TJ Neal took a circuitous route to pursue his dreams of playing professional football, transitioning from big college programs to hotel life as he bounced back into the indoor and spring leagues.
The 28-year-old McKeesport native has worked in the dark while watching his former Illinois and Auburn teammates shine in the NFL, heeding their words of encouragement that he belongs to a more big stage.
Neal played for the Sioux Falls (SD) Storm as they won the United Bowl of the Indoor Football League in 2019, signed with the CFL before his season was canceled by covid-19 in 2020 and has played inside linebacker for the Spring League linemen as they won the Mega Bowl last year.
“It’s been a long journey,” Neal said. “I always dreamed of playing football. I knew I had the ability. If I didn’t think I could do that, I wouldn’t train so hard, I wouldn’t train five days a week. I I’m good enough. It’s just a matter of having the opportunity to prove myself.
USFL return gives hope to several prospects with WPIAL links, as Neal is joined by former Clairton wide receiver Aaron Mathews and Thomas Jefferson inside linebacker Zane Zandier among 400-500 players who have signed contracts to be included in the pool for the league draft which will be split between Tuesday and Wednesday.
Neal, who has a master’s degree in adult education, works as a behavioral specialist for Kiski Area by day and trains by night at Legends of Pittsburgh Fitness Center in Tarentum.
Neal had 245 career tackles and was an All-Big Ten honorable mention as a junior in 2015. When Illinois fired Tim Beckman, Neal went to Auburn as a grad transfer — only to find himself at serve as a substitute and what he calls an “insurance plan.” Although Neal plays at the same height (6-foot-1, 235 pounds) as he did in college, he now adheres to a vegan diet, which he says , helped him become leaner and more explosive.
“I’m a different athlete,” Neal said. “I can jump higher, run faster. The athlete I want the NFL to see, they haven’t seen him yet. That’s why the USFL would be such a great opportunity.
Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts (2) scrambles around Auburn linebacker TJ Neal (17) as he carries the ball during the first half of the NCAA Iron Bowl college football game, Saturday, November 26, 2016, in Tuscaloosa, Ala.
The USFL will conduct its draft in a modified analytical snake system with 35 position-based rounds that will provide each of the eight teams, including the reincarnation of the Pittsburgh Maulers, with two No. 1 two-position picks. The draft begins Tuesday night with quarterbacks in the first round, followed by rushers, offensive tackles and cornerbacks.
Only players with USFL contracts are eligible for the draft, and Neal, Mathews and Zandier will have to wait until Wednesday to find out if they’ve been selected. Wide receivers will be chosen in rounds 13-17 and inside linebackers in the 21st round. There will be an additional 10-round draft on March 10. The USFL’s 10-game season begins April 16, with all games played in Birmingham, Alabama and the championship game in Canton, Ohio.
The three former WPIAL stars are used to having their patience tested, given that none were selected in the NFL draft and their chances of playing in the league were brief or non-existent.
Neal was invited to rookie minicamps with the Steelers, who signed Pitt’s Matt Galambos instead, and the Arizona Cardinals, but couldn’t stay with either team. The 6-foot-3, 232-pound Zandier, who recorded 252 tackles, including 25 for losses, and 9½ sacks at Virginia, went to rookie minicamp with the Philadelphia Eagles but was never recalled.
“Going through the NFL season without getting calls was tough,” Zandier said, “but as soon as I heard from the USFL, I set my sights on it and started going there. to prepare.”
Best known for throwing a fourth touchdown pass to quarterback Kenny Pickett in the last minute to beat UCF, 35-34, in 2019 – a play known as the Pitt Special – Mathews has never received a invited to an NFL camp and hasn’t played since Pitt’s Quick Lane Bowl game against Eastern Michigan.
A 6-foot-5, 225-pound wide receiver, Mathews caught 44 passes for 580 yards and a touchdown at Pitt, where he earned a reputation as a solid tackler and star on special teams. He also blocked a punt that was returned for a touchdown in the win over UCF, which ended the Knights’ 27-game regular-season winning streak.
Mathews saw former Pitt teammates like Damar Hamlin, Dane Jackson, Avonte Maddox and Jordan Whitehead play in the NFL. His childhood neighbor and teammate at Clairton, Tyler Boyd of the Cincinnati Bengals, played in Super Bowl LVI.
“It was tough,” said Mathews, 24. “Seeing my brothers get drafted helped me a bit, but over time I thought I was going to at least get into one of those other leagues. Nothing happened. It was a waiting game.
“Give me a helmet and I’ll show people what I’ve got. All those other noises are for the birds. The last time I played was that game against Eastern Michigan. It was so long ago. I’m just ready to play ball again. This league just brought a wave of excitement.
Where Neal teaches, Mathews works toward getting his commercial driver’s license, and Zandier manages cable lines as they continue to pursue their career football aspirations. The idea of playing in the USFL was a new motivation for all three.
“It’s kind of crazy how everything is still in progress,” said Zandier, 22. “They’ve got the uniforms out. They’ve got the teams and the coaches in place. It seems like things are falling into place as they go. It’s exciting. I don’t know how it’s going to be but being a part of it is pretty cool. I feel like I have a lot of ball left in me. I want to keep playing football, keep playing until I can’t play anymore.