CHAMPAIGN, Illinois — The moment will be cherished and remembered.
T.J. Neal’s graduation is a first for the Neal family, and though it’s time to celebrate Saturday at the University of Illinois, the celebration will be short. He has plans to leave later that night for Auburn, where the linebacker will play immediately as a graduate transfer.
Until then, those few short hours surrounded by family, friends, girlfriend and daughter will be all that matters as the three-time member of the All-Big Ten academic team crosses the stage and grabs his diploma.
“I’m so excited because all my life I just think I struggled with school growing up,” the McKeesport, Pa., native told SEC Country during a visit to his apartment in Champaign, Illinois. “Teachers told me you’re this, you’re that and would call me out my name. I was stupid, retarded, slow or whatever, I was going to have a hard time when you go to college. You’re going to be coming back home.
“To actually get that diploma, that degree and walk across, I’m going to celebrate and scream.”
It’s believed Neal will be the first in the family to earn his bachelor’s degree, which includes 18 grandchildren on both sides of the family.
Neal finished with 109 tackles for the Illini in 2015, ranking eighth in the Big Ten. He has racked up 207 tackles over the last two seasons but Illinois’ losing seasons took a toll.
Neal could have stayed at home and played at Pittsburgh out of high school, but like many college kids with opportunities, he wanted to make a life for himself. He also knew temptations would follow him everywhere in the big city. That simply could not happen with a blank slate seven hours from home.
“The environment I grew up in wasn’t the most positive environment,” he said. “A lot of my friends were doing drugs or on drugs or selling drugs or in jail. So, I felt like if I stayed home or stayed near I would have been too comfortable and I’m more likely to get in trouble with the company that I’m keeping. Instead, I went somewhere else totally different. I didn’t know anyone and started from dirt to become my own person and build it my own.”
The move was fully supported by Neal’s father, Tyrone, a hard-working, blue-collar man that helps set up events for weddings and other commercial events in Pittsburgh.
“It was big time,” Tyrone Neal said. “He could have played at Pitt but he planned to leave and live his own life and experience own things. That right there was a grown-up move and he’s been making adult decisions ever since. I’m just proud of him. Words can’t even describe how I feel.”
T.J. Neal has been packing his small apartment for the last two weeks preparing for his 10-hour drive to Auburn. Along for the ride is his girlfriend Chanel and 7-month-old daughter Tai Mackenzie, who will live with him during the 2016 season at Auburn.
He met his girlfriend at a party more than three years ago. Like many men falling in love, he was “goofy” when he first introduced himself. “The rest was history,” he said. The budding family motivates him as he chases down an NFL dream.
“I’m planning on marrying her in the near future,” T.J. Neal said. “We’re still building and connecting and growing.”
Until then, he’ll grab his diploma, celebrate and load up a moving truck for Auburn for a 10-hour drive to the Plains. ETA is 4 a.m. Sunday.
“It’s going to be like heaven, a kid in the candy store with some of the top guys and prospects: Carl Lawson, Montravius Adams and the second and third string is pretty good,” T.J. Neal said. “It’s scary. My time here at Illinois, we never had depth like that with defensive linemen.”
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