Don McNeal is conflicted this week.
"Who do you think I'm going to be rooting for?" McNeal says on the phone from South Florida.
There isn't an obvious answer. The subject is Penn State-Alabama, a game for the history books if not the betting line. (Alabama is favored by 11 1/2 at last check.) The Tide are No. 1 and haven't lost a regular-season game since 2007. Penn State is rebuilding with a true freshman quarterback.
That's where it gets dicey for McNeal. His heart is with both programs. 'Bama fans slurp up their college football history with their grits. The intrigue of the game not only includes the status of Heisman-winner Mark Ingram's knee but also the status of Joe Paterno's future. Saturday marks a sort of goodbye. The 83-year-old Penn State coach is likely to be treated as a visiting head coach of state. We can only assume this could be JoePa's last trip to Tuscaloosa. But you never know.
The game has a Civil War reenactment feel to it. The teams haven't met in 20 years in a series dripping with significance.
Those same 'Bama fans can walk you frame-by-frame through the 1979 Sugar Bowl goal-line stand against the Nittany Lions. They can tell you that Joe is 4-8 against Alabama, 0-4 against Bear Bryant's Crimson Tide teams.
"My heart, I love Alabama," McNeal says more than once from a place deep in that heart which allows him to be a youth counselor at New Testament Baptist Church in Miami. "But I love my nephew, too."
Both McNeal and his nephew will be at the game. You can't miss them. McNeal, 52, will be the one signing autographs and shaking hands. He will be about as big as any celebrity watching this game. Not only is his heart with Alabama, so was his body. His nephew, Robert Bolden Jr., is that Penn State freshman quarterback.
Don McNeal is one of the best Crimson Tide players ever. A rock solid All-American defensive back from rural Artmore, Ala., who won two national championships under Bryant, he showed up on some Alabama all-century teams. McNeal was a part of that '79 goal-line stand, somehow stopping Penn State receiver Scott Fitzkee at the Alabama 1 on second down. It seemed like all Fitzkee had to do after catching the ball was fall over into the end zone. But McNeal's closing speed and his strength punished Fitzkee, taking him out of bounds.
McNeal says his brother, who met JoePa in Pittsburgh the other day, proudly told the coach about his Alabama sibling.
"That was the guy?" Paterno said in mock anger. "Where is he?"
McNeal says he will be neutral Saturday but knows that isn't possible. The presence of Robert Bolden Jr. won't allow it to happen. That is the heart of the conflict on a lot of fronts. Paterno would rather wear leather pants and ride a Harley than play a freshman, but here he is playing one at quarterback. The last time a true freshman quarterback started the season at Penn State, it was Shorty Miller 100 years ago. Bolden is only the third true freshman in the Paterno era to play extensively at the position and first since 2001.
So, yeah, warm up the Harley.
Don McNeal is conflicted because his brother is married to Bolden's mother. She and Robert's father (Robert Sr.) never married but that hasn't impacted the product that took the field Saturday against Youngstown State. In his first college game, Robert Jr. completed 20 of 29 for 239 yards and two touchdowns.
He takes a step up in competition Saturday, but that's why he's at Penn State in the first place.
"This is something we've been considering since Day 1," Robert Sr. said from Detroit. "That's the game I've talked to him about since the day he committed, getting his mind together for what is coming up." So this isn't just a historic mile marker for Alabama in defense of its national championship. Bolden, an 18-year-old veteran of a win over a I-AA team knows exactly what he's getting into.
We can't ask him about it, of course. For now, others have to speak for him. There are top secret Pentagon documents more easily accessible than freshmen under Paterno. The coach won't allow Bolden to talk to the media. Strange. The kid's mature enough at age 18 to lead a team into Bryant-Denny Stadium but somehow can't be trusted to answer questions about it.
It's another conflict, but his time as a public speaker will come too.
"Joe originally told us that the best guy would play," said Bolden Sr. whose son had three days to prepare last week after winning a tight competition.
|Robert Bolden has the unenviable task of starting as a true freshman on the road against the defending champs. (AP)|
Even before Bolden's name got into the mix, Paterno was desperate for a quarterback. When Darryl Clark graduated after 2009, the loss of Pat Devlin looked even bigger. Devlin transferred in December 2008. This could have been Devlin's team had he not moved on to Delaware. His move allowed Bolden to take over at an extremely young age.
Nearby Michigan wasn't an option for Bolden coming out of high school because of the NCAA problems and an occupied quarterback depth chart. Northwestern, Michigan State and Oregon also came hard. His maturity has shown through as much as his athletic ability. There is a little bit of a Greg Oden look to him. Bolden looks older than his years at 6-foot-3, 221 pounds.
His father was into track and boxing, having been born and raised in Detroit. Robert Sr. spent time stationed in Kansas and Germany as a combat engineer from 1992-96 when Robert Jr. was a toddler. Today, Robert Sr. is in law enforcement.
There was never a home visit by Paterno. In fact, the coach reportedly hasn't made one since visiting Terrelle Pryor three years ago. Recruits who once asked how long Paterno was going to be around are either convinced he'll be there or don't care. They are Joe groupies. Talent continues to flow to State College. Bolden was Rivals.com's No. 2-rated dual-threat quarterback.
"It didn't matter then, it doesn't matter now," Bolden Sr. said of Paterno. "To me, he seems to be a lot more in the mix than people think. He might be the ultimate supervisor. He tells those coaches what he wants and then kind of disappears."
That two great coaches and one great family are tied together probably won't be included in most breakdowns. McNeal played for the Dolphins for 10 years then settled in South Florida. In addition to his work at the church, McNeal is a noted speaker. His mother died when he was six. His father raised 11 kids. That's why when Bryant called to recruit him, it was like a lifeline.
"Don McNeal," he remembers that baritone voice over the phone, "I want you to come play for the Alabama Crimson Tide.'
"When Coach Bryant calls you, you have to go," McNeal said. "That was the greatest decision of my life."
Saturday's crucial decision haunts McNeal -- who to pull for in this matchup for the aged and the ages. He remains conflicted. McNeal's rooting interest remains a game-time decision.
"Alabama is blood," he said, "and the Boldens are blood, too."