be back among the Aggie family and back among the fans he loves.
"I love it," he said. "It's a great feeling just to know, I've had people tell me that I gave them some of the best memories they ever had, that's special. It was ten years ago and people still talk about the Oklahoma game, people still say 'McNeal, how you doing man' and give me a 'whoop.' It still gives me chill bumps."
On Saturday, McNeal will once again be on the sidelines of Kyle Field as RC Slocum is honored before the game. Again, he’ll be back in front the fans that have loved him ever since he signed his letter-of-intent as a five star player and the nation’s fifth ranked player in the Rivals100. And again, the thousands in attendance will remember him for his heroic acts on the field.
But that’s Saturday. As I sat down to interview him yesterday, it was a perfectly quiet September day in College Station. There weren’t thousands of fans around who recognized him or asked him what it was like beating Oklahoma in 2002, just students walking by, many of them leaving the same exam McNeal had just left. He’s the quarterback who gained over 8,800 total yards in his career in the maroon and white, but you’d never know it. Now, McNeal is perfectly happy being another face in the crowd.
Yesterday was McNeal’s 29th birthday, and as we sat down, the former SuperPrep Offensive Player of the Year and Army All-American told me that it was already off to a good start.
“I just got through acing this test,” he said. “Hopefully.”