Sep. 2—ORANGEBURG, S.C. — Last weekend, the college football season officially began with several matchups taking place as the precursor to Week 1, which got underway on Thursday.
Amir McNeill would usually be studying and preparing for his team's opponent around this time. He still is, just not as a player.
McNeill, a former Scotland High School defensive back who played for North Carolina A&T, was hired to become an assistant coach at South Carolina State this summer after stepping away from his dream of playing in the NFL.
"Honestly, I feel like this is a blessing," McNeill said. "I get to be around football without physically playing. When I was training, that was my thought. I was just coming off of an injury, so I knew that my pro day and stuff wouldn't be 100% how it (went). So, I had the thought of, alright, so if this doesn't work, what else? The only thing I really love is football. And at that point, I couldn't do anything but pray."
McNeill graduated from Scotland in 2017 and played for the Aggies from 2017-22. In college, he had 105 total tackles (88 solo), 18 passes deflected, and an interception. After McNeill's senior season with the Aggies, while he was on the ropes about likely not playing professional football, he received a phone call from Thomas Howard, his defensive backs coach at N.C. A&T.
Howard had taken the defensive coordinator job at S.C. State and told McNeill there was an opening on the coaching staff.
"He was like, I've got a job opportunity for you," McNeill said. "And just for that to happen around the time where (it was the) most critical point in my life, I feel like it's a blessing. Not many people can go from playing college straight to being a college coach. So, I feel like I got a rare opportunity."
Since transitioning to his new role within college football, McNeill has helped Howard coach linebackers.
"He's teaching them a lot of the run stuff," McNeill said. "I teach them pass coverage and work on them with covering and dropping and doing everything in pass situations."
McNeill has not only been teaching others as a coach — he's been learning himself, too. Being on the other part of the sideline has opened McNeill's eyes to how being a football coach is more than just "yelling and cussing people out."
"It's not easy," McNeill said. "While other players are at home relaxing, we're still in the office game planning for the game. So, the part I learned the most from coaching is the amount of effort you've got to put in. They work just as hard as the players do, just on the opposite end of it. And it's helping me to communicate (and) connect with different types of people on the team. So, it's a learning experience."
With the experience, McNeill has realized that building relationships with players is essential to being a great coach.
"I feel like that's the first thing you've got to do," McNeill said. "(With) me being a young coach, still the same age as some of these players, you can't come off too hard or aggressive. They're going to look at you like another player yelling at them. So, I try to create a bond and trust to where if I'm telling them something, it's like, 'Okay, he knows what he's talking about.' Everybody's going to try to feel you out when you come. So, I just had to put my best foot forward and try to lead (as) an example."
McNeill continues a chain of Fighting Scots who have gone from playing football to coaching it. Tony McRae, the cornerbacks coach at North Carolina Central, Travian Robertson, the defensive line coach at South Carolina, and Robert Beacham, the offensive line coach at Houston, are just some of the ones that McNeill now follows in the footsteps of.
"I feel like this is big," McNeill said. "Just to be an example, to show that positivity can come out of Laurinburg. Even when I meet people and they describe Laurinburg, they think of it as the negatives, and not too many people make it out. And I just wanted to be an example to people. You can grow up, no matter how you're raised (or) how you come up, if you put effort towards something, you can still find another way to be successful, even if it's not strictly football.
"I know a lot of football players believe they're going to NFL; I believed it until I just got here. Until my last day, I believed I was going to the NFL. Anything can happen when God's got something different for you. He took football away from me, but he gave me something even better, which I love, helping people. Even though everything doesn't go right, you can still (take) something positive from it. So, I just wanted to be the example that, coming out of Laurinburg, you can get positive things, and it's not always the negative or bad people coming from Laurinburg."
McNeill's personal goals in coaching include winning the Celebration Bowl and becoming a defensive backs coach.
"Tony McRae also won a Celebration Bowl as a player and a coach. He was the first person to do that, so I'm trying to be the next person to get a Celebration Bowl win as a player and coach," McNeill said. "This is a starting ground. Right now, I'm an assistant coach, but I'll be fine when I know I'm a real DB (defensive backs) coach. That's my big goal in life."
S.C. State opened their season with a 37-7 loss to Jackson State on Aug. 26. The Bulldogs will look to bounce back Saturday at 6 p.m. at Charlotte.