Things could have turned out differently for Marcus McNeill.
When McNeill was a kid growing up in Decatur, one of his friends was shot and killed, and another died of cancer.
Instead, guided by parents who held him accountable and taught him invaluable life lessons, McNeill learned responsibility at an early age.
“I wanted to get away from the things I saw by doing the right things,” McNeill said. “I wasn’t too good to take advice from people. I was humble and became a person who could listen to people who have been through it.”
McNeill has played four years in the NFL with the San Diego Chargers and is an unrestricted free agent after his original four-year contract ended last season. McNeill said he will enter negotiations with the Chargers this week.
The All-Pro offensive lineman has become a prominent figure in San Diego and started his Mack’s Miracles Foundation three years ago as a way to give back to his hometown as well as San Diego.
Part of that trait showed itself last weekend when McNeill brought the Mack’s Miracles football camp back to DeKalb County for the third year in a row. More than 200 kids, ages 5 to 18, showed up for the free camp at Hallford Stadium.
He had a message for the campers that likely was similar to one he heard as a youngster.
“I’ve been there,” he told the campers. “I wouldn’t be the person I am today unless I listened to my coaches and listened to their guidance.”
He credited his parents and coaches along the way for helping him keep his priorities in order. Part of McNeill’s growing up process came at the age of 13 when he became an uncle.
“My nephew was born when I was 13. My sister was a single mom and they came to live with us,” McNeill said. “I was a big role model in his life and I took it seriously. I made sure I was a responsible role model. A lot of kids don’t have that but they need to know they can still grow up to be what they want to be. There’s no substitute for hard work.”
McNeill’s hard work has not only enabled him to succeed as a professional football player, but it has given him the opportunity to give back. In addition to the annual camp, McNeill said he donated $10,000 to Cedar Grove to purchase athletic equipment. He also volunteers with the Boys & Girls Clubs.
McNeill enlisted the help of fellow NFL players Leonard Pope of the Kansas City Chiefs and Jonathan Palmer of the Phoenix Cardinals. The event had the feel of a backyard cookout, with smoke wafting from grills in one corner of the stadium. After the five-hour camp, McNeill and his staff had lunch ready for the campers.
Radio station HOT 107.9 was on hand and played music over the stadium loudspeakers. In another corner, dozens of hula hoops were available for campers and their families to use.
The camp is part of McNeill’s initiative to help kids understand the importance of exercise at an early age.
“We want the kids to be more active and live a healthier lifestyle,” McNeill said. “Childhood obesity and diabetes is an epidemic, and I want to help get the kids out of the house and live a healthy lifestyle. They can be active and doing things like this instead of watching TV and playing video games.”
That lifestyle has been a part of McNeill since he was a child. Now at 6-foot-7 and weighing 336 pounds, McNeill was a standout on the offensive and defensive lines at Cedar Grove High School and was a high-school All-American. He played in college at Auburn where he was an all-American offensive lineman and was taken in the NFL Draft by the Chargers in the second round in 2006.