By the end of last season, standing on his own two feet caused Ruffin McNeill so much pain he needed a golf cart to get around East Carolina practices. By the start of the Pirates' first preseason practice last Friday, he was showing up to press conferences looking like a modern jazz saxophonist and feeling like a svelte assassin:
A slimmed-down McNeill opened his second season as East Carolina football coach with a practice session that he described as a normal first day filled with excitement and a little bit of nerves shown by some.
On a personal level, the East Carolina alumnus and former Texas Tech assistant said it was a good day for him. McNeill used a golf cart to maneuver the practice fields last season as he battled with health issues. But he had a pair of offseason surgeries and said he should rarely need a cart this year.
"I was like a ninja today. The kids couldn't hear me coming up on them," joked McNeill, referring to the noise his golf cart would make during practices. "The cart is there and sometimes I might need it. ... But today was good. I felt good and I've been walking every day. I walked before practice today and I feel great conditioning wise, but it's still a process."
Altogether, the combination of bariatric surgery in January, hip replacement surgery in April and a steady routine of diet and exercise in the meantime has helped the 52-year-old McNeill shed nearly 130 pounds from his peak of 388 last winter. "My brother said 'You've lost a fourth-grader,' " he told reporters last week during Conference USA media days. "I said 'Well, I'm trying to get to where I lost a sixth-grader.' "
Give yourself a little credit, coach: 130 pounds is a huge sixth grader. Pirate quarterback Dominique Davis said the first time he saw McNeill this summer, "I almost ran away." It's probably a good thing he didn't try, or he probably would have suffered the embarrassment of his coach catching him from behind.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.