In a packed gymnasium in this tiny town off I-75, just south of the Florida Turnpike merge, Keanu Neal sat shyly at a table on the stage last Thursday.
Banners proclaiming him an All-American were draped behind him.
Hundreds of adoring fans filled both sides of the South Sumter High gymnasium bleachers in front of him.
Check that. Adoring friends.
“It almost brought tears to my eyes, honestly,” Neal said of the admiration shown by those in attendance at the ceremony officially inviting him to the Under Armour All-American Game, which will be played Jan. 4 at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg. “It was very overwhelming. The whole crowd cheering for me. It was great. I loved every bit of it.”
To know Keke — as his friends call him, as they all call him — is to befriend him. His broad, engaging smile engulfs you with a feeling of comfort from the first moment you meet Keanu Neal.
That’s just how he is. That’s why of most every All-American you may ever meet, of all the ones I have ever met, Keke is the one who most epitomizes the term All-American.
And as crazy as it seems, given what he does on the field, Neal does even more to exemplify that All-American image off the field.
Sure, on the surface he has the GQ looks, chiseled frame and did I mention the smile? But what’s more revealing is the way he treats people: his manners, his demeanor. He’s not fake.
When not playing, he even has this sort of fleeting disconnect from that menacing safety who will draw the cheers of 80,000 screaming fans at the University of Florida’s Swamp for the next four years.
It’s almost an innocence he portrays in his shy, yet revealing personality.
As he talked about the different things happening in his life, about the undefeated season the Raiders (7-0) are having, about the future he’ll have as a Florida Gator, about the All-American status he has earned, he could only sum it up with one word — “amazing.”
“I came from no offers to being committed to Florida,” Neal said of what has transpired since the beginning of his junior season. “That’s truly amazing. I honestly didn’t think I was as good as they put me out to be.”
To those who know him or watch him, no one is amazed, but Neal will never accept that. He will be amazed at everything that comes his way.
Hart didn’t even play college football, sticking close to home to play baseball at the College of Central Florida in Ocala. He said at the time that he wanted to stay close to home to keep tabs on his little brother. Somehow, after stints in the Arena Football League (Tallahassee Thunder and Tampa Bay Storm) and NFL Europe, Hart made it to the big time.
His talent notwithstanding, Hart also set the tone for his little brother off the field.
He was always involved in charity work during his career and was the Chargers' nominee for the NFL’s Walter Payton Man of the Year Award in 2007. In April, he was honored by the American Association of Community Colleges as a recipient of the Outstanding Alumni Award.
“A lot of people expected me to fill his shoes, and those are big shoes to fill,” Neal said. “Some people expect me to be better than he was.”
This kid, too, will be playing on Sundays.
Gator fans can’t wait for Saturdays when Neal will be laying out wide receivers across the SEC. For now, however, there is another goal.
The Raiders expect to be playing in Orlando on Dec. 8 at the Citrus Bowl. There’s no reason why they shouldn’t. OK, maybe there are a few reasons, such as Yulee or Bolles or even East Gadsden. But don’t count the Raiders out.
And surely, accomplishing that, too, would be nothing short of amazing.
Chris Hays is the Sentinel's recruiting coverage coordinator and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Twitter at @Os_Recruiting and Facebook at Orlando Sentinel Recruiting and now on Pinterest at Orlando Recruiting.