Former Notre Dame LB Kerry Neal flourishes in new career

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

More than a decade ago, Kerry Neal saw his future.

“I remember every Saturday morning after Friday night games I used to wake up late,” the former Notre Dame linebacker recalled. “As soon as I’m sitting down to eat lunch or breakfast, guess what’s on TV? Notre Dame. Every Saturday on channel 17. I had no choice but to become a fan of it.

“I think (Notre Dame) was my third offer and I was like, ‘That’s a no-brainer. I’m coming.’ My high school coach was a Notre Dame fan. I used to watch the movie 'Rudy' all the damn time. It was perfect, you know?”

Of course, the future Neal saw on lazy Saturday mornings in Bunn, N.C., probably didn’t include a four-year Notre Dame career divided between two head coaches, or a brief professional cameo snuffed out by injury after injury after injury.

Or, for that matter, a career at EFT Sports Performance in Highland Park, Ill.

Neal was first introduced to EFT as a sophomore at Notre Dame in 2008, when roommate Robert Hughes convinced him to attend a workout.

The outside linebacker got more than he bargained for.

“They keep track of the number of athletes that throw up from the workouts,” Neal said with a laugh. “I never was a victim. I came very close, though.”

There’s no doubt, however, that plenty of Notre Dame football players have graced the list. Besides Hughes and Neal, James Aldridge worked out there. So did Sergio Brown, Brian Smith, Ian Williams, Michael Floyd, Darius Fleming, Kapron Lewis-Moore, Ben Koyack, Cody Riggs, Malik Zaire and on and on and on.

Neal refers to EFT as “Notre Dame Chicago,” and for good reason.

“It has really been a pipeline. The connection has been so close,” Neal said. “I don’t even want to list them all because I don’t want to miss anybody. It’s kind of like being in the locker room again.”

Neal began working as a trainer at EFT during the NFL lockout in 2011, then made it a full-time job after officially retiring from football shortly thereafter.

In a way, he left the game without ever truly leaving the game.

“I started working with athletes with the same mindset and the same passion for the game that I had, and I can help those guys achieve their goal,” Neal said. “They come up to me afterwards and say, ‘Man, thanks. I don’t know what I would have done without you.’ To me, that’s very rewarding when I help these kids. That’s something that a very small percentage of people in this world can do.”

Though many of his athletes have already attended college, however, that doesn't stop Neal from recruiting for his alma mater.

“Notre Dame is its own name," he said. "I was telling my (NFL) Combine guys that played at different schools, ‘Listen, put this on your bucket list. Go visit Notre Dame.’ They thought I was just boasting, bragging about my university.

"I’m like, ‘No, guys, it’s a special place.’ I truly meant it. You miss the locker room. You miss the guys the most. It really challenges you. If you’re 0-12 or 12-0, you will be on TV and you will be talked about. It doesn’t matter. Notre Dame football will get talked about.”

Fast-forward to Wednesday, and Neal is sitting in a Chipotle parking lot in the north suburbs of Chicago, talking about the next wave of Notre Dame athletes to pass through EFT. In recent months, he has helped prepare running back C.J. Prosise, wide receiver Chris Brown and defensive back Matthias Farley for hopeful NFL futures.

When he looks at them, he sees shreds of a former self.

“They’re just your typical Notre Dame guys — guys who work hard, guys who want to get better, guys who are professional on and off the field,” Neal said. “All those guys come in every day with the same attitude. ‘I’m here to get better. I want to be the best.’ They compete their butts off. They all are very driven.”

That’s evident on Monday afternoons, when Prosise and Brown wrap up classes at Notre Dame and drive the 119 miles to EFT, all for the opportunity to become another “victim.” They repeat the pattern on Wednesday, tracing their steps back and forth from their present to their hopeful future.

“They want that degree and they want to play football,” Neal said. “They are very smart young men. They are young professionals. They understand what they want in life. They understand there’s more than just football in this life.”

Neal understands that better than most. The future he saw on television a decade ago inevitably faded.

But though his title has changed, Neal remains tethered both to football and Notre Dame.

“I came here and everything just fell into place for me,” he said of his career at EFT. “You know the feeling. It was a good fit for me. I think everything in my life happened for reason.”

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A video posted by EFT Sports Performance (@eftchicago) on Jan 13, 2016 at 10:57am PST

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A video posted by EFT Sports Performance (@eftchicago) on Feb 3, 2016 at 3:49pm PST

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A photo posted by EFT Sports Performance (@eftchicago) on Feb 9, 2016 at 12:48pm PST

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A photo posted by EFT Sports Performance (@eftchicago) on Feb 16, 2016 at 12:39pm PST

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A video posted by EFT Sports Performance (@eftchicago) on Feb 24, 2016 at 5:19am PST

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A photo posted by EFT Sports Performance (@eftchicago) on Feb 25, 2016 at 8:39am PST

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Kerry Neal (56) rushes Keith Nichol (7) in the second half at Notre Dame Stadium Saturday, September 19, 2009. Notre Dame defeated Michigan State 33-30. (SBT File Photo)