Leon Neal of Paramount High School, a running back so quick, strong and elusive that he averages more than nine yards a carry on the football field, is a coach's dream. But he is a mother's and a principal's dream, too.
He has helped lead the Pirates to two consecutive CIF Southern Section titles, and to within two victories of a third. This season, he has rushed for 1,387 yards and nine touchdowns in 150 carries, and has caught 15 catches for 210 yards and six TDs. Last week, in a 35-13 second-round playoff victory over Muir, he scored on a 52-yard run and on a 13-yard pass reception.
Heavily recruited, he has had so many white stars affixed to his maroon helmet for making excellent plays that only a smidgen of maroon remains.
His statistics, as shining as the thin gold earrings he wore Tuesday beneath a Minnesota Timberwolves cap, extend to the classroom--he has a 3.60 grade-point average.
"Grades come first. That's one thing my mother has taught me, and it's paid off," Neal said.
His personality endears him to teammates, classmates and adults.
"He's a wonderful kid to be around," Coach Ken Sutch said as the 12-0 Pirates, who have won 20 consecutive games, prepared for Saturday night's Division II semifinal game against El Toro at Mission Viejo High School.
Principal Maureen Sanders said: "He's a very caring and sensitive individual who has set an example for all athletes and students. He's made the transition from being successful in athletics to being successful in the classroom. He's one of those model students, ranked in the top 18 in his class of almost 500. He always has his books open."
Neal is 5 feet 9 and 170 pounds, with a gymnast's grace and strength. He likes to do back flips, but Sutch won't let him do them during games for fear of angering opponents. "After we won the San Gabriel Valley League title, I did one, and I'll probably do a couple when we win CIF," the senior said with a mischievous smile.
Even without back flips, he has enough acrobatic moves, including 360-degree spins, to befuddle defenders.
"He's the quickest high school athlete I've ever seen," Sutch said. "And his work ethic is unbelievable."
Neal, who moved from Minnesota when he was in the ninth grade, lives with his mother, Valli Neal, in Long Beach, but is still close to his father, Roger Neal, who lives in St. Paul.
Away from football, Neal said: "I like to go to the movies or just stay at home and play Nintendo and be around my mother."
She is his biggest fan.
"I'm a very fortunate and blessed mother," said Valli Neal, a word processing specialist at Rockwell International. "Lee is a fine young man and I'm real proud of him. You raise a kid, hope for the best and do a lot of praying. Now I'm wondering what I'm going to do when he's gone."
Where he will go is uncertain.
Sutch said Neal is the most intensely recruited player he has had at Paramount since arriving in 1975. "We've never had Notre Dame or Penn State here, or Michigan State or Pittsburgh," the coach added. "They've all been out here this year. He's attracted nationwide attention."
Neal is in no hurry to decide on a college. "I've kind of put that aside," he said. "I want to put this (trying for another CIF title) first."
Sutch said that Neal, whose idol is quarterback Randall Cunningham of the Philadelphia Eagles, is a modest, team-oriented player who has a self-confidence devoid of arrogance.
"I owe it all to my line," Neal said. "They've blocked pretty well for me the last two years."
"He's been lucky to have good players around him," Sutch agreed.
Neal, who has been named the San Gabriel Valley League's offensive player of the year, said his biggest thrill was making the Pirate varsity as a sophomore. "That was my dream," he said. "But my all-time dream is to play professional football."
The success and adulation are difficult for Neal to comprehend. "I have to like step back and think, 'Whoa, this is me,' it's hard to believe," he said.
Wherever Neal goes next year, it won't be easy for him to say goodby to Paramount High.
"It's like a little family here . . . the winning tradition, everything," he said, looking out toward the Paramount football field, above which a lone sea gull flew weeping.