FARMINGTON— Few high school football players can say they've met and talked with a college All-American and Super Bowl champion, but members of the Farmington High football team can.
Ralph Neely, a 1964 All-American tackle at the University of Oklahoma, who spent 13 season with the Dallas Cowboys, making the playoffs 12 times and reaching the Super Bowl four times, winning the title in 1971 and '77, as well as being named to the NFL's 1960s All-Decade team, spoke to the FHS players Friday morning at the Hutchison Fieldhouse.
"One of the big questions is 'What did you get out of your athletic career?' The main thing was that I know I'm going to get knocked down, but I know I'm going to get up," said Neely, a 1961 graduate of Farmington High. "It teaches you to deal with disappointment. It teaches you how to get back up."
During his hour-and-a-half long address to the team, Neely shared the lessons learned during his playing career under Hall of Fame coaches Bud Wilkinson at Oklahoma and Tom Landry with the Cowboys.
"He graduated from here in '61, All-American at Oklahoma and was with the Cowboys for 13 years when Landry was there. He's the real deal," FHS athletic director Don Lorett said of Neely.
But the lessons Neely shared extended beyond the football field, stressing the importance of education, which outranks on-the-field success.
"When I went to Oklahoma, nearly all athletes in all sports, 85 percent, graduated with degrees. It's not like that today," Neely said.
As part of his speech, Neely pointed out the long odds stacked against high school football players who dream of playing on Sundays. According to the NFL Players Association, of the roughly 100,000 high school seniors who play football, only 215 will ever make an NFL roster.
"The lesson to that is get your education," Neely said. "If (a professional career) comes along, have a ball. If it doesn't come along, you've got your education. That's what I've tried to pass along.
"I never thought about playing pro football until my junior year in college. I never even dreamed of it. I just wanted to get an education and go to work."
Today, 37 years after retiring from the Cowboys, Neely is using his education and working, saying that when he retired from the NFL, players didn't make enough money to retire, they just changed jobs. Now, Neely works as an insurance broker in Dallas and doesn't think he'll ever fully retire, stressing the importance of keeping an brain active.
While he works to keep his brain sharp, Neely's 70-year-old body has shown the damage suffered on the gridiron. He moves around well now, after having both knees replaced and multiple other surgeries, and says he knows he has had one documented concussion, and is sure he's suffered more undocumented concussions.
"(Then) you'd get some smelling salts and go back in. You were afraid you'd lose your job," said Neely, who is one of more than 4,800 former NFL players to file suit against the NFL for the head injuries suffered on the field.
Despite the injuries and lawsuit against the NFL, Neely said he would go through it again, and he wouldn't try to stop someone from playing football, knowing first hand the benefits the game can provide, and after seeing how the game has changed for the better.
Neely believes the recent publicity and controversy that surrounds the link between football and concussions, and the long-term effects of brain injuries, is forcing everybody to better monitor the signs and symptoms of concussions in players.
"And that's what you want," Neely said. "It used to be that you just got your bell rung, but now the ball game, the game of football, is changing dramatically in the rules. It's a completely different game than when I played."