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.