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There is not a single thing Onasis Neely cares about more than football. It is his life’s greatest passion.

That passion has gotten him far: a three-year varsity starting running back, East Pennsboro’s career and season rushing leader, All-Sentinel Offensive Player of the Year, consecutive Pa. Football Writers All-State Class 4A selections, multiple Division I scholarship offers and a commitment to Temple.

Because of that he’s the Sentinel Male Athlete of the Year. There’s a theme to this year’s pair, which includes Camp Hill sensation Diamond Bragg: both were young when big expectations were thrust upon them, and both matched or exceeded them almost from the moment they stepped foot in high school.

And neither were affected by the temptations of local fame, which for Neely included being recognized hours from home by people he didn’t know.

“A little bit, but not really,” Neely said this week when asked if he ever felt pressure to live up to lofty expectations from others. “I just tried to get away from the hype.”

A Division I career and a future in the NFL have been goals of his since he first cried in bed with his mom, Tilita, at 4 years old watching ESPN highlights and wishing to play football. But it took until he got to high school that he realized that dream was closer than ever to becoming reality.

“When it really hit me,” he said, “[was] my midget year and freshman year, that phase right there is when I put my all into it.”

Neely and his dad, O’Neal, went to the West Shore YMCA almost daily, and the family has cut out nearly every newspaper article about his football exploits, including his varsity debut when he ran for 191 yards against West Perry as a sophomore.

Dad helped motivate his son by giving him yearly yardage goals — numbers set by other recent Mid-Penn players who earned D-I scholarships. As a junior they targeted 1,800 rushing yards, like former Harrisburg back Robert Martin, and then as a senior they set their sights on CD East’s former standout Chase Edmonds and more than 2,000 yards — Neely finished with 2,464 and 33 touchdowns. His 223 yards in his final game at East Penn was enough to break the single season school record, prompting a lengthy letter from former Panther great Bill Fegley, who went on to play at the University of Pittsburgh in the mid-1980s.

Neely received his first scholarship offer after his junior season, while his family was on vacation at the beach in Delaware.

“There’s not a feeling like it,” he said. “Oh, man. Oh, man. … I ran downstairs to tell my mom and dad.”

His two proudest moments in high school are breaking the school records and “the relationships I built up with my teammates and coaches,” especially longtime friend McGee Schnarrs, who Neely spent nearly every hour with.

Bragg and Neely are quality student-athletes and role models, teenagers who didn’t get into trouble, inspire younger generations and make anyone in the same room smile. Both are gifted athletes, graced by fortuitous genetics that they then molded and sculpted with near-fanatical work ethic.

Having an influence on future generations is a goal of Neely’s

“Coming back to East Penn to show my face and show them that it’s possible,” he said.

But their paths are also different. Bragg is already at Wisconsin, preparing for her first season with the Badgers’ women’s basketball team.

Neely is supposed to be grinding right now in North Philadelphia, his summer break is supposed to be over and his college career already underway. But Neely is not at Temple right now.

His father said Neely graduated with a 2.3 GPA and got a 980 on his SATs, enough to be NCAA eligible. He was not quite at that mark before the spring semester of his senior year. Thinking he had the grades, the family learned after the season ended Neely was not eligible unless he improved his grades. They said they misunderstood how East Pennsboro’s grading system worked and blamed no one.

“I tried hard, but I’m not the smartest kid,” Neely said.

After it was discovered, Temple allowed Neely the time to improve his marks, and that’s what he did, his father said. It’s not uncommon for athletes to not be eligible until that last semester, and O’Neal said Neely was not the only one in his recruiting class in the situation. O’Neal said they sought outside tutoring to boost his SAT scores with a second attempt, and they worked with East Penn to make sure he got in enough work and extra credit to become eligible.

He did. But O’Neal told The Sentinel this week that in mid-June Temple called and said he had not been accepted by the school yet and the team had handed his scholarship to a graduate transfer.

“It’s a huge setback for a kid,” O’Neal said.

Neely had to take a break from social media and shut off his phone recently, allowing him time to cope with what O’Neal called a depressing and emotional time. Neely said he is beginning to regain his confidence and bounce back.

The pair said it’s now a waiting game. If a current scholarship player leaves the team by August, Neely could get the call to replace him and begin his college career. Or he may have to wait until January to earn another scholarship opportunity, essentially becoming a gray shirt. They have not decided what to do about classes in that first semester in the latter scenario.

While obviously frustrated by the unforeseen turn of events, neither had anything negative to say about Temple or the coaches. The hope is to move on with the next opportunity, when it comes, and then get back to doing what Neely does best: shedding tackles and blowing by defenders.

“I’m taking time off a little bit,” said Neely, who has a day job and trains at the gym regularly. “And then I’m just gonna train.”

“Recruiting is, to me, a rollercoaster,” O’Neal said. “We can handle it; we’re mentally, emotionally, spiritually strong enough to handle it.”

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Email Jake Adams at jadams@cumberlink.com or follow him on Twitter @jakeadams520

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Sports Editor

Sports editor at The Sentinel.