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Thursday, November 16, 1995 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Blaine Newnham

Unselfish Neal Shows Class Despite Frustrating Career

Don James would have taken a fourth safety or a third punter, and perhaps in a pinch won a game with one of them.

But Jim Lambright is different as Washington's coach. He took Leon Neal as part of the 60-man traveling squad to UCLA, even though Neal was on crutches.

Especially because he was on crutches.

In the end, after the Huskies had beaten the Bruins and the players were rushing to the end of the Rose Bowl to celebrate with the UW fans sequestered there, there was Neal flailing along with them.

Still a part of the team, still a part of the dream.

"I couldn't justify to myself taking any other player," Lambright said. "To me, he is like the heart of the team."

On the sideline, Neal was coach, confidant, cheerleader, appealing to his teammates to win the game that would guarantee the Huskies a bowl game. Win one for him, he said, for one more chance to play for Washington.

"No pain," Neal said yesterday outside the locker room. "They removed the broken bone from my foot and I expect to be playing in the Cotton Bowl."

In covering college football for 30 years, I can't remember the case of a player with so much talent waiting so long for so little and being so positive about it.

Leon Neal, a high-school running back so highly recruited he could have played almost anywhere, waited five years for what turned out to be four games as a starter.

"I'm blessed," Neal said. It is clearly the Huskies who are

blessed.

Neal set a tone for Lambright's Huskies. He was the one who put team first, who patiently played behind Napoleon Kaufman for four years, ever positive, pushing Kaufman, mentoring Rashaan Shehee, doing whatever it took, including playing the greatest game of his life against USC with a broken bone in his foot.

"It was tremendously disappointing to see him get hurt," Lambright said. "But look how he has handled it."

In all that can be said about Neal's willingness not only to wait out Kaufman, but two years of probation as well, his talent and production shouldn't be overlooked.

In the five games he played this year, Neal averaged 108 rushing yards, including 135 yards against Ohio State and 152 against USC. He led the team in punt returns and caught 17 passes. There was, in fact, very little drop-off from the Kaufman years.

"People marveled how well he played," Lambright said. "Well, he was a great player when Napoleon was here. He's always had great balance, strength, good speed, better hands than Napoleon - just a very gifted athlete who has the tools to play in the NFL if he can find the right situation."

Neal, who grew up near Long Beach, Calif., was a 3.6 student at Paramount High School with his choice of colleges but picked Washington because the Huskies had just been to the Rose Bowl.

Two weeks after he committed, Kaufman did as well.

"I called him," said Dick Baird, who heads Washington's recruiting, "and told him about Napoleon. He said, `Coach, that's great. Think how great a team we'll have with both of us.' "

Kaufman played as a freshman on a team that shared a national championship; Neal redshirted. Kaufman was relatively free of injury and at the last minute decided to play his senior year at Washington instead of go to the NFL.

"He turned out to be one of the great running backs in college football," Neal said. "And I was happy for him."

Neal wanted to play more. He thought about transferring.

"But I'm the type of person who finishes things he starts," said Neal, who will graduate in June with a degree in drama.

"I appreciate that I got a chance to perform here and that the coaches were as loyal to me as I tried to be to them," he said.

Neal wants to play next year in the NFL. Beyond that, he wants to teach and coach, work with kids and stay in Seattle.

"This is a place where you can get married, raise a family, all that stuff," he said. "I want to pay back the community for its support."

It ought to be the other way around.

Copyright (c) 1995 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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