"Freshman year of high school, I could dunk a basketball," McNeil says, "I thought I was the next Dirk Nowitzki." He laughs, claps his hands lightly. "When I got to Tennessee I had a 33.5 inch vertical. At six-four, 295 pounds." All is silent for a short while in the nearly empty parking lot. After a time, McNeil breaks the silence. "One hand, two hand dunks, I could do it all. That's how I hurt my left knee the first time, shattered it coming down after a dunk."
In 2005, Josh McNeil was the top center recruit in the country, a high school phenom from tiny Collins, Miss. He selected Tennessee after a recruiting visit to USC. Everyone in the nation wanted McNeil, the son of a Southern Baptist preacher, with a soft Southern drawl and a habit of playing through pain, to play college football for their school.
Nine days ago, on Wednesday, Aug. 26, McNeil underwent his fifth knee surgery.
His left knee was in such bad shape he'd need the meniscus from a cadaver. He'd also need a pothole-wide hole in the bone of his left knee filled in via the bone graft from a dead person as well. No one at the University of Tennessee has ever needed both operations before. There is no question that this procedure on his left knee will end his football career.
But football is just a small part of his future life, and he still may need a total knee replacement by the time he's 35. Generally doctors refrain from performing these operations before someone turns 65. Faced with this dire forecast, McNeil walked into coach Lane Kiffin's office on Friday, Aug. 28 and announced he was finished with football.
The doctor's prognosis was right. His prediction wasn't. Four days after telling Kiffin his career was over, McNeil decided his heart could take what the doctors thought his knee couldn't.
After all, no amount of pain ever hurt Josh McNeil the way losing football would.
This would be something of a pattern for Josh McNeil's career. In the fourth game of his freshman season, he tore his meniscus. In the fifth game, he was named starting center. Whatever didn't hobble him made him stronger. By the end of the season, McNeil was a Freshman All-American. A year later, McNeil would wrap up another strong campaign. And he'd have another surgery, this time microfracture surgery on his knee.
He never missed a game.
By his junior season, a 5-7 disaster that left him awake at night, McNeil rehabbed from 7 in the morning until 9 at night. He was in the football facility all day except for two classes. His play suffered due to the excruciating pain he was under, but McNeil played on. Entering this season, Mel Kiper pronounced him the No. 2 center in the country. McNeil grins at the mention of Kiper's analysis.
"You think Mel would still have me there if he'd seen my MRI and surgery files?" McNeil asks. It was this reason he didn't make himself eligible for the NFL draft after his fourth season at Tennessee. Even though he'd already graduated with a degree in communication studies, McNeil knew he'd be flagged by the NFL scouts and doctors.
Once flagged, McNeil feared he'd be adrift in a world he'd never known, a world without football.
McNeil lasted just four days without football. Until Tuesday, Sept. 1, the day summer gave up the ghost to fall, when he decided to return for one more year of football, consequences be damned. "I had two [practice] days without it," McNeil says. "I went to the doctor and he said if I could withstand the pain, I could play in six weeks, that I wasn't going to hurt myself any worse."
Alone in his apartment while his two roommates, tight end Jeff Cottam and offensive lineman Aaron Douglas were away at practice, McNeil played the Madden video game for hours and hours, lost in his own football fantasy. "I don't know how every college student isn't a doctor or a lawyer. What do they do with all that time?" he jokes. "I missed football too much."
So he set out to prove another prediction wrong. Just two and a half weeks after his surgery, McNeil plans to be suited up on the Tennessee sideline.
What do you love more than football?
McNeil pauses and stares away into the distance.
"Nothing," he says, "but if you'd asked me two weeks ago, I'd have said 200 other things because every day was so miserable with the pain. But just two days without it and I'd give anything to be with those guys for one more day."
That's why Josh McNeil is coming back to football, even though he'll pay for every step and may not be as dominant as before. "I would rather be out there 75 percent of what I used to be and knowing the next play could cripple me for life than wonder what could have been."
He laughs softly, "Ninety-nine percent of people would say I'm an idiot, but ask any football player who loves the game like I love the game, and they'd agree with me." He takes a deep breath, sighs, then continues, "My passion for football is literally something that might take away my ability to walk. And people ask me if it's worth it and I say, 'I don't know.' But then I start thinking it's 4th-and-1 against Alabama and I'm the center and we have to have a first down or the game is over and it all comes down to that one play. Everything. And people ask, is it worth it?
"That's a dumb question. You damn right it's worth it."
In McNeil's place on the football team, Cody Sullins, a former walk-on who has been on scholarship the past two seasons is starting at center. Sullins and McNeil are good friends; they room together for football trips. "People say he used to be a walk-on, but Cody Sullins is a damn fine player. I have more respect for him than any other person I've ever played with." On this night, Sullins is in bed at the team hotel and McNeil is standing in a parking lot confessing that he doesn't want to go back to his apartment, back to the dark and silent apartment where he'll be alone while his roommates sleep the night before a game.
"I'm going to work out at 7:30 tomorrow," McNeil says. He's already requested that the strength coach leave the gym open. He'll be alone with the weights. Then at 10:20 he meets the other injured Vols at the football complex. They'll walk across the street to meet the team buses for the Vol Walk. Later that day McNeil will walk through the T for the first time in his career.
"I'll be reading those maxims and get to No. 7, we say -- carry the fight -- and I'm not going to be carrying the fight, I'm going to be standing there on the sideline. I'm going to feel guilty for being hurt because I should be out there battling with my boys."
Thinking about walking through the T, in an orange No. 50 jersey tucked into black pants, McNeil's eyes begin to cloud. He reaches up, scratches his nose. "I'm probably going to cry walking through the T," he says.
McNeil says he's learned a lot playing football, that his skin has thickened even as his knee has weakened, that he no longer lets the anonymous insults on sports talk radio or message boards get to him. But he's not being completely honest. "My biggest fear in life is for people to think I'm a failure," McNeil says. "That's what I'm haunted by the most, what is everybody going to think about a preseason All-SEC pick who can't even play for his team? People don't know how bad I want to play. They just don't. That bothers me. Sometimes when people rip me for not caring enough or trying hard enough or whatever they say, I want to pull out the X-ray of my knee and put it there for them to see. Say, OK, here is a normal knee, and now look at my knee. You see what's there?"
"Nothing. No cartilage. Just two bones that look like they been dragged along an asphalt highway behind a truck. Nothing in between. Just a pothole in the middle of the knee."
Even still, as he awaits the bones and meniscus of a dead person to make him whole, McNeil vows that he's going to play this, the final season of his football life. When he told the doctor he wanted to play one more season, the doctor told him he could play so long as he could withstand the pain. "He told me I couldn't hurt my knee any worse than it already was hurt. It's already going to be a three-month rehab anyway." Even with the pain, McNeil can't help wanting to play for one more year, can't imagine what life would be like if he didn't play football as long as he possibly could.
"I feel sorry for Brett Favre. We live 10 minutes from each other, I've always loved him. He's so beaten up from football. A 350-pound defensive tackle doesn't scare Brett Favre one bit, and I'm the same way. But you know what scares the hell out of both of us?
"A life without football."
McNeil looks down at his bare left knee, up again at the early September night, bright orange moon shining over the parking lot.
"I'll be fine," he says, "I've got a high pain tolerance."
Clay Travis is the author of three books. His latest, On Rocky Top: A Front Row Seat to The End of an Era chronicles the 2008 Tennessee football season, is on sale now.