Mernagh: From East Baltimore to Vermont to Miami, Daquein McNeil’s road ends at FIU
Daquein McNeil is a grinder. By the time the sun comes up in leafy Vermont, he’s already hard at work, bucking the odds.
Whether he’s perfecting his skill-set on the hardwood, getting stronger in the weight room, or cracking a book, everything McNeil does on a daily basis is done with one goal in mind — to prove the perception that exists about kids like him wrong.
“People don’t think kids like me will amount to anything,” says McNeil, “kids from East Baltimore aren’t expected to make it.”
McNeil makes it a little each day. He makes it just by waking up and realizing he’s safe. He makes it by understanding he’s in a place, at Vermont Academy, that gives him a chance.
And for a kid like Daquein McNeil, who can still feel the pulse of the Latrobe Projects coursing through his veins, a real chance isn’t always something you can count on. It’s evident when you speak to McNeil that the young man is wise beyond his years. He understands he deserves what he’s been given because he’s put in the work, but he also knows that nothing is ever guaranteed in life (except for the sounds of sirens ringing out 24/7 in East Baltimore).
“Most of my friends from Baltimore are either dead or locked up,” says McNeil, “none of them were really trying to play ball or anything like that.”
But McNeil wasn’t only trying to play ball, he was playing it well enough to run with Baltimore Elite on the AAU circuit.
And it was at a tournament a few years ago, in the under 15 division of the Playaz event in New Jersey, that McNeil first met a man that would become influential in his college decision. “We played New Heights in the final four that year,” says McNeil, “and I played pretty well against Coach Kimani Young’s team.” The two spoke afterwards and Young would often check in with McNeal’s coach and ask about the kid who scored bucket after bucket against his team.
“He was always asking how I was doing and my coach would let me know that,” says McNeil. “When he got hired as an assistant at FIU, it was definitely a place I was going to check out.”
McNeil’s relationship with Young was vital to get his attention focused on FIU, but he says once he visited the campus in Miami and experienced Richard Pitino’s program firsthand, he really understood it was the best place for him. “Coach Young was huge,” says McNeil, “but it was a collective effort by the whole staff and players once I went down there.” And the funny thing is that the kid from Baltimore wasn’t dazzled by the sunshine or South Beach.
In fact — “It rained when I was there,” says McNeil, laughing.
So what attracted him to the point where he gave a verbal commitment to FIU yesterday?
“The way they worked reminded me of how we do things here at Vermont Academy,” says McNeil. “They worked out at 6 am and then they came back later and lifted. It was all business, but upbeat too, and I just wanted to be a part of it.”
Hard work was the attraction.
One other thing — McNeil says we shouldn’t buy into the perception that FIU will struggle this season.
“They’re going to surprise people,” says McNeil, “they work too hard not to have success.”
Daquein McNeal knows about hard work, about how the perception doesn’t have to be the reality.
Daquein McNeil’s the epitome of the word.