David Neils: an exemplary leader both on the gridiron and in the classroom

By Carlee Tressel

Anyone who uses the phrase “dumb jock” here at the U of C ought to think twice. No one shatters that stereotype quite like David Neils, a fourth-year offensive lineman for the Maroons football squad. Neils has demonstrated an impressive blend of athletic skill and academic excellence from the beginning of his career until the very end. Upon graduation this June, Neils will walk away with a cumulative GPA above 3.5, a double concentration in biology and chemistry, and enough athletic achievements to fill a trophy case.

What stands out about Neils, besides his imposing size (6-2, 295), is that he was a four-year starter for the Maroons. His successful high school football career in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, earned him a starting position on Chicago’s team his first year. Head coach Dick Maloney pointed out that it is unusual for a player to start as a freshman.

“Since the level of play is so different from high school to college, it takes a player whose skill level and technique are way up,” explained Maloney.

Maloney described Neils as an “instinctive and intelligent player” who is aggressive at his left tackle position. Maloney also noted that Neils helped his other teammates on the offensive line and was a mentor to the freshman classes in his third and fourth years.

Second-year and fellow lineman Jason Jagodzinski agreed that Neils is consistently supportive of his teammates.

“Dave is a guy who is always there for you when you need him, both on and off the field,” Jagodzinski said. “He the team is the most important thing.”

In his second year, Neils helped his team to a 7-2 season, which included a 4-0 conference record and a University Athletic Association (UAA) championship. In 2001, Neils was a member of the offensive line that was named “offensive line of the week” by www.d3football.com after the Maroons posted a 45-35 victory over North Central College. The line helped the team own the day as the Maroons racked up 469 yards in total offense.

Neils also earned a number of individual accolades during his football career. He was named second team All-UAA in his second and third years. Maloney expressed no doubt that Neils would have earned a third consecutive All-UAA honor had he been able to finish the 2002 football season. After starting the first five games last fall, Neils sustained a knee injury in a game against Pomona-Pitzer in mid-October. The injury and subsequent treatment did not allow Neils to return to the line for the rest of the season, but the setback hardly diminished his stellar career.

True to the epithet “scholar-athlete,” Neils has been recognized numerous times for his academic accomplishments. He has received the UAA All-Academic Recognition Award three times. UAA athletes who are at least sophomores and have a minimum GPA of 3.2 are eligible for the award. Neils was also recognized nationally when he was named a third-team offensive lineman on the 2002 Verizon Academic All-District Five College Division Team. He was most recently inducted into the Illinois Theta chapter of Chi Alpha Sigma, an organization honoring high academic and athletic achievement.

Neils’s hard work in the field of chemistry was rewarded when he was granted an undergraduate research fellowship from the Pfizer pharmaceutical company last summer. Maloney recalled the whirlwind weekend in September when Neils was called back to the Pfizer headquarters to receive an award for the chemistry research he had completed earlier in the summer.

“David flew out Thursday night, received the award, took an all-night flight back, and played in our Saturday home game against Illinois Wesleyan,” Maloney said, showing the extent of Neils’s dedication to his team.

As Jagodzinski puts it, Neils is an athlete and student who “gets it done.” Neils is accustomed to the dedication and hard work it took to earn top academic and athletic honors. Despite being busy with schoolwork, Maloney says that Neils hardly ever missed practice. “He would come to practice every day and work hard,” Maloney said, “and he’d always have a smile on his face.”

It is this positive, albeit quiet, leadership and unflagging dedication that made Neils an effective team player and an individual standout. Maloney called Neils a “unique character, in the most positive sense,” praising him for his “grounded” attitude despite frequent honors and recognition.

Maloney alluded to Neils’ humility when he explained that besides the time at Pfizer, Neils spent his summers working in a mill “making toilet seats.” While it is definitely not chemistry research, it is just another example of the kind of down-to-earth hard-worker that David Neils is. And until the start of medical school, you can find Neils, an academic and athletic success by any standard, working in a cheese mill in Wisconsin.