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The Loneliness Of The League's Leading Runner

The NFL's top rusher, Freeman McNeil of the New York Jets, draws crowds on the field but eschews them when he's off duty

With runners, it's a matter of style. Each one has his own way of doing things, arid if the coach likes what he sees he doesn't do any editing. No heavy pencil. "A great runner is like a Picasso," Sid Gillman, the old San Diego coach, once said. "No one's going to tell him, 'This is the way we do things around here.' "

The best of them put their own brushstrokes on the canvas, and when they're finished there's a whole wall full of beauty. Statistics don't tell the story. A sunset can't be measured in terms of light units. Each runner leaves his own memories: Larry Csonka, a wrecker's ball knocking down a wall; Gale Sayers, a wisp of smoke; O.J. Simpson, a surgeon's probe, the glide and then the quick incision; Walter Payton, controlled fury, a war against tacklers; Jimmy Brown, power and grace, a lion on the hunt.

In New York there's another canvas taking shape. The artist is a 23-year-old Jet halfback named Freeman McNeil, and his brushwork has just begun. His credentials are modest so far. He is in just his second season, and his first was marred by injury. But all the signs are there.

"Bob Ledbetter and I were breaking down film," Jet Offensive Line Coach Bob Fry said last week, "and we kept running plays back, just to watch McNeil."

"Freeman McNeil," says Ledbetter, the running backs coach, "hasn't even scratched the surface yet."

Through the game of Dec. 12 McNeil was leading the league with 532 yards rushing. On Sunday against Tampa Bay he carried 14 times for 53 yards, caught three passes for 49 more and scored two touchdowns as the Jets beat the Buccaneers 32-17.

McNeil's running is one reason, but not the only reason, why the Jets have now won five straight games after an opening-day loss to Miami. They faced the Bucs with the No. 1-rated offense in the NFL, the No. 1 defense and the No. 1 running attack. And the passing attack is right up there. When the Lions drew their linebackers in to cut off McNeil recently, Quarterback Richard Todd lit up the board with 294 yards passing in the first half, and he could have gone for 500 if the game had been close. The Jets won 28-13. Against Tampa Bay, New York showed its defensive muscle, holding the Bucs to 47 yards rushing. McNeil gave the Jets almost all the points they needed with four-and five-yard scoring runs within 53 seconds of each other in the first quarter.

The Jets have had great runners in the past—Matt Snell, Emerson Boozer, John Riggins—but they've never had one who won a rushing title. Now they've got a definite threat. Earlier this year McNeil gave them three 100-yard games in a row for the first time in their history, and now everyone is playing that old game, "Who does he remind you of?"

"If you were to ask what's the state religion in the NFL," Giants General Manager George Young once said, "the answer would have to be Hindu. Everyone believes in reincarnation. They're always saying, 'This guy's another Sayers' or 'another O.J.' "

With McNeil the answer isn't easy.

"Who does he remind me of? Well, I've got to think about that," says Jets Coach Walt Michaels. "Don't forget I played on the same team with Jim Brown for five years."


"And nothing," Michaels says. "I'm tempted to say he reminds me of Boozer. Same herky-jerk style, same way of making something out of nothing, but no, I can't say Boozer. Emerson was a bouncer, a whirling dervish. Freeman? Well, he's not a 4.4 sprinter who's going to run away from people, an O.J. Simpson. He's kind of herky-jerk, and then he finds his spot, and just when you think the issue is decided, hey, things start moving. He'll duck his shoulder—he's pretty good size, 215 pounds—and he'll turn a three-yard gain into seven. A Paul Hornung maybe...nope, I can't even compare him to Paul. Different style completely."

"Dick Bass," says Fry, mentioning the back who was the Los Angeles Rams' leading runner throughout the '60s. "Same instincts. Same ability to read on the move and make that quick, decisive cut. Maybe Freeman's a little more powerful than Bass was."

"You can't compare McNeil to anybody; he's unique," says Chris Ferragamo, McNeil's high school coach at Banning in the Los Angeles suburb of Wilmington and the brother of Ram Quarterback Vince Ferragamo.

"He always was unique. I'll never forget the first day he came to us. He had transferred from Centennial High in Compton, and we were holding our summer tryouts at the Broad Avenue Elementary School. Freeman and his brother Russell jumped the fence, with their cleats slung over their shoulders, and they said they wanted to play football. I said, 'What do you play?' and Freeman said, 'He's a linebacker and I'm a guard.'

"He was a little bowlegged guy, about [1/5] pounds. He was awkward. The sole on one of his football shoes was loose and flapping, and when he ran that's all you could hear, flap, flap, flap. But he could pull out, he could run well, as bowlegged as he was, and I said, 'Wait a minute, you ever play halfback?' and he said no. So I lined him up five yards away from another kid and I said, 'We're going to play rabbit. He's just going to try to touch you. I want you to try to avoid him.'

"Well, he put one move on the kid and ran around him, like street football. So I got another kid, and set the two of them 10 yards away from Freeman, and I said, 'Try it again.' He went for the middle, put an outside move on and cut back through both of them, untouched. I said, 'Oh, oh, I think I've got something here.' "

Something indeed. The little bowlegged kid grew into a 5'11", 200-pounder who, in his two years at Banning, would lead the school to records of 11-2 and 12-1, with a Los Angeles city championship in 1976.

"I don't think I missed a game his senior year," says Frank Gansz, then the UCLA assistant coach who recruited McNeil for the Bruins, and now the special-teams coach for the Kansas City Chiefs. "The game they'd play with their big rival, Carson, well that was like the Super Bowl. Talk about guys who played in that game—Wesley Walker of the Jets, Vince Ferragamo, Frank Manumaleuga, who played linebacker for the Chiefs, Stanley Wilson, the Oklahoma fullback. I mean, you were watching the best high school football in the country."

"In his senior year Freeman caught passes, he ran inside and out, he gained 1,343 yards, averaged 8.1 per carry and scored 27 touchdowns," Chris Ferragamo says. "They named him L.A. City Player of the Year. As far as I was concerned he was the best high school player in the country. The guy who got all the publicity was Alexander the Great, back in West Virginia—Robert Alexander, with the Rams now. But I always felt Freeman was the better player."

McNeil's mother, Mrs. Gladys Milligan, says, "There were so many recruiters calling we could hardly use the phone. Freeman finally chose UCLA because of Frank Gansz. He'd been close to us the whole time. He made Freeman keep his grades up, always kept checking in with us. He'd talk to you without sugarcoating it."

Gansz had found the key. McNeil says he never did like the "hi-hello" types, the phonies, the heavy talkers. "I couldn't stand them in those days, and I can't now," he says. "People have called me easygoing, and I guess I am, but I am also very aware of how people come on. What's always burned me up is when someone who hardly knows you comes on like he's your big buddy: 'Hi guy, how ya doin'?' that kind of thing. Or when they start calling you a nickname only your friends use, like Freemac or Freebie. 'What's happenin', Free?' 'What's goin' on, Freebie baby?' A total turn-off. I play along with it, but inside I'm burning."

It's hard to picture. McNeil has a face that seems built for laughter: twinkling eyes, cheeks a little on the chubby side, a face that creates a roly-poly impression even now when he has trimmed down to 212 pounds, 15 below his 1981 playing weight and the lightest he's been since his junior year at UCLA.

McNeil carries little of the superstar aura. In the locker room he's a ghost. Now you see him, now you don't. Sometimes he drives writers crazy. "Who're you waiting for? Oh, Freeman? Yeah, I think he's still here. No, wait a minute, his clothes are gone. That's funny, never saw him leave."

McNeil calls himself a loner. Last year he bought a five-bedroom house in Dix Hills on Long Island, 30 minutes due east of the Jets' Hempstead training complex, out there in Suffolk County with the potato farmers. It's his refuge, his escape. No roommates, no live-in girl friend, none of those candid, at-home shots for the Sunday supplement: "Freeman McNeil and a, ahem, companion enjoy a quiet evening at home." Just McNeil and his three dogs, two German shepherds and a Basenji.

"My permanent home is Long Island now," he says. "When I was in California for a trip in the off-season, I couldn't stay any longer than five days. I couldn't wait to get back to Long Island. I missed my dogs, can you believe it? I missed the quiet, the peace, coming home after practice, settling down on my water bed and turning on the stereo and just lying there in the darkness, thinking my own thoughts."

McNeil says he started being a loner when he was seven, when his father died. "He was very close to all his kids," Freeman says. "There were four of us then, five now. He'd never take one of us anywhere without taking the others. He was built very much like me, 5'10" or so and about 200 pounds; he'd been a halfback, up to junior college level. When he died, things changed for me. I'd always been kind of a street kid, not in a bad way, not in any kind of trouble way. I was into sports, basketball, bike racing, that kind of thing, but after my father died there would come times when I felt I just had to get away by myself. I'd take my bike and go off somewhere, places I hadn't been before. I always watched the signs so I knew how to get back."

He lived in Compton then. His mother worked in a clothing factory. When he was in the 10th grade he went out for football at Centennial High and didn't last long.

"I was an AYO," he says. "All You Others. You know, the coach says, 'I want my first and second string down here, and All You Others stand over there and watch.' "

When his mother remarried, the family moved to the Carson-Wilmington area, a few miles north of San Pedro, and two years later McNeil was the most sought-after high school player in California.

"I remember Woody Hayes once came to Banning High to talk to me about going to Ohio State," McNeil says. "I visited Washington and Nebraska. At Nebraska they took me to see their weight room. I'd started bodybuilding in high school; I'd compete in the weightlifting contest in our league. The Nebraska weight room wasn't impressive. Boyd Epley, their strength coach, said they were going to put in a new one. [That weight room, completed this year, is among the most impressive in the college ranks.] It was snowing that day. The wind was bitter; I mean the hawk was really flying. I kept slipping on the ice. I thought, uh uh, this is definitely not for me."

USC was firmly in the hunt, naturally, but McNeil says, "I just didn't feel right there. It wasn't my personality. It's hard to explain, but did you ever go someplace and you just didn't feel comfortable? What it finally came down to was Frank Gansz and UCLA. They did a very smart thing when they assigned him to recruit me, because he was one of the finest people I ever met."

McNeil played behind Theotis Brown, now with the Seattle Seahawks, and James Owens, now with the Buccaneers, his first two seasons. Then in 1979 the Bruins tailored their offense to McNeil, using the I formation, which he'd run out of at Banning High, and the yardage started piling up.

McNeil rushed for 1,105 yards his senior year and made a couple of All-America teams, those that picked three backs. The other two spots were filled, unanimously, by Heisman winner George Rogers and the sensational freshman, Herschel Walker.

McNeil had been projected as a high draft pick all along, possibly even a first-rounder, but the pro scouts wanted to know if he could catch the ball. The question was answered in the USC game, the next to last of the season. Third and long, UCLA trailing 17-13 with a little over two minutes to play, ball on the UCLA 42. Jay Schroeder, the quarterback, was flushed out of the pocket and he threw to McNeil, running down the left sideline, but he didn't get much on the ball, and Jeff Fisher, the USC cornerback, stepped up to go for the interception.

"People have written that the ball bounced off Fisher's pads," McNeil says. "Anyway, that's what he told everybody. But I'd like to get the record straight. He had intercepted the pass, and I tipped it out of his hands. Dennis Smith, their free safety, dove for the ball; Ronnie Lott, the roverback, was coming from the other side. He'd come clear across the field. I tipped the ball from my left hand to my right and kept going."

Fifty-eight yards for the winning touchdown. It was one of those plays that will live forever in scouting lore, a little triangle of extreme talent battling for a football, three first-round draft choices—Smith (Broncos), Lott (49ers) and McNeil (Jets)—in one frozen tableau. McNeil won, and in their little notebooks the scouts wrote, "Has hands. Feet. Ball adjustment. Concentration."

"That play," says the Patriots' director of player development, Dick Steinberg, "was probably worth $300,000 to McNeil." Instead of a first-round draft he was now a high first-rounder, very high. The Jets chose him No. 3, after New Orleans had taken Rogers and the Giants Lawrence Taylor. Most scouts had McNeil rated higher than Rogers on speed and pass-catching.

The Jets were a funny kind of offensive team. In 1979 they had led the NFL in rushing without placing a runner in the top 12. Five backs shared the load, operating behind one of pro football's finest offensive lines—Marvin Powell and Chris Ward at the tackles, Randy Rasmussen and Dan Alexander at guard, Joe Fields at center. The team finished 8-8. Next year the Jets switched gears and tried to go long ball with Wesley Walker and Johnny (Lam) Jones. They threw more than they ran, and the season ended at 4-12.

By McNeil's rookie year they were still looking for an identity. They brought in Joe Walton, the former Redskin and Giant tight end, to run the offense, and they brought in McNeil to give it some legs. He started slowly, but after the fifth game, against Miami, he ranked seventh in the league in rushing, and his 5.5-yard average was better than that of anyone ahead of him. Against Miami, though, he severely sprained his right foot. That kept him out of the next five games and limited his effectiveness when he came back. He still finished the season as the No. 1 Jet runner, with 623 yards, but the year was a downer for him.

"We'd talk a lot," Ledbetter says. "He felt bad. He was depressed. Once after a game where he'd done pretty well and the writers had interviewed him, he came over to me and said, 'What were they interviewing me for? I can't even bust a grape.' "

"I played at 227," McNeil says. "I thought you had to bulk up for pro football, I thought that's what it was all about, power and endurance. It limited my effectiveness. The system was tough to pick up, the refinements, the little things. The defense would play games—you'd check inside and see if anything was coming; if not then you'd check outside, but the defensive men might be exchanging, the inside man going outside and vice versa. I felt like I was 10 years old again. I felt I was in with a bunch of people who were a lot older than me, who knew the game. I felt the vibes of not being as good as the rest of them. It was like going to a place and they give you the directions but not the exact address. They tell you it's on this street, and they draw a little square, but the rest of it you have to find by yourself."

The Jets did some tinkering in the off-season. They put in more I-formation plays for McNeil. This was the third time a team had seen his talent for reading out of the I—hanging back, picking his hole and making the quick, decisive move. Banning High, UCLA, now the Jets.

"I'm not only an I formation tailback, I'm an I formation person" McNeil says. "It gives you an advantage. You can spread things out and then cut back, you can see the defensive reactions and figure out just how many yards you can squeeze out of a play. With splitbacks, on quick openers, it's make it and go, hit it quickly. He who hesitates is lost. But without that sense of direction it's not even a play. I'm not a splitback, quick-opener type of person. I like to feel my way around, look for the options, choose my route."

The Jets did some talking to McNeil in the off-season. Michaels told him he wanted him in at 215. He said this was his year to produce, to break it big, to justify the high pick. "When you play in our part of the country you're lost if you can't run the ball," Walton said. "Teams like San Diego and San Francisco can throw more, but when you play in places like Shea and Buffalo and New England it's tough. You'd better be able to run."

"They made it very clear what was expected of me," McNeil says. "Even Leon Hess, the owner, came up to me in the locker room after one game before the strike, New England I think, and said, 'This year you're going to have to carry the Jets.' "

McNeil has broken some long gainers out of a play called the overlead draw, in which he crosses behind the quarterback to get a deep hand-off. "It's perfect for him," Fry says. "It gives him a longer look." The trap on the right side, with Rasmussen's replacement at left guard, a balding powerhouse named Stan Waldemore, doing the trapping, has gotten big yardage for McNeil. And the old standby, 19 straight, a fullback read-and-delay that Weeb Ewbank brought to the Jets from Baltimore in 1963, has been redesigned so the halfback now carries the ball.

"Paul Brown ran that play with Marion Motley and Jimmy Brown," Michaels says. "Alan Ameche ran it for Weeb in Baltimore, and Snell and Riggins ran it for him here. Now it's handed down to Freeman."

It's a raw Thursday afternoon. The Jets have just come in from practice and they're doing the only sensible thing to get warm—yelling.

"I just want to say," bellows Mark Gastineau, the left defensive end, "that Freeman McNeil is the greatest thing that's happened to me since I've been here."

"What's the second greatest?" someone says.

"I just want to say," Gastineau says, stretching his arms, "that he doesn't just go nine or 10 yards, he goes 30, 40, 100."

"Pretty tough to do if you're on the 50-yard line," someone says.

"I just want to say," Gastineau continues, "that Freeman McNeil will make us all rich. Put it down."

O.K. Freeman McNeil will make us all rich.


Truck (left) and Tank know McNeil's isolated house is doggone terrific.


At 212 pounds McNeil is big enough to be a headache for any tacklers he runs into.


Long Island has become home plate for McNeil.


Armed with exercises that were taught by karate expert Richie Barathy, McNeil can stay in trim.


Benny is another four-legged roommate.