Even when there is a specific plan in place, there are circumstances in life that can alter the course and send an individual on a different path. That doesn’t always mean it’s the wrong one.
Davonte' Neal was the starting punt returner for the Irish in 2012 as a true freshman.
A recent example of someone experiencing that life-altering change is former Irish wide receiver Davonte’ Neal.
Neal — a two-time Gatorade Player of the Year as a high school player in Arizona during the 2010 and 2011 seasons — welcomed his daughter, Baylee, to the world on Feb. 2. While he had been satisfied with his well thought out college decision to take his talents to South Bend with a post-National Signing Day signature, he felt an internal struggle that urged him to return back home.
Neal decided to leave Notre Dame over the Easter break on a one-way ticket to Arizona to be with his daughter and girlfriend, Marie Burton, who he has been dating since the seventh grade. He initially planned to have them move to South Bend, but ultimately felt better about moving closer to them.
The search for the 5-9, 171-pound player’s next stop quickly began and — despite the initial favorite being UCLA due to the preference of being in Southern California where his father, Luke Neal, has familiarities and ties to the area — Neal decided to meet with Arizona Wildcats head coach Rich Rodriguez, formerly of Michigan and West Virginia. The changing culture in Tucson, Ariz., was something Neal felt he could be a part of.
“The primary reason I chose Arizona was because it was close to my family and my daughter can come see me every day — that was the most important to me and having that family support,” Neal said. “The way Coach Rodriguez throws the ball around is amazing. They do it the entire game. I’ll have an opportunity to play inside and outside receiver in the offense. He does know how to get the ball in his players’ hands and from there they make plays.”
Neal has always been a focused individual, but the addition to his family presents a whole new meaning to his world — both in the present and future.
“Having Baylee in my life just opens the door for me to be a better man,” he said. “It allows me to develop more responsibilities. I’ll become more of a man balancing school, football and having a baby.”
The primary focus now switches to a new chapter and fresh beginning playing for a program that was considered to be in play the first time around. Besides being able to suit up for his home state, the biggest takeaway for Neal is being able to be there for his family both mentally and physically as his journey continues.
Davonte', Baylee and Marie Burton reunited in Scottsdale, Ariz.
“Being closer to home takes a lot of stress off of me because now I can have support from my family in all aspects. I’m available to help support them and I can keep striving for perfection,” Neal said. “It’s just a blessing that they did come into my life because it shows me how much harder I have to work to reach my goals.
“Baylee tops the charts out of all my goals. I set up the same goals of wanting to win the Heisman Trophy (awarded to the best player in college football) and win a national championship, and she’ll only be able to help me become a better player for the motivation I get from her.”
Neal initially expected to have to sit out the 2013 football season after transferring out of Notre Dame, but he plans to apply for an NCAA hardship waiver in hopes of becoming eligible for this fall. He reports to Tucson, Ariz., on May 1.
His Irish tenure may have been shorter than expected, but the impact it left on him will remain for the rest of his life.
“I can’t stress enough how much Notre Dame has done for me and the support I have received from the coaching staff,” he said. “I just want to thank them for having the opportunity to be part of something special.”
Letter To Notre Dame Nation From The Neal Family
We’d like to offer our sincerest gratitude to Coach Brian Kelly, his staff, the student body, and the entire Notre Dame family for all the support they’ve shown us, not only in the past few weeks, but over the past year.
Our experience as part of the Notre Dame football team and community surpassed all of our expectations. From the opening game in Dublin, Ireland, against Navy to the National Championship, we know we were part of something very special. And we have all the confidence in the world that the Notre Dame football program is positioned to have tremendous success in the years to come.
We wish we could be a part of that moving forward, however, Davonte’ has decided after very difficult consideration that the most important thing for him and our family is to be as close to his new-born daughter as possible.
Over the past year, we have developed some great friendships within the Notre Dame community and look forward to staying in-touch with those who have given us so much. We want to take this opportunity to wish Coach Kelly and his outstanding program all the best next season and down-the-road. The Irish will forever be in our hearts and a part of our lives.
All the best and Go Irish!