Sunday, May 20, 2018
Colleges

Florida recruit Keanu Neal learned from older brother's unusual career

Clint Hart took the long way to fame, from junior college baseball through minor-league football to a seven-year NFL career.

So when his baby brother grew up, Hart guided Keanu Neal to an easier path — one that led the Bushnell South Sumter High safety to Tropicana Field for the Under Armour All-America Game and one that's expected to take him to Gainesville when he signs with the Gators next week.

"Now he's finding his way through me, through the vision I had," Hart said.

Hart's personal vision started blurry.

The Dade City native was a standout quarterback and safety at South Sumter, but his SAT score was too low for major colleges. He played baseball at Central Florida Community College and was drafted by the Angels in 2000 before deciding to focus on football.

Hart spent a year with the now-defunct Tallahassee Thunder of the minor-league af2 before suiting up for the Tampa Bay Storm in 2001. Those two years of arena football got him a roster spot in NFL Europe, then a shot at the Eagles' practice squad as a defensive back.

"He went through the hard way," Neal said.

But he made it.

Hart spent the 2003 season with Philadelphia and most of the next six with the Chargers. He picked off Peyton Manning in 2007 and started in the AFC Championship Game that year.

The next fall, Hart spotted his kid brother in the first row at Raymond James Stadium and shook his hand before lining up against the Bucs.

"For me it was great to be able to give him that," Hart said. "It made it real."

Hart came back to Bushnell in the offseason and ran camps for kids, including Neal, who goes by the nickname Kiki. Hart remembers seeing a fire burn in his little brother's eyes as he tried to win every relay race.

Between the workouts at home and watching games on TV, Neal learned what to do — and what not to do — from Hart's winding career. He studied hard and competed in major junior track events. By the time he started high school, he already trained like a varsity starter.

"He was four years ahead of schedule," longtime South Sumter coach Inman Sherman said. "He was worldly enough to know to be really successful, he was going to have to work hard at it, and he was really willing to work at it at a really young age."

The training paid off.

When Hart was in high school, he topped out at 6 feet 2, 185 pounds. His younger brother weighed almost that much as a sophomore, and his current 6-foot-1 frame is only 3 pounds lighter than the 208 that Hart carried for the Chargers.

"Kiki pretty much had Clint's NFL body as an 11th grader in our school," Sherman said.

Recruiters and scouts quickly noticed the speed, power and athleticism. Neal landed his first scholarship offer (Georgia Tech) after his sophomore season. Florida, USF, UCF and others followed before he orally committed to the Gators in February 2012. His 3.5 grade-point average won't be a problem, either.

The four-star freight train had three tackles in the Under Armour game at the Trop and is ranked among the country's top 70 prospects by Rivals and ESPN.

"He's very big and strong …" said Armwood safety Leon McQuay III, a USC recruit and Neal's secondary teammate in the Under Armour game. "You know you don't have to worry about somebody breaking a tackle on him."

Just like his older brother.

Hart, who is retired now, is 35 and runs a fitness and weight-loss center, Healthy Harts Fitness, in Ocala. He said he's looking forward to tailgating at his brother's Gator games — and he admits, begrudgingly, that his younger brother had the better high school career.

But Neal knows his path to fame, and a potential career like Hart's, has more twists and turns ahead.

"It's motivation, seeing what he went through and seeing how he pushed and how he persevered through all of that," Neal said. "It just shows that anything can happen."

Matt Baker can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @MattHomeTeam.

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