They used to call me Nasty, he said.
One has to wonder why, a decade later, they don’t still use the nickname.
If you’ve ever watched Onasis Neely on the football field, “nasty” seems like an appropriate way to describe his array of moves as a running back.
It could also be one of those ironic nicknames, like “Slim” for a large dude, because Neely is often described as warm, helpful, humble, quick with a smile.
In terms of alliteration, it obviously fits his unique first name, a moniker chosen by his parents, O’Neal and Tilita Neely, because it both honored O’Neal’s uncle and also promoted “dominance and masculinity” and was “direct and aggressive,” his father said.
Lastly, “nasty” could also summarize Neely’s thoughts about the college recruiting process, a frequently cold, businesslike undertaking splattered with just enough bluster and exultation that it becomes an emotional roller coaster.
The story of Onasis Neely continues to play out on the fields of East Pennsboro High School. And it will undoubtedly recommence next year at some college or university to be determined.
The 17-year-old senior has, for three seasons, been one of the most spirited, prolific running backs in the Mid-Penn Conference, now with nearly 4,500 rushing yards and 56 touchdowns on his résumé, plus another 553 yards and six scores through the air.
As his scholastic career winds toward a close, the 5-foot-11, 204-pound dynamo, along with his parents and coaches, is starting to reflect on the legacy he’s leaving at the suburban high school in Enola.
“The biggest thing is his love for the game,” said Mark Morris, East Penn’s offensive coordinator who’s known Neely since he first moved from Mulberry Street in Harrisburg to Enola as an 8-year-old and started playing with Morris’ son, Payton, now the Panthers’ starting quarterback.
“You just can’t teach passion. And he has it, man. Other kids enjoy playing football, but not like he does. It’s been fun watching him grow up, and it’s been a pleasure coaching him.”
Even his teammates recognized Neely’s otherworldly gifts from the beginning.
“He was just one of those kids who naturally had talent, and if he worked on it — and he did — he was going to do something amazing,” said senior linebacker/tight end/fullback Trent Fries, one of Neely’s best friends.
“He’s one of the best players I’ve played with or against. His ceiling is so high, it’s not even funny.”
Origins of ‘Nasty Nas’
Tilita Neely paralleled her son’s transformation into gridiron stud by blossoming into the ultimate football mom. She’s the type who’s loud all game, who can’t sit still, whose voice resonates throughout the stadium, and who’s always supportive, win or lose.
“I’m so glad I’m blessed just to watch them all grow up, the connection they have with each other, from youth until now,” she said of Neely and his Panthers teammates. “It just does something to me.”
Onasis first expressed his love for football in a moment that will stick in her memory bank for the rest of her life.
He was still a tiny child, maybe 4 years old, laying across the bed, watching his favorite channel, ESPN. Inexplicably, he started crying.
Tilita asked what’s wrong.
“He said, ‘Mommy, I want to play football!’” she remembers.
Onasis was still too young, but he would soon join the local smurf league, playing for the Harrisburg Broncos.
O’Neal Neely, who played freshmen football for Susquehanna Twp. in the mid-1990s, recalls an early game when 5-year-old Onasis, then playing linebacker, clocked one of the older boys, a standout named Amechie Walker who would go on to stardom at Harrisburg High and now plays wide receiver for Iowa State.
“Onasis hit him square, and he fumbled the ball,” O’Neal said. “That’s when the coaches and parents actually knew this kid was different.”
That’s also when he first earned the nickname “Nasty Nas,” both because of his style of play and his seemingly motorized aggression.
Before long, O’Neal, a recovery consultant in Camp Hill, and Tilita, a criminal clerk in Dauphin County, recognized their middle child would benefit from new environs.
So, along with Onasis’ older brother Owassa (now 20) and little sister Takara (12), they crossed the river, settled into a town they’d never heard of, found a football program, connected with the Fries family and other future friends, and the next chapter was underway.
“Environment is everything,” said Tilita, a former CD East girl who met O’Neal when both attended Dauphin County Technical School. “We decided to make this our home, and Onasis came to have friends, and it came that they really loved him. It’s really peaceful here. We just came to ride the peace wave.”
By the time Neely ventured to Enola, he’d already transitioned from linebacker to running back.
He possessed brilliant skills from the very beginning, quickly catching the eye of East Pennsboro head coach Todd Stuter, whose youngest son, Dillon, was a year ahead of Neely through the youth football ranks.
The longtime head coach laughs now about rejecting former assistant Dave Borrell’s recommendation that Neely play varsity as a freshman.
“I said, no, let’s get him some experience down there,” Stuter said. “In hindsight? Probably a bad move.”
Instead, Neely burst onto the scene as a sophomore, rushing for nearly 1,400 yards, including a 256-yard, four-touchdown performance vs. Middletown in a District 3 Class AAA playoff victory.
He followed with more than 1,800 yards as a junior, including four 200-yard games and touchdowns in all but one contest.
This season Neely’s already nearing 1,250 yards and established a career high 293 yards (on just 13 carries) in a Week 3 victory over Greencastle-Antrim.
Stuter describes him as a durable, versatile running back, somebody capable of putting his head down and barreling forward for 3 yards when necessary but also possessing that ability to jump outside and accelerate away from defenders.
“He’s also got great balance and doesn’t take hard shots,” Stuter said. “That’s why he stays healthy, knock on wood. He has that ability to collapse in the pile.”
Neely’s motivations derived from all over, including early youth football deals with mom and dad that he’d earn $5 for every touchdown. There’s also an utter disgust with losing that drives him.
But nowadays, Neely’s adopted that age-old motivational tactic of proving doubters wrong. Only, in this case, it’s absolutely legitimate.
Onasis Neely looks like a football player, now more than ever.
He’s added power and weight through relentless strength exercise. He’s improved his breakaway speed and said he even ran a 4.4 40-yard dash at a prospects camp last year.
He’s got that Boobie Miles swagger, too, something he picked up after first watching the “Friday Night Lights” movie with his dad many years ago.
“I want to be that dude,” he said of Miles, the star running back from the team featured in that book and movie. “I started wearing a towel after that, mocking his style. Not as cocky, though. That man cocky. I stay humble.”
When Neely first plunged onto the high school scene, he quickly received interest from several FBS schools, including Rutgers and Syracuse.
But official scholarship offers never came, and interest waned without explanation. Frustrations grew.
“College recruiting isn’t easy,” O’Neal Neely said. “It’s a process with letdowns and surprises.”
As of now, Neely owns five offers from FCS programs: Maine, Albany, Fordham, Morgan State and Howard.
“He isn’t happy with not having one in-state offer and no FBS offers,” his father continued. “After he went to the Nike Opening [elite prospect camp], he realized he is one of the best backs in the region.”
Still, he’s got crickets from the major programs whose attention he craves.
“Someone’s getting a special kid when they pick this kid up,” said Morris, his longtime offensive coordinator.
He’s loved by coaches and teammates alike, does well in the classroom — Neely said he maintains approximately a 3.0 GPA — and produces huge statistical numbers and impressive game highlights. He’s also a well-rounded athlete who plays basketball in the winter and runs track in the spring to enhance his football pedigree.
East Pennsboro isn’t Cumberland Valley, Harrisburg or Bishop McDevitt, but it’s produced its share of big-name, big-school prospects in the past.
“I guess he’s that tweener kid for them,” said Stuter, who admits his team continues to reap the benefits of a seemingly scorned recruit out to prove the FBS world wrong.
“It’s not an exact science for them. Sometimes they pick a kid, give him a scholarship, and then? But I have no doubt — I don’t know how it’s going to fall through — he’s going to get his chance.”
Meantime, Onasis “Nasty Nas” Neely will persist as a team captain and leader, will keep smiling with teammates, family, friends and fans, will keep dreaming of one day playing in the National Football League, and will churn out huge yardage and endless touchdowns for the Panthers (4-2), a team on target to reach the District 3 Class 4A playoffs for the second straight year.
“A lot of people assume he is this cocky, ‘me, me, me’ kid, the typical running back stereotype,” O’Neal said of his son. “But that’s not him. Onasis has a kind heart and loves the game of football far more than I would have imagined.
“There’s not a day that goes by in our house where there isn’t some reference to football. The wife and I even attempted to avoid talking about football with him, but it’s literally an everyday thing, even in the offseason. With Onasis, there is no offseason. It’s football season all year long.”