Bolden's uncle rolls with Tide
Make no mistake about it: Don McNeal is proud of his great-nephew.
Still, Crimson blood is thicker than family when it comes to Alabama football.
McNeal, a former Alabama cornerback and a great-uncle to Penn State quarterback Rob Bolden, will be rooting for the Crimson Tide on Saturday night when the Nittany Lions venture into Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa, Ala.
"I will cheer for (Bolden) because he is blood, but I want Alabama to win," he said.
Pardon Penn State fans if they aren't impressed by McNeal's love for family. They likely believe they have suffered enough at his hand.
It was McNeal who helped rob the Nittany Lions of a national championship in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 1, 1979, a game coach Joe Paterno said at the time was the biggest in school history.
The game marked only the fifth time to that point that the No. 1 (Penn State) and No. 2 teams in the nation met with the title on the line.
For more than three quarters Penn State's offense struggled, and the Lions trailed in the fourth quarter, 14-7. Finally, after a turnover, Penn State had the ball on the Alabama 6, second-down-and-goal.
With the noise level rising in the Louisiana Superdome, quarterback Chuck Fusina threw a pass over the middle that Penn State wide receiver Scott Fitzkee caught at the 2. When he turned, Fitzkee appeared to have a clear lane to the goal line, but McNeal launched himself from the secondary and drove Fitzkee out of bounds at the 1.
On the next two plays, Alabama stopped Penn State running backs Matt Suhey and Mike Guman on dives into the middle of the defense. The Crimson Tide held on for the victory, the national championship and a bitter defeat for Penn State.
Paterno said Tuesday that he teases Fitzkee every time he sees him that he should have scored.
"We preach all the time to never catch the ball on the 1," he said. "Take one more step and even if they knock you out, it's a touchdown."
McNeal said Fitzkee shouldn't be too tough on himself.
"He didn't score because of the fact I was trained well by coach Bear Bryant and (assistant coach) Bill Oliver," he said.
McNeal said his brother Henry, who is Bolden's grandfather, encountered Paterno recently and reminded him of his brother's tackle.
"He told my brother, 'Oh, he cost me (the national championship),' " McNeal said.
Today, McNeal is an assistant pastor at the New Testament Baptist Church in Miami after a 10-year career with the Dolphins.
McNeal won two national championships with Alabama, but left two Super Bowls with the losing team. It was McNeal who was nearly trampled by Washington Redskins running back John Riggins on his famous touchdown run in Super Bowl XVII.
"I had a great play in the Sugar Bowl and a lousy play (in the Super Bowl)," he said.
McNeal said he spoke to Bolden before the game last Saturday.
"I told him, 'Do your best and don't get discouraged.' "
He plans to attend the game Saturday night with his family, but he has no plans to speak to Bolden.
"He doesn't need my influence at all. He has a big chore ahead of him, and I don't want to distract him."
Paterno laughed about the family connection, eager for anything to lighten the mood leading up to a difficult game.
"Rob's uncle will probably sit there and enjoy the game," he said, "and he will go home and brag a little bit about Rob, as well as Alabama. So it will be fun."