McNeal's UCLA story is a cut above the rest

Times Staff Writer

Whenever someone needs a haircut or a place to hang out around Carson, the spot to go is Our People Barber Shop, where daily conversations are more Def Comedy Jam than CSPAN.

UCLA fifth-year senior Eric McNeal has been going there since he was a young boy. But in recent years, McNeal's experiences in the shop have been anything but enjoyable.

"That's because people who come to the shop have a lot of love for SC," said Tracy Prince, owner of Our People Barber Shop. "Eric always took a lot of abuse. He would come in and guys would just roast him, especially after last year's game."

But McNeal got the last laugh.

In UCLA's 13-9 victory over USC this month, McNeal made a play that earned him a place in the history of the city rivalry.

With 1 minute 10 seconds remaining and USC driving for a potential winning touchdown, McNeal jumped in front of a John David Booty pass and tipped the ball to himself for an interception that clinched the Bruins' first victory over USC in eight years. The loss also prevented the Trojans from having a chance to play for their third national championship in four years.

The next day, McNeal made sure to stop by his favorite barbershop.

"Man, Eric just came back in here just smiling," Prince said. "He came in talking trash, and Eric is not a trash talker. It was good to see him like that, because they really were rough on him the last couple of years when SC won. He really let them have it."

Said McNeal, who will play his final college game today against Florida State in the Emerald Bowl: "I didn't even need a haircut. I just wanted to stop by and say hi. Those guys said congratulations, but I was letting them know that I told them that we were going to win."

McNeal's interception made him an instant hero for UCLA fans, while also giving him a sense of redemption for a college career that did not exactly live up to expectations.

After a stellar career at Gardena Serra High, where McNeal played quarterback, safety and wide receiver while also returning punts and kickoffs, he fulfilled a childhood dream when he received a scholarship to play for UCLA, the same school his parents, Eric Sr. and Denice, attended.

Recruited as a safety, McNeal sat out his first year as a redshirt and in 2003 he played behind Jarrad Page while playing mostly special teams. It was more of the same for McNeal the next two seasons as he continued to back up both safety positions and fill the role as UCLA's special teams specialist.

"It was tough to go through, but I never got discouraged," said McNeal, who over his first three seasons started only two games for the Bruins. "My parents raised me right. I always try to make the best out of a situation."

Then last spring, McNeal seemed to get a break when he was asked by UCLA coaches to switch to outside linebacker, where he was inserted as a starter. McNeal held the position throughout spring drills and was listed with the first-team defense heading into training camp.

But again, fate seemed to turn against McNeal. He failed to start UCLA's first game of the season against Utah because he was academically ineligible. Some makeup work McNeal had completed for a class needed to be approved by a professor who was out of town.

Redshirt freshman linebacker Reggie Carter was moved from the middle to the outside and started in McNeal's place. Carter played well enough to keep the job even after McNeal was cleared to play the next week. Carter has started ever since.

Instead of getting down, McNeal, one of the few senior leaders on the team, made his mark on special teams and in the Bruins' nickel and dime defensive coverages.

"People don't know how much Eric means to this team," UCLA defensive tackle Kevin Brown said. "I've known Eric since high school, and he's the type of player every team needs. He moved to linebacker to help the team and does stuff for us that I think people don't really notice. He does the dirty work for us."

Although McNeal did not start a game this year, he had a strong regular season with 20 tackles and two interceptions. He even scored the first touchdown of his career when he ran a blocked punt into the end zone against Stanford.

But that pales in comparison to "The Interception," a play McNeal will probably remember for the rest of his life.

"I'm not going to lie, I think about that play almost every day," McNeal said, "for what UCLA means to me and my family and just how I hate SC. I'll never be able to put it out of my mind."

"I've tried hard not to think about that play this week because I've been focusing on Florida State. But I know after this game is over, I know that I'll be able to think about it all I want."

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