For longtime Viking fans, Fred McNeill generated enduring memories. His highlights seem frozen in time, just like the old turf at Metropolitan Stadium. There’s No. 54 blanketing the swift running back in the flat. There he is plugging a hole by engulfing a bruising ball carrier. There he is projecting his body to block a punt and give his team life in the Super Bowl.
At 6-foot-2, 229 pounds, McNeill was the prototypical outside linebacker during his 12 seasons (1974-85) in purple. His impressive combination of speed and strength and knack for the big play made him one of the most reliable defenders in Minnesota’s 50-year history. McNeill served as both a sparkplug for the twilight years of the Purple People Eaters and as a defensive mainstay when the Vikings ushered in a new era.
Today, McNeill’s own memories of his treasured time with the Vikings are cloudy. The man who defensive mates relied on to quickly diagnose and shout out the opponent’s plays can’t recall the scores of the Super Bowls he played in. The man who became a successful lawyer after retiring from football can no longer function in his chosen profession. The man who has been known to be one of the nicest guys around can’t always remember all the special people in his life. At the age of 58, McNeill is suffering from dementia linked to head trauma sustained during his time in the NFL.
The signs began to appear about a decade ago. They were seemingly innocuous at first.
“There would be simple things,” says McNeill’s wife, Tia. “He would say he would pick up the kids and then he wouldn’t pick them up. Things like that.”
Then came problems at the office. Increasingly McNeill couldn’t keep up with the workflow. His executive functioning began to diminish, and he was released as a partner at a Twin Cities law firm. He found work in private practice, but he wasn’t the same.
“Fred is a brilliant man,” says Tia, on the phone from Los Angeles where the McNeills moved in the late 1990s. “His doctor has told me that he tried covering this up for a long, long time. He didn’t know what he was feeling. He just knew he wasn’t being very productive and that he wasn’t right. I can only imagine his frustration.”
In July 2009, McNeill was officially diagnosed with dementia, or as he referred to it in a separate phone conversation, “difficulties caused by the impact of football.” The Vikings’ first-round draft pick in 1974 speaks very deliberately and clearly about his conflicted feelings.
“I’m happy to be alive,” he says. “I have been fortunate in a lot of different ways. I was in a position where I was making pretty good money. I was an attorney for over 20 years. The biggest case I resolved was a $2.5 million class-action suit.”
After a long sigh, he adds, “Right now, I’m in the position of shutting down my office. Essentially I’m trying to get more assistance because of the impact of playing football.”
Tia says day-to-day life is becoming more difficult for her husband of 27 years. As an example, she points to a photo shoot the couple recently granted the California Bar Journal. The publication is doing a story on the NFL and workers compensation.
“We left the photo shoot and Fred said to me, ‘Who did we do that for?’” she says. “Of course, I told him what it was for 10 times on the way there. Even though we were there and talked to the people, he’s like, ‘What was that?’
“Some long-term stuff he can talk about. But he has trouble with short-term recall. When he was interviewed on CNN by Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Fred could talk about the Super Bowl when he blocked Ray Guy’s punt. But he couldn’t remember Dr. Gupta’s name.”
The likes of CNN and HDNet’s World Report have recently featured McNeill’s plight in dissecting the possible long-term effects of playing football and the NFL’s perceived reluctance to financially care for ex-players who suffer medical issues. During the past few years, the league has been scrutinized by the media and the U.S. Congress for the red tape that must be untangled in order for ailing NFL alumni to receive disability payments.
Initially McNeill did experience some difficulty securing financial compensation from the league, but Tia says once McNeill’s application for disability through Social Security was accepted in October 2009, disability from the NFL became automatic. McNeill, who had a couple documented concussions and as he says “lots of other hits that left an impact,” also receives financial assistance for custodial care through the league’s “88 Plan.” Named for tight end John Mackey, who wore No. 88 during his Hall of Fame career with the Baltimore Colts, the “88 Plan” provides benefits for either institutional or custodial care to former players suffering from dementia without requiring the individuals to prove a direct link between football and their medical conditions.
Tia says more financial assistance from the league would be welcome, but the couple does not view the NFL as an enemy.
“By no means is Fred bitter toward the league or the Vikings,” she says. “He realizes it was a rough sport. When he was playing, no one knew this piece to it. They are just seeing the results now. He relishes his years in Minnesota. He’s still a Viking fan.
“The biggest thing now for him is his pride. Fred prepared for life after football. He went to law school, which was his plan to take care of his family. That’s his biggest disappointment now, feeling like he can’t do that.”
Asked if he would have still played football if he knew about the possible health ramifications for the second half of his life, McNeill provides an answer that should reverberate from Pop Warner through the NFL.
“Not playing would have been an alternative,” he says, “but if I knew then not to use my helmet as a tool to tackle people I think I could have been in a position to avoid the impact that I’m experiencing now.
“I was looking at that as good (technique) because it would work. I was not thinking about the impact a concussion was going to have on me when I would be 58. I didn’t know it was going to be something I would have to deal with later in life. Right now, everybody should be taught not to do that. You can do it a different way.”
McNeill discovered that by accident midway through his career. Rather than leading with the top of his helmet to tackle, he found a more “comfortable” method that he tried to utilize the remainder of his days in the league.
“I wish I could have video of this play,” he says. “An offensive lineman, about 260 pounds, came up to block me, and I dropped down with my forehead, instead of the top of my head. I came up with my face to his chin. I had leverage on him from coming up underneath, and I didn’t feel the impact. If I led with my helmet, a guy that size, I would have normally felt it, and it would have been painful.”
McNeill applauds the NFL’s decision this year to crack down on head-hunting. The league has aggressively enforced existing rules that prohibit striking a defenseless player in the helmet or neck area, using the helmet to hit a defenseless player and dropping the helmet to spear an opponent.
“If people want to continue playing, it’s a good thing they are penalizing going head to head,” he says.
Despite the inherent danger of the game and health implications for him personally, McNeill is bullish on the sport.
“Football is a great game,” he says. “I enjoyed it. Overall I was very fortunate to be in the position where I could play a sport that I enjoyed and be compensated for it.”
At Baldwin Park High School near Los Angeles, McNeill ran track, played basketball and was a star running back and linebacker for the football team. UCLA took notice. McNeill became a stellar defensive end for the Bruins. By the end of his senior year, the Vikings became enamored with McNeill’s 4.65 speed and his potential as an outside linebacker in taking him with the 17th overall pick in 1974.
“When I was at UCLA, I was pretty much into playing football and trying to get my degree,” says McNeill, who earned his degree in economics. “I really wasn’t watching pro ball, thinking about getting drafted. When I started having conversations with agents, then I started thinking about it.”
Despite his lofty draft status, McNeill felt anything but secure when he reported to Mankato, Minn. for his first training camp. The Vikings were fresh off their second Super Bowl appearance and boasted a stellar defensive unit, including veteran linebackers Jeff Siemon, Roy Winston and Wally Hilgenberg, and flashy rookie Matt Blair, a second-round pick.
“I was not guaranteed anything considering how good the players were who were already there, the Purple People Eaters,” McNeill says. “I felt a lot of pressure. I tried to listen and learn from the coaches and do the things that I was being taught to do and learn the plays.”
McNeill impressed enough to earn a roster spot and to see occasional duty at outside linebacker his rookie year. Early in his career, he really made his mark on special teams. In McNeill’s first game, he caused a fumble on a punt return. Two years later, he produced arguably the most memorable positive play in Minnesota’s sorry Super Bowl history.
Jan. 9, 1977 was the day the Vikings hoped to finally grasp the Lombardi Trophy. For the third time in four years and fourth occasion in franchise history, Minnesota was in the Super Bowl. With an aging nucleus of players, this would be the last chance for some of the all-time great Vikings to erase the sting of three previous losses in the big game.
McNeill provided the Vikings with a golden opportunity for their first-ever Super Bowl lead. In a scoreless duel late in the first quarter against the favored Oakland Raiders, McNeill did the unthinkable. He became the first man ever to block a punt off the foot of All-Pro Ray Guy. In a flash, he flew around the right side of the Oakland line, propelled his body through the air and blocked the punt before recovering it on the Raiders’ 3-yard line. The Vikings were poised to seize the lead and momentum. But two plays later, Minnesota fumbled the ball away and the Raiders were on their way to a 32-14 win.
“That play is one of my highlights,” McNeill says. “But I always think how I could have improved it by picking up the ball and stepping in for a touchdown. I was always trained not to pick up the football on a fumble. I was trained to fall on the ball and cover it. If I had picked that sucker up and stepped over for the touchdown that could have had a big impact for us.”
By the next year, McNeill was having an impact as a starting outside linebacker for the Vikings, a position he held until an accumulation of injuries forced him to retire after the 1985 season. At one point, McNeill, whose brother Rod also played in the NFL from 1974-76, started 102 consecutive games for Minnesota, and his 157 regular-season games in purple ranks 21st in team history.
McNeill credits tape study, his coaches and outstanding teammates for his quality career. But as he speaks, it’s clear that he is just as proud of his effort to go to law school and his eventual legal career as he is of his playing days. While he was a young player, McNeill admits he had a “good time” during the offseason and wasn’t worried too much about his future. His mother, though, was. Prompting by her and other relatives and friends in the legal profession convinced him to think about tomorrow. One of the influencers was eventual Hall of Fame defensive tackle and future Minnesota Supreme Court justice Alan Page.
“We’d be going on road trips and Alan Page would be sitting there reading books,” McNeill says. “He was studying law books. That influenced me.”
McNeill began taking law classes in the offseasons during the late 1970s and earned his law degree after he retired from the Vikings before embarking on his successful run as an attorney.
While that run is now complete because of the dementia, McNeill still has zest for life. He plays golf, enjoys his family (he has two adult sons) and does consider one day sharing his story to prevent others from suffering the same fate.
“My sons keep telling me that I should be a coach,” he says. “I would love to be in a position like that where I could talk to players who are learning about football and teach them the right way to make tackles to avoid having concussions. Teach them about the way to do it right so they don’t carry the impact with them the rest of their lives.”
As for the remainder of his life, Tia says her husband is proactive in seeking treatment for his condition. He takes supplements and other medications he hopes will stabilize the degeneration. McNeill is tested monthly to gauge the treatment’s effectiveness.
“We are not angry by any means,” says Tia. “Fred is the nicest man on earth, and I will do anything to help him and make sure he is taken care of. I’m grateful that I’m able to get him some help. I know things can always be worse. I’m hopeful that he will do better.”
That would be one more memory of Fred McNeill to truly cherish.