Dancing dork: McNeill gets a chance to celebrate in fine style

When Ruffin McNeill joined the East Carolina
football crusade 34 years ago, the
stadium consisted of two simple grandstands erected on an exposed
network of steel beams.

The spaces beyond the end zones were empty, with an ambulance
parked under a modest scoreboard at one end, framed by a short
chain-link fence.

The official capacity (20,000) probably was a stretch inspired
by Chancellor Leo Jenkins, the rabid promoter who insisted that if
ECU could compete against its elite public-
university brethren in
football, ECU could compete for
med-school funds, dorm funds and grudging respect.

Late yesterday afternoon, with the shadows creeping across Coach
McNeill’s bench and the fans roaring, freshman safety Damon Magazu
intercepted Russell Wilson’s pass near the goal line. The stunning
final play cemented the Pirates’ 33-27 overtime victory against
favored N.C. State and touched off a raucous celebration that would
have gratified Jenkins, who died about two years before Magazu’s
birth.

Teammates swarmed Magazu, hugging and whooping and hopping in
unison. Star linebacker Dustin Lineback – his name comes straight
out of Hollywood, even if he hails from Climax in Guilford County –
saw the interception from a superb camera angle. Wilson’s pass
sailed straight over his head, and Lineback had the sensation of
the play unfolding in slow motion as Magazu cut in front of
receiver Jarvis Williams and swiped the ball.

“I was speechless,” Lineback said. “I just looked at the fans.
It was the loudest I’ve ever heard Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium. It swept
me off my feet.”

The crowd of 50,410 broke the stadium record, partly because a
5,000-seat horseshoe expansion closed in the
ambulance-against-the-fence end zone and partly because heat builds
up in the 40-year-old rivalry between the state’s two largest
universities.

Back when undergrad McNeill roamed the secondary for Coach Pat
Dye, ECU remained a second-class climber, its ticket-buying
supporters cherished by the N.C. State administrators trying to pay
off stadium debt. But there was no way the Wolfpack or Tar Heels
would venture into Greenville.

That riled McNeill, the genetically upbeat son of a Lumberton
prep coach. McNeill boarded the bus every fall and rode up to
Raleigh, intent on setting things straight. On his second trip in
1977, the Pirates celebrated their 28-23 victory only to have the
refs pull them out of the locker room and make them stop State one
more time. McNeill put an end to things right there, making the
last tackle on the 3-yard line.

When Magazu made the vital interception yesterday, Coach McNeill
had a momentary flashback. “A little bit, it reminded me,” McNeill
said. “When he intercepted, I go: ‘Yeah, we got that one.’ “

What ECU fans got a few minutes later was surprising. Coach
McNeill, who probably weighs 100 pounds more than DB McNeill,
turned from watching the end zone frolics and started dancing
himself.

With rapper DJ Khaled’s hit All I Do Is Win blaring throughout
the stadium, McNeill faced the folks behind his bench – easily
20,000 on that side – and raised his arms. He shook his ample
torso, stepping and smiling and bobbing his head. As the song
ended, he pointed at different people and put his right hand over
his heart.

McNeill attributed his performance to daughter Olivia, a junior
at Appalachian State.

“She taught me how to do it during the summer,” he said. “I
don’t do it very well. She’ll probably call me a dork, which I
probably am.”

While Magazu hugged his father Dave, a Carolina Panthers line
coach, in the end zone, McNeill embraced his father Ruffin Sr. A
while later, inside the locker room, the Pirates sang Happy
Birthday to the elder McNeill – “78 going on 29,” according to his
son.

“He was very happy,” McNeill said. “Now, he’ll critique me when
I get home. He’ll find something…. He’ll grind me. I’ll be
sitting at the table. He’ll be across, and I’ll be here. We’ll
watch games and he’ll barbecue me at the same time.”

McNeill laughed like a man who can take it. His first ECU team
beat State with recruits watching and 50,000 people yelling, and he
didn’t even have to take the bus home.