Curtis McNeal rises from L.A. projects

Curtis McNeal ran the ball 18 times for 148 yards, including a 79-yard TD, against Washington. Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

It started in December 2003, when a 5-foot-5, 14-year-old South Los Angeles running back named Curtis 'Moody' McNeal went to the City Section championship game between Carson and Venice High at the L.A. Memorial Coliseum.

Until then, McNeal, a local Pop Warner standout, wanted to go to Dorsey High, where a lot of kids from the Pueblo Del Rio housing project in South L.A. end up going. But his older sister and legal guardian, Sonja McNeal, wouldn't have any of it.

She wanted Curtis, 25 years her junior, to go to school far, far away from the place where he grew up to avoid the gangs, drugs and the poverty.

Curtis would apply for the L.A. Unified magnet program, which allows specialized students in the district to attend certain schools for certain academic curriculums. Dorsey has a police academy magnet, a math and science magnet and a public service magnet. Venice has a foreign language magnet.

The community raised Curtis McNeal.

-- Kennedy Polamalu,
USC coach

Once young Curtis saw Venice hang tough in the Coliseum in the title game, foreign language it was. McNeal approved the move and started trekking to the Westside the next summer.

Four years later, he chose to attend USC -- a university a lot closer to home than his high school. And now, four years after that, McNeal is hitting his peak with the Trojans as the school's No. 1 running back in a season that might go down as the one that reversed USC's fortunes and restored its status as a college football power.

It's been a journey like few others.

"So many things have to go right for a kid to end up where he's at, for a kid to do what he's doing where he's at," says his coach at Venice High, Angelo Gasca. "And so many things can go wrong in the process of getting there.

"And many of them did happen to him."

McNeal has blossomed this season under the tutelage of the USC coaching staff. But it wasn't always like that. At first, he didn't get along with them at all, and so he leaned on others close to him for guidance, like Gasca and Sonja and his longtime girlfriend, Yury Cruz.

"It's not always the coaches, it's not always your teammates, who help you out," says his running backs coach, Kennedy Polamalu. "Sometimes it's the other people as well, a whole group of people from all these different parts of your life. I'm Samoan, and I was always told that it takes a village to raise a young man.

"The community raised Curtis McNeal."


McNeal has 12 siblings. When he was six, his father suffered a debilitating stroke that forced him into a convalescent home in Las Vegas, and his mother grew estranged from the family in the aftermath.

So McNeal's oldest sister, Sonja, who worked as a liaison for the L.A. County Housing Authority, took custody of McNeal and two of his younger siblings. And she raised the three of them, together with her four kids, at Pueblo Del Rio, notorious for being one of the most gang-ridden projects in all of Los Angeles.

There haven't been many success stories, much less athletic success stories.

In our house, we basically took care of each other.

-- Sonja McNeal, Curtis'
sister and guardian

"I know a lot of people from where he's from," said USC running back D.J. Morgan, who first met McNeal as a sophomore in high school when Morgan's Taft High played Venice in 2007. "And a lot of people struggle. Some people may come to college and then drop out, and he was heading down a rough path before he got himself together."

The seven McNeal kids were all within 10 or so years of each other.

"In our house, we basically took care of each other," Sonja said.

Curtis didn't say much. He kept quiet and kept out of everyone else's business while he coped with the environment.

"He's really a shy kid, always been a shy kid," says Sonja, who moved to San Bernardino earlier this year once all of the children moved out. "And he was the easiest to keep out of trouble. He was more focused than the rest of the kids.

"He was still motivated, even then. He wanted to do something with himself."

Soon after he moved in, Sonja enrolled Curtis and his younger brother in a nearby Pop Warner league on a team called the L.A. Demos. Right away, the 6-year-old took a liking to the sport, playing all sorts of different positions and finding success at all of them.

"I was 12 or 13 when everybody was like, 'Yeah, this kid's a running back," McNeal said. "And that's when I stopped growing. I wasn't little then at all.

"It wasn't until I got through high school that I was like, 'Yeah, I'm gonna be short.' "


Every morning, Monday through Friday, for four years, McNeal would get up at 5 a.m. and wait for a bus to pick him up and take him the 20 miles from Pueblo del Rio to Venice.

It normally took about 90 minutes each way. He slept, sat, relaxed and listened to music, then got off the bus and went through a full day of school and football. If he took the school bus home right after practice, which he almost always did early on, he'd get home around 7 p.m.

It was rough. But the neighborhoods the bus took him through were rougher. And it was just about a straight shot after it picked him up -- no stopping and getting off the bus at gang-infested intersections.

"Luckily for him, he was on a yellow school bus, not a city one," Gasca said. "He didn't have to transfer busses and sit in a bad neighborhood waiting for his other bus to come."

I think that whatever gang existed where he was from understood that this was a football player .... They gave him a pass.

-- Angelo Gasca, McNeal's
coach at Venice HS

"As a result of that, I think it was a little safer.' "

But when he got older and started to meet more people at Venice, McNeal started to sometimes stay at friends' houses in the evening. When he did that, he had to take the city busses home.

He did that as few times as possible.

"There were so many people on that bus," McNeal said. "It was nasty. People sneezing, wiping their hands on the bars.

"I couldn't do that anymore."

Until his junior season at Venice, when he started to dominate on the football field, McNeal said he didn't feel that comfortable. For the first two-plus years of high school, he always felt more safe at Pueblo del Rio than at Venice, he said. He had spent all of his life -- that he could remember, at least -- in the projects.

Venice felt new, weird and lonely.

"It's not like he had a bunch of guys who came with him," Gasca said. "It was just him."

"But the cool thing that happened was that, over time, he became friends with all these guys that live over here and he got a new circle of friends.

At Pueblo Del Rio, there are three gangs known to be active. And by traversing South L.A. on a city bus on the way back from Venice, McNeal encountered many more.

Still, somehow, he stayed safe.

"I think that whatever gang existed where he was from understood that this was a football player, a guy who had potential," Gasca said. "They gave him a pass."


McNeal never met USC coach Pete Carroll before the Trojans head coach offered him a scholarship.

He had met all sorts of prominent head coaches who came through Venice High the spring after his junior season when they heard about the numbers he put up, but every single one of them stopped in their tracks when they saw McNeal.

Texas coach Mack Brown came through for a visit, McNeal recalls. Cal coach Jeff Tedford. Oregon State coach Mike Riley. Then-Oregon coach Mike Bellotti, then-Washington coach Tyrone Willingham and many others.

And they all moved on without offering him a scholarship.

They said I was too small to play running back. They literally said it to my face.

-- Curtis McNeal

"They said I was too small to play running back," McNeal said. "They literally said it to my face. They watched my tape and then I'd come in there and my coach would say, 'Here he is.'

"And they'd look at me and they'd say, 'He's too small, he looks bigger on tape.' And I'm like, 'What?' "

McNeal does look bigger on tape. But he has "no clue why."

"After you watch him play for a while, you stop thinking about how big he is, because he doesn't look small on tape," Gasca said. "He doesn't play like that, he doesn't act like that and you just stop thinking about it.

"But they didn't."

Ole Miss and recruiting coordinator Hugh Freeze was the first school to actually offer him, on a Tuesday late that spring. McNeal told Freeze he'd think about it.

On Thursday, he was eating lunch in the cafeteria when his Sidekick lit up with a call from a number he didn't recognize. He picked up the phone and heard Carroll's voice on the other end, but he didn't believe it.

He thought it was a prank call.

Two weeks later, he committed to Carroll and the Trojans, and that commitment never wavered in the subsequent two and a half years he interacted with him.

"A lot of people were telling Moody, 'Don't go there. They have seven or eight backs. You'll never play," Gasca said. "But I told him not to listen."

"I didn't listen," McNeal said.

He trusted Carroll, trusted him like he trusted very few people in his life. So he got to USC in September of 2008 as a late qualifier, redshirted his freshman season and then carried the ball six times his second season.

Weeks later, Carroll was gone and Lane Kiffin was in. McNeal, by his own admission, didn't trust Kiffin at first -- he never trusts anyone at first. The two clashed.


Kiffin and McNeal are both quiet people around those they don't know, so it was a surprise to some that they didn't get along.

How could they clash? They'd barely speak.

But Kiffin had seen McNeal's high school tape and expected a lot from him. And, right away that winter of 2010, he wasn't getting it.

Kiffin wanted more. McNeal wanted to know what he wanted.

"To me, I just felt like I knew they were going to play [others] before me," McNeal said. "Just because I was one of the Coach Carroll guys and they're their own guys, pretty much."

Sometimes, guys have to hit rock bottom before they figure it out, and I think that's what he did.

-- Lane Kiffin, USC head coach

That's common in college football nowadays. Head coaches switch teams two or three times a decade and leave the players recruited at previous stops.

Those players often transfer, and McNeal thought of transferring. But he stayed for that first spring under Kiffin and performed well in practice, putting himself into position to compete for carries come the fall.

Then, in the summer of 2010, McNeal took two summer classes in an attempt to bring up his GPA from a bad spring semester. He knew heading in he needed fairly good grades to stay eligible for the fall.

He got the grade he needed in one class. But he got a C instead of a C+ in introductory cinema. So, a week before the season started, Kiffin called McNeal into his office before practice and broke the news to him.

That day, after practice, Kiffin told the whole team on the field. McNeal felt a sense of shame that he never wanted to feel again.

"Sometimes, guys have to hit rock bottom before they figure it out, and I think that's what he did," Kiffin said this spring. "He was one inch away from off the team, so he's come a long ways."

"He's battled through a lot, struggled through a lot of things that hardly any of us would experience in our life. For him to battle through what he's gone through and come back and make it is pretty special."

McNeal never complained about the academic situation, never blamed it on anyone other than himself. And he fixed it as quickly as he possibly could.

"Everybody talks about his academic struggles, but he really works hard at school," Gasca says. "He didn't get any A's in high school but he didn't get any D's or F's either. He's a very determined young guy.

"We're just grateful that USC was able to stick with him and he could work his way out of the situation."


McNeal's athletic and academic rebirth started a few weeks after he found he wasn't going to play last season.

Mid-semester, it clicked with him that he was going to end up back home at Pueblo del Rio -- without a college degree and without a football career -- if he didn't pick up his grades.

And so he did. He paid attention at tutoring sessions, went to more of his classes, found out exactly what he had to do to get eligible.

McNeal did this thing on his own.

From his high school coach to the community to his girlfriend, he's got some people that make sure that he gets back up.

-- Kennedy Polamalu

"I took a big step," he said. "I made a personal choice to get better at it, and I did."

McNeal did better in the fall and even better in the spring, but he still had to take summer classes to make sure he was eligible for this season. He found out for sure in late August, not long before the Trojans' season opener against Minnesota, which he had the opportunity to start when Marc Tyler was suspended because of off-the-field issues.

He didn't start, and that made him frustrated, people close to him said. He only got eight total carries in USC's first two games.

Then, in the third game against Syracuse, he broke out as the Trojans' leading rusher, running five times for 79 yards, including a big 43-yard rush late in the game. Two weeks later, against Arizona, he had another 44-yard run and 74-yard day, and two weeks after that, he officially broke out to the tune of 24 carries and 118 yards against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in South Bend.

He hasn't had a bad game since.

Looking back, his improved play this season has come from two primary factors: trust and an opportunity to succeed. And, really, they go hand-in-hand.

"He knows that we're not gonna let him quit, we're not gonna let him fail," Polamalu says. "From his high school coach to the community to his girlfriend, he's got some people that make sure that he gets back up.

"He's gone through some things, yes, but he knows who he trusts. That's part of his shell -- he doesn't trust everybody. But once you get in that circle of trust, he's very loyal."

And that's by design.

"With me, where I'm from, I grew up a different way," McNeal says. "Outsiders are outsiders. That's how I treat everybody, as an outsider.

"Once you're in my circle, you're in my circle."


His nickname is well known by now, almost as much as his given name.

He's Curtis "Moody" McNeal, and he has been since he started playing. Everyone who knows him knows it.

But Kiffin and the staff at USC don't like it. And, for a time, they forbade anyone from calling him Moody, and it worked around the program. But, as they learned, it's hard to take a name away from someone that they've been going by their whole life.

It doesn't just happen like that.

"For us, he'll always be 'Moody,'" Gasca says of those at Venice High. "We don't see him and say, 'Hey, what's up, Curtis? If he told me to stop calling him Moody, I'd stop, but he never has.

"It doesn't have the negative connotation to us that it might to other people. To us, it's symbolic of a guy that has an unflappable determination, that there's nothing or no one in his life that can stop him from where he's going."

USC said it was a representation of, well, his moody behavior, which was, for a long time, quite true. But the nickname also represented his refusal to accept things that happened in his.

He was Moody, and he was proud of it.

"I would warn anybody with that belief that it's partly that attitude that allowed him to be able to overcome the things that he has overcome," Gasca says. "You take that part away, you might be taking the very part that makes him the special guy that he is."

It's like watching your son trip and fall in front of everybody. You wanna go pick him up, hug him, tell him it's going to be OK.

-- Angelo Gasca, on McNeal's fumble
in the third OT against Stanford

The moment where USC officially realized that -- despite the moniker -- he no longer was truly moody came a few weeks ago. In the third overtime of the Stanford game at the Coliseum, McNeal got the ball at the four-yard line and tried to carry it in for his third touchdown of the game, which would have put the Trojans in position to get a two-point conversion to tie the game and send it into a fourth OT.

But McNeal dropped the ball and Stanford's A.J. Tarpley recovered it in the end zone to end the game.

After the game, instead of sulking, McNeal came out to talk to the media and take responsibility for his mistake.

"I feel like beating myself up but I just gotta keep my head up and keep pushing," McNeal said shortly afterward. "I'm going to face worse things in life. I just have to keep my head up."

That comment netted him a lot of positive feedback from the school, the coaching staff and supporters. He got hundreds of texts and online messages in the 48 hours following the incident, most stressed to him that it wasn't his fault the Trojans lost.

"The more I got, the better I felt," he said.

But those close to him knew how badly it hurt.

"It's heartbreaking," Gasca said. "It's like watching your son trip and fall in front of everybody. You wanna go pick him up, hug him, tell him it's going to be OK.

"But this kid has overcome so much in his life already. He's determined to continue to overcome any obstacle that's put in front of him."

McNeal has started to hear people near him whispering that he should look into entering the NFL draft, but he steadfastly refuses to even consider it. He's staying for his fifth year in 2012.

The way he sees it, he's in a perfect situation. He's on schedule to graduate with a degree in sociology next December and then do a four-month crash course to prepare for the NFL draft in April.

And, by the looks of things, he'll enter next season at USC as the presumptive starter at running back. With 787 yards and five touchdowns on the year already, McNeal stands a chance of becoming only the second Trojans tailback in the last six years to surpass 1,000 yards in a season.

He'll have the production the NFL teams look for. What he has to do now is prove he can handle the pounding every-down backs take at the college and pro levels.

He's listed at 5-7, but that's generous. And he plays at about 185 pounds. Other backs his height -- Maurice Jones-Drew and Ray Rice, for example -- play at around 210 pounds.

McNeal tried to do that once. He bulked up to 208. But he felt too slow on the field, so he quickly lost all the weight.

"Yeah, I'm going to get the height questions, but there's nothing I can do about that," McNeal said. "It's the weight questions I'm worried about."

That's the thing with McNeal. He worries about what he can control. And he couldn't control where he grew up.

But he could control where he went to high school and where he went to college. And, so far, those decisions have led to a journey of success.

Pedro Moura covers USC for ESPNLA.com.