Friday Night Hero: South Rowan's Christian Neal
By Ronnie Gallagher
LANDIS – Usually, it’s a senior who steps up with the pre-game speech. But before South Rowan played host to West Iredell on Friday, sophomore defensive end Christian Neal felt it was his time to address is teammates.
“I told them, ‘For the last two years, we’ve been the laughingstock of Rowan County. Tonight’s the night we can change that,'” Neal recalled telling his fellow Raiders.
He wasn’t finished.
“This is it. We’ve got to start our conference on a good note. I know we can do it.”
Somebody listened. After giving up over 60 points in three of its first four games, the South defense dominated the Warriors. The Raiders led 40-7 at one point before taking a 40-20 decision for their first win of the season.
And who made the key play that turned all the momentum? Neal, of course.
South coach Jason Rollins raved about one Neal play in particular that changed the complexion of the game, if not the season, for the Raiders.
West quarterback Brett Pope threw an early touchdown pass for a 7-0 lead but he paid for it when Neal smashed him to the ground.
“It was a rollout pass,” Rollins said, “and we sent Christian off the edge to get the quarterback.”
Neal had seen on film that Pope liked to roll out and he was ready.
“I nailed him,” Neal smiled. “When I hit him, you heard it. The look in his eyes was like, ‘Dang.’ He tried to avoid me the rest of the game. He called plays differently, going opposite of me.”
Actually, Pope avoided Neal and the entire South defense because he left soon after Neal’s play with an apparent injury and didn’t return.
Rollins pointed to his 5-foot-11, 205-pound super soph as the key to the win.
“Christian hit him so hard you could literally see him change from that point on,” Rollins said. “It was such an explosive hit, you could tell it was a game-changer. That quarterback was looking for Christian. He knew he was coming.”
Rollins felt Neal would be making those plays, just from a linebacker position. But he moved him to defensive line.
“We made a point to put Christian out there to create havoc,” Rollins said. “He did. I told him it’s a glorified linebacker. We repped him, trying to get him to understand the technique. Once he got it, he was non-stop.”
Rollins has always seen the talent. Neal is the only Raider other than Mark McDaniel to play as a freshman. He started out as a noseguard, then linebacker.
“Coaches said I was playing like Caderreus Mason,” Neal said, referring to the former South star, now starting for UNC-Pembroke’s defense.
That’s quite a compliment and Neal should continue getting more. He certainly isn’t letting up.
“We’re not sure he has a low gear,” Rollins chuckled.
On the field or in the locker room. Last week’s talk spurred on a team to win its North Piedmont Conference opener and share first place after one week. Suddenly the 0-4 start can be forgotten.
“We can’t go back and change it,” Neal reasoned. “Every week, we try to come up with something to motivate us.”
How about instituting a weekly Christian Neal pre-game speech?