Dallas Neil hasn’t often taken no for an answer.
That’s because he has always been sure enough of his ability and potential to be proactive when it comes to his future.
So when not a single professional team showed interest in him as a punter after he finished playing for the Montana Grizzlies in 1999 he took matters into his own hands.
Neil picked up a mannequin leg from Dillard’s in Missoula, packaged it up, and sent it off to the special teams coach of the St. Louis Rams with a letter saying, “I’d give my right leg to play for the Rams.”
The coach told USA Today about the incident, resulting in some coverage for Neil. While Neil didn’t end up with the Rams, the effort generated some interest from Green Bay, Atlanta and Denver.
Neil decided that the Falcons provided his best free-agent opportunity. During the tryout period he also ran some pass routes on the scout team, drawing attention from head coach Dan Reeves.
“(He) pulled me aside one day and said, ‘you know, Dallas, I don’t think you’ve dropped a ball in three months,’” Neil recounted. “’I want to put some pads on you and see what you can do.’”
At the time Neil only weighed 215 pounds, some 35 pounds less than when he actually played in the NFL, so the pads didn’t help much.
“I really got rocked,” Neil recalled. “I got rocked by some of the biggest guys in the NFL.”
But he did well enough in games to stick around for almost three years, playing mostly special teams but also some halfback while serving as the back-up punter.
Neil thinks Reeves believed he was getting a lot of bang for his buck.
A left-ankle injury during his third year forced a year off and ultimately his release by the Falcons, but Reeves hadn’t given up on Neil. Two days after he released him he had him on a flight to New York to play for the Jets.
Neil led the NFL in punting during the preseason that year, but never again settled in with a pro team.
“Once you get to that point in your life you have to choose (whether you) want to fly around all the time starting over or is it time to move on,” Neil said. “And I felt it was time to move on.”
That was in 2004. Neil and his wife, Jenifer, went back to Atlanta where Dallas owned some car washes and they had some good social connections. But eventually they got homesick and decided to move back to Missoula in 2006.
They now own Lifestyle Fitness Center on North Reserve, and as you might expect, it’s not like other fitness centers.
“Our mission there is to encourage fitness for everyday people,” Neil explained about the 17,000 square-foot facility. “We have group fitness, a big kids club and nice equipment, but it’s a very laid-back culture where you come and not be intimidated by the whole fitness scene.
“You don’t have to wear fancy clothes or do your hair,” Neil added. “You can just kind of show up and do your thing.
“It’s probably the funnest business I’ve ever been involved in because you get to encourage a lot of people in something they’re excited to do.”
Jenifer oversees the kids club while another partner, Josh Cary - former manager of The Gym - generally oversees the entire operation.
Neil still spends quite a bit of time on the road. At the time of the interview he was attending an NFL Players Association, providing a voice for retired players about a potential dispute that could lead to a lockout in 2011.
“As players you can’t ask for too much and create a problem for the sport,” Neil said. “That’s what I think’s important.”
Neil says he was the only player in NFL history to enter the league with a master’s degree in business. It’s that and his entrepreneurial nature that has him traveling around investigating potential investments and raising money.
Neil finished his bachelor’s degree in business information systems in 3 1/2 years and used an extra year of school brought on by an injury redshirt to finish the advanced degree.
“At first I thought I was going to be an orthodontist like my dad, and then I switched over to business,” Neil said. “Once you kind of get in the groove it’s better to be busy than not busy at all. It didn’t seem like it was too difficult.”
Neil bucked the odds when he accepted a football scholarship from UM after his senior year at Great Falls High in 1995. Oddly enough, Montana was ninth on his list of potential colleges, just behind Montana State. Notre Dame was first.
His father was a Montana State grad, and Neil rooted for the Bobcats growing up. But when MSU only offered him a partial scholarship, and the Grizzlies offered a full ride, Neil simply took the best offer.
“The tides changed and (I) felt like the best opportunity was to come to the university,” Neil said, adding that the Bobcats tried to up the ante when they found out he might end up in Missoula.
He hadn’t felt good about his official visit to MSU anyway, and once he met Griz head coach Don Read and his staff, his mind was made up. Neil said his dad was okay with it, but he has an uncle - a diehard Bobcat fan - who never saw one of his college games.
Signed as a punter, Neil quickly became a back-up tight end for the Grizzlies. He became a starter at tight end as a sophomore, sat out the 1997 season with an ankle injury, and by his senior season in 1999 he was good enough to be named second team all-Big Sky Conference punter and an honorable mention All-American.
Of course the Grizzlies won the national championship at the end of Neil’s freshman season, something he called “a fairy tale.
“You were kind of like pinching yourself the whole time you’re going through this season because it was so magical,” Neil said. “The type of unity we had on that team, and there were so many factors coming into play.”
Neil said the players used to meet without the coaches before games, and they simply had a passion-fed belief that they would win the national title.
To go back to the national title game in 1996, even though the Griz lost, was special, too.
“The second time around we didn’t have as good a day,” Neil said of the 1996 meeting with Marshall. “But as a Montana Grizzly you kind of look at the national championship (games) as gravy, but really what you focus on every year is to make sure you win that last game of the season (against the Bobcats).”
Mick Dennehy became the head coach in 1996, a change that was pretty seamless for Neil. Dennehy and the 1996 team had to deal with sky high expectations from Grizzly fans, something Neil never let bother him.
“Unless you win it again I think everybody’s a little disappointed,” Neil explained. “And you’ve gotta be okay with that. It’s okay if people are a little disappointed. We played our hearts out, and you can’t get upset if the fans aren’t satisfied.”
Neil broke his leg in the final game of his career, a 30-27 first-round home playoff loss to Youngstown State. He recalls a fan saying he was sorry things didn’t go well for him.
“It went great for me,” Neil emphasized. “I got four Big Sky championships and a national championship. You always have to look at the perspective.”
Neil was a two-time winner of the Tony Barbour Award at UM, given to the football player based on practice habits and unselfish contributions to the team. He shared it with James Robbins in 1998 and won it solo in 1999.
“I guess I never got involved in community service because I wanted to win an award,” Neil noted. “I was involved in Big Brothers and Sisters which I was really passionate about. (I was) always trying to be myself, be authentic to people.”
Neil remains part of the Griz Kids team that, with help from corporate sponsors, buys 50 to 60 tickets to home games for distribution to underprivileged youth.
Dallas and Jenifer met on the first day of college in 1995. Neither was looking for a serious relationship, but five years later - a week before he left to play for the Falcons - they were married.
They have three daughters: Preslie, 7; Landyn, 5; and Braydie, 3. Neil said he throws his testosterone at a 15-year-old nephew rather than at his girls.
“They’re just wonderful,” Neil said of his daughters. “The girls keep me tempered. They keep me on my toes, that’s for sure.”
All three of them go skiing with Dallas and Jenifer, making for some great family outings. Neil isn’t concerned about pushing them too hard toward other activities.
“A lot of the overdevelopment, trying to get kids involved too early, I just want our kids to have fun,” Neil said. “If the talent’s there it can be developed with hard work and dedication, and if they have a passion.
“I don’t know if they’ll be (Lady) Griz basketball players or what will happen, but I don’t try and push them too hard.”
One interesting aspect of Neil’s life was his association with Mike Hagen’s Strength Team. Neil met Hagen, a Griz football player in 1980-81, through late Missoula pastor Steve Valentine during Neil’s final year in pro football.
The Strength Team does feats-of-strength events in schools and churches world wide with a Christian, positive-role-model theme.
“I did it for three or four years and just had an absolute blast,” Neil said, adding that he had traveled to Honduras and Brazil as well as around the U.S. “It was a really enjoyable transition from the NFL because you still have that platform and you’re still 250 pounds. Might as well use it to break a few things (and) rip a few phone books and encourage some kids and families.”
Faith has been important to the Neils since their college days. Dallas was involved with Athletes in Action and some football team Bible study groups.
Saying it gave him strength as he went into the NFL, Neil paraphrased a favorite scripture reading that says, “Don’t be anxious about anything, but instead pray about everything and you’ll experience a peace. That got me through a lot.”
As for the future, Neil said whatever happens, he sees himself in Missoula.
“We love it there,” he said. “We’re not going anywhere. Right now the focus is on the family and I’m trying to travel less.”
After all of his experiences Neil still says coach Read and his assistants are still among the greatest leaders he’s ever met, along with coach Reeves.
“I truly believe that going to college is about the education, but if you get straight-A’s and do not create a social network of relationships and people that you trust and can rely on, then the value of your education is really minimized,” Neil said.
“All the people that I’ve met, and the friends, and everybody that’s associated with this community, that’s the real strength and the real value.”