CLEMSON – Kareem McNeal was struck by the force of his son’s legs. Powerful and supple, they helped Kevin McNeal escape. Kareem could no longer walk, but his son could run.
It came as a surprise to everyone including Kareem, who had been an attacking lineman in Alabama and an NFL prospect before a 1995 car accident paralyzed him from the waist down. Both legs were later amputated.
Kevin played offensively as an adult until one day his coach tried to run him back. Kareem, watching from his wheelchair, was overwhelmed.
“I couldn’t believe how fast he was,” said Kareem. “It was amazing.”
The coaches at Tuscaloosa Academy (Ala.) Knew they had stumbled upon something special. Soon after, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, who was Kareem’s teammate on the 1992 Crimson Tide national team, caught the wind of rebound with the tireless work ethic and took Kevin in as a companion ahead of the 2021 season.
That Swinney took a chance on his son is testament to the strong bond this championship team has, said Kareem. Clemson Defensive Ends coach Lemanski Hall and safety coach Mickey Conn were also part of that team.
Kevin McNeal is a freshman running back for Clemson. Maddie Williams / Clemson Athletics.
“He helped my son open the door to make his dreams come true,” Kareem said of Swinney. “Whether it goes further or not. But his dream was to play college football and be on a team.”
Kevin may not get much playing time early in the season, but he received two transfers in the Tigers Spring Game on April 3. His father and mother, Rene, watched proudly from the stands in Death Valley.
“It only brought back a few memories from when my husband played,” said Rene.
Rene and Kareem first met in eighth grade in Tuskegee, Ala., And then reunited during their freshman orientation in Alabama. Rene was initially reluctant to meet a soccer player, but Kareem had something special. And his smile. Soon she was a regular at Crimson Tide soccer games and they married in December 1994.
The accident happened one evening in July 1995. Kareem’s brother-in-law, who was driving, lost control when he had to swerve to avoid encountering an oncoming car. His car was blown and Kareem and the other passengers were thrown on the street.
It changed everything for Kareem and Rene. Kareem shifted his focus from the NFL to completing his college degree. Rene switched majors from nursing to child development and family studies, looking for a lower workload so she could take care of her husband.
Rene became Kareem’s unofficial nurse, but she wasn’t alone. Rene, who worked as the resident manager, was relocated to the The Highlands apartment complex, which is where all of the football players on campus lived.
“They always called me Ms. Kareem or Ms. Reem,” said Rene. “Whenever they saw me, they would ask if I needed something or if he needed something.
“They were right there. And I think that was great for Kareem too, because that meant he was still with his football family.”
After graduation, Kareem kept pace with his former teammates, including Swinney. And he settled in fatherhood. In 2002, Rene gave birth to twins Kevin and Carson and four years later to twins Tyler and Harley.
Kevin and Tyler became the group’s soccer players. They watched in awe whenever Kareem switched to an old Alabama game on ESPN Classic. Kevin, who is 5-9 years old, barely recognized the 6-6 Goliath on TV.
“He always had a complex about his size,” Kareem said of Kevin. “He said, ‘Dad, I’m not your size.'”
Kareem hopes his children will learn the power of positivity from him. When he lost his legs, he created new dreams. Long a fan of cooking – whipping fried fish, french fries, and pork chops for his college teammates – Kareem dedicated himself to baking cheesecakes which he delivers to Tuscaloosa restaurants.
In fact, he plans to bring Cheesecake to Swinney and the Clemson coaching staff this summer. The Tigers will host camps for those interested in high school, and Kareem plans to bring along Tyler, 14, who is 6-2 and turning his head as a running back.
Tyler’s even faster than Kevin, said Kareem.
Follow Joshua Needelman on Twitter at @joshneedelman.