The Meridian Star
Lamar School assistant football coach William “Big Mac” McNeil watches as the Raiders run through plays at the end of practice. He’s calm, relaxed and still decked out with sunglasses despite a completely overcast sky.
He doesn’t jump around and shout as much as other coaches. Instead, he chooses to watch the players, noting their tendencies and nuances.
That’s what McNeil does best, he watches. He’s an expert on people, finding out what makes them tick and how to motivate them. That attention to detail has helped lead Lamar to a 6-2 start this season. It has also implemented a family atmosphere in the locker room which should not only help the Raiders this year but long after their playing days are over.
The skill was earned growing up in Highway Village Apartments in Meridian — the projects. Living under one roof along with eight other families, McNeil would sit and look out the window with his mother. He could have easily been a statistic. One of his neighbors sold drugs, the other was on drugs; there were alcoholics, thugs and plenty of opportunities for a young boy to go astray.
But, McNeil would watch, and his mother would point.
“She’d tell me, don’t you do that right there,” McNeil said. “She’d always would let me read people. I grew up watching people in the projects and learning what to do and what not to do. That was very instrumental in my life.”
Determined to make something out of himself, McNeil was active in sports using the frame that earned him the nickname Big Mac to dominate on the gridiron.
As a student at Meridian High School, he continued to use his size for good, breaking up fights and making sure kids treated the teachers with respect.
Meridian head football coach Mac Barnes quickly took to McNeil instantly realizing both his talent and character. Barnes soon saw the defensive lineman blossom on the playing field. During his senior season McNeil was named 6A defensive player of the year and committed to junior college powerhouse Garden City Community College in Kansas where he continued his playing career.
Despite the distance, the bond between McNeil and Barnes remained strong.
“I’ve been a head coach 33 years, and you have a lot of players who you are close to,” Barnes said. “Usually that fades away. But, when (McNeil) went to Garden City Community College, he was one of the few players to stay close and write me letters.”
After playing at Garden City, McNeil transferred to Louisiana Tech. During that time he had a daughter, China McNeil. He graduated from Louisiana Tech in 1993. Then his life really took off.
In 1993, he was selected to represent the state of Mississippi during a summer initiative program under President Bill Clinton. He even gave a presentation to Clinton working to fix up some of the state's impoverished areas. McNeil’s presence in the community only grew from there, working as the Director of Operations at the Boys and Girls Club of Mississippi from 1994-97 and then as a supervisor at Wesley House from 1997-2000.
While McNeil enjoyed his work in the community, one thing was missing from his life. He missed his days on the field — he missed the game of football.
When Barnes retired from the public school district and made the switch to Lamar in 2000, he turned to his former star player to fill one of the assistant coaching slots. McNeil quickly accepted.
Upon taking the job, McNeil became the first African American coach in the Mississippi Association of Independent Schools. The rest, as he says, is history.
McNeil helped coach the Raiders to state championships in 2003 and 2007, but where his impact has been felt most is in the locker room.
During his first year with Lamar, most of the all-white Raiders had never interacted, much less worked with, an adult black male figure. McNeil, however, didn’t see color, just kids in need of a role model. Instantly, he thought up a plan to start team dinners on Thursday nights in an attempt to bond and relate with his players. The pre-game gatherings, which still go on today, are more of a chance to let loose than prepare for the upcoming game.
“It gives me a chance to really learn them out of football,” McNeil said. “It gives them a chance to talk to me and tell me things that they don’t even tell their parents.”
In fact, the best coaching McNeil provides the Raiders has nothing to do with football at all. He understands the pressures of high school athletics. He understands what his athletes are dealing with on and off the field, and just like everything else in his life he cares about, he has a passion for seeing them succeed.
“I don’t fish, I don’t hunt, I don’t golf, I raise my boys,” McNeil said. “These are my boys here.”
McNeil has had more than his share of adversity. In college, his best friend from high school, Bobby Haley, was sentenced to life in prison for murder after being kicked off the team at Garden City. He has also lost both his brothers to drugs and alcohol.
These days, the Raiders are his family and there is nothing getting in the way of Big Mac and his boys. Players know that when the big coach lifts his shades to lecture to the team something important is soon to follow.
“I think Coach McNeil is the biggest motivator on the team,” Lamar defensive lineman Jonathan Young said. “He just has this respect about him that everybody loves. It’s more than football with him. We are a family.”
McNeil said one of the hardest times in his life were the two years he left the school to start his business, Big Guns Professional Cleaning Service, in 2011-12. Though he couldn’t be at practices or games, he still organized the Thursday dinners every week with the team. The time away from the game was so tough, McNeil said he used to get dressed in his game clothes and talk to the radio while listening to the Raiders on Friday nights.
With his business up and running, Big Mac returned this season to coach the defensive line — back at the position he knows so well and back doing what he does the best, molding young men and making the community a better place for everyone.