ORLANDO — A red Pontiac raced through the streets of Baton Rouge, La., in May in a desperate search for the nearest emergency room.
Johnell Neal was dying in the back seat.
The UCF cornerback was losing blood, fading in and out of consciousness after four bullets ripped through his body.
Someone that Neal had known as a child is charged with the shooting. Neal saw the alleged shooter for a split second, recognized his face and his features. They had grown up on the same street, went to the same school, played in each other's homes.
Those bullets were not meant for Neal.
"I remember the first shot, it had my ears ringing," Neal said. "I'm just looking at him. I got shot three more times. I fell. … One of my lungs had collapsed. I couldn't breathe. I was blacking out.
"The last time I blacked out they woke me again. I just saw the hospital sign."
Less than four months later Neal was back playing football, finishing out his final season at UCF. He has inspired his fellow Knights in what to this point has been an uninspiring season.
Neal has two interceptions and is working on a second bachelor's degree. He was recently nominated for the 2008 Orange Bowl-FWAA Courage Award.
UCF coach George O'Leary credited Neal with calling a players-only meeting after a blowout loss at Texas-El Paso dropped the Knight to 1-3.
The result was a 31-17 win Saturday against Southern Methodist. Neal, 5 feet 10 and 176 pounds, had two pass breakups and four tackles in the victory.
"Pound for pound, and I have no problem saying it, he's the toughest guy on the football team," O'Leary said. "You get hit with four bullets and he comes to see me Sunday night (Sept. 28) … and he wanted to call some kids out, I guess. That's the best kind of pressure is peer pressure. I guess that's what happened. They came out … and practiced really well (after that)."
Neal, 22, has come a long way from the back seat of that car when he wondered if he would make it. He was home to celebrate being the first to graduate in his family, earning a bachelor's degree in criminal justice. Mother's Day was coming up that Sunday.
"I thought then this might be it," Neal said, "and I might die."
The screams from his two cousins and a friend kept Neal awake, maybe alive.
He made it to the hospital and said goodbye to his cousins before he was wheeled into surgery to repair a collapsed lung.
When he woke up, he fought the pain by thinking about playing football again.
"There was never a moment I thought I would never play football again," Neal said. "I don't know why. It was always in my mind we had a season to play. I've always been told you think negative thoughts and negative things will happen."
Neal's physical recovery was a challenge. So was the emotional toll.
Neal watched one of his favorite reality shows with a new perspective. In it, real people really die.
"When you see it you realize that could have been me," Neal said. "It makes you think about it a lot. I just try to put my mind on something else."
Noises he would instinctively ignore were suddenly louder than ever.
"When I first got out of the hospital it was rough on me hearing just things you would never notice like the top of a barbecue pit closing loud," Neal said. "It makes you just jump. In the first few days and weeks you're paranoid."
Now he wonders if he'll have to face the alleged shooter, Gregory Jermaine Robinson, one more time in court. Robinson, 20, is currently in jail charged with several crimes including first-degree attempted murder. He was looking for Neal's cousin to settle an old score, Neal said.
"Paths change," Neal said. "People go their separate ways in life. That's the route he took. I took this route playing football."
Izzy Gould can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 580-5315.