Fred McNeill's career in football was marked by his humble demeanor as a teammate and his studious, thinking-man's approach to the game on the field — which carried over to his life off the field.
McNeill's athletic ability and accomplishments in football were matched by his passion for learning and pursuit of higher education.
McNeill, 63, died Tuesday in Los Angeles after battling amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS or Lou Gehrig's disease).
A first-round draft pick of the Vikings in 1974 out of UCLA, McNeill was the 17th player selected and joined a draft class that included college cross-town rival Steve Riley at No. 25 from USC and fellow LB Matt Blair out of Iowa State in the second round. The bond McNeill and Blair made as rookies carried on for a life-long friendship.
McNeill went on to play 12 seasons for the Vikings, a time of unmatched team success that included a pair of Super Bowl appearances (1974, 1976), winning 5 straight NFC Central Division titles and amassing a 96-79-1 record in the regular season. He suffered only 4 losing seasons in 12 campaigns with the Vikings.
"Fred was one of the kindest, most gregarious guys I've ever known," former teammate and Vikings radio analyst Greg Coleman said. "He just lit up a room when he walked in. There wasn't anyone he met who wasn't a friend.
"Despite his mild manner, he was a hell of a football player when he took the field," Coleman continued. "That corps of linebackers with Jeff Siemon and Matt Blair and Fred were a group to be reckoned with."
On the field, McNeill amassed over 1,000 tackles — 1 of only 9 Vikings to achieve the feat. His 1,068 stops (975 defensive tackles, 93 special teams) is 8th in team history and 5th among LBs. A player with a nose for the ball and the big play, McNeill added 13 sacks, seven INTs and returned a blocked punt for a TD.
Off the field, McNeill earned a law degree from William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul, attending classes during his playing career. He came from an athletic family that included his brother, Rod, a USC running back who played in the NFL with New Orleans and Tampa Bay.
View photos of LB Fred McNeill, who played for the Vikings for 12 seasons (1974-1985).
"I was fortunate to enjoy both a business and personal relationship with Fred, as he and I represented former Minnesota Gophers running back Chris Darkins in the mid-90s," Vikings Chief Operating Officer Kevin Warren said. "Fred was a great football player, an excellent lawyer and, most importantly, an outstanding person who carried himself with class, grace, dignity and humility. He will be greatly missed. The thoughts and prayers of the Minnesota Vikings family and of Vikings fans are with the McNeill family at this time."
Coleman said McNeill's talents enabled him to guide other players during and beyond their careers.
"He really served as a good role model to younger players and was a mentor to a lot of guys," He was taking his law classes during his career and knew that football didn't last forever and to be prepared for when it's over."
He also wasn't shy around a microphone, according to Coleman.
"He thought he was the karaoke king, he really thought he could sing. If there was a microphone in the room, he was going to be on it."