Before the touchdown against Georgia, before the star turn as a Publix worker turned unlikely hero for Florida's offense, it all started with how hard Michael McNeely worked.
He joined Florida as a walk-on in 2011, Will Muschamp's first year, two falls after finishing his high school career at Palm Harbor University High in Clearwater. McNeely played on kick coverage that season, never recording a tackle.
In 2012, an injury in the summer sidelined McNeely until late in the season — he added snaps at wide receiver to his kick coverage duties, when he did play, but his most notable contribution was as a role model.
Before the year, Brent Pease held up McNeely as a "guy who would help us" while castigating "Terrell Owens types." That made it clear, even then, that Florida wanted wide receivers who would do the little things and the big things; when both Raphael Andrades and Latroy Pittman played as true freshmen in 2012, it was usually their blocking that got them snaps.
McNeely was healthy in 2013, and played often, appearing in all 12 games on special teams and at receiver. He still didn't accrue any catches, but he did the thankless things — he was the Florida player on the punt return team who was assigned to come off the edge and account for the punter. And he did it to the best of his abilities, every time — I know, because I watched, and I saw.
So it was no surprise that he executed the fake field goal he ran on Saturday to perfection, no surprise that he followed blockers (who sold out for him) and scampered untouched to paydirt and glory.
It's no surprise that McNeely is a model Publix employee, too — the kind of worker who shows up for his usual Sunday shift (as a "bashier," he says, the role of bagger/cashier that Publix customers are familar with) a day after a life-changing Saturday that included showing up at No. 9 on the SportsCenter Top 10.
On Sunday, Publix manager Dane Santiago described McNeely as a "phenomenal" employee who has rarely missed work on Sundays, even when his shift comes just hours after football games.
"He doesn’t get any special treatment or anything like that," Santiago said. "He’s gotten top marks in school, but he’s also done that here. All of his evals are considered role-model status, which is the top tier you can get.
"[He] shows up on time, does exactly what we ask him to do, if not more. He’s got a great attitude while he’s here -- always positive."
It was no surprise — it was expected, really — when McNeely was awarded a scholarship prior to the 2014 season. It was no surprise that his teammates mobbed him after the awarding of it, done in a post-practice ceremony — "I love my teammates so much," he said. "Their reaction was incredible."
It was somehow no surprise that Andre Debose, of all people, mentioned how happy he was for McNeely's moment in an Instagram comment on Saturday:
@AlligatorArmy @GatorZoneNews @TimCaseyPhoto Debose's comment on Tim's IG post with this picture...freaking awesome. pic.twitter.com/hiMGx13QRq— MBK Rowdies Prez (@MBKRowdiesPrez) November 2, 2014
McNeely is the sort of blue-collar worker any coach would love, and the sort of good guy Will Muschamp has strived to make the lifeblood of Florida's program. So is Max Garcia, Florida's student-athlete of the game on Saturday, who stopped by Publix on Sunday to take a selfie with McNeely, who got into Florida's medical school last week, and earned Florida's President's Academic Award for having the top GPA on the team in 2013.
Had to catch my boy before he got off work !!! #McNeely pic.twitter.com/qrul8p8LpC— Max G (@MGarcia_76) November 2, 2014
Right now, these are the players who are the faces of Florida football: Good guys first, and good players second.
It all started with work for McNeely, who might very well never make another significant play on the field for Florida. It will end with work, even if he never makes another — a likely scenario — because he's going to come to practice on Monday and work as hard as he always has, and as hard as he always will.
McNeely is a Florida folk hero now, and will be a Gators legend forever.
And all he did was all Muschamp ever expects a player to do: His job.