Published August 12. 2013 4:00AM
New London - The freshmen were given their equipment Sunday, the first day of football practice at the Coast Guard Academy.
And Brendan McNeil, who left his New London High School teammates at graduation, 2012, and had to work his way back to New London through a year of prep school at Georgia Military College, was ecstatic to be wearing a blue No. 54 jersey and running through drills, with defensive coordinator C.C. Grant barking out orders.
"It feels good to finally be here at the academy," McNeil said. "It's been a tough year and then going through Swab Summer, but I've finally reached my goal of getting here.
"Now I want to reach my highest goal, to graduate from here and get a commission in the Coast Guard."
McNeil, from Pawcatuck, is a 6-foot-1, 225-pound linebacker, who transferred from Stonington High School to New London for the second half of his junior year to take classes at the adjacent Science and Technology Magnet High School.
He played two years of baseball at New London, earning first team All-Eastern Connecticut Conference honors as an outfielder his senior year. McNeil also played linebacker and offensive line for the football team under Jeff Larson in 2011, earning All-ECC honorable mention honors for a team which went 9-2 and qualified for the CIAC Class L playoffs.
The magnet school helped him academically, he said, as it specializes in STEM programming (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), all important in applying to the Coast Guard Academy. McNeil was named one of the area's top scholar-athletes by the Southeastern Connecticut Chapter of the National Football Foundation in 2012.
It also helped him competitively.
"There are a lot of good athletes there. You have to play your best every single day just to keep your position," McNeil said. "... My mom and dad let me make my own decision (to transfer). They said to do what I want to do. They didn't want to have an overriding opinion."
Here's what McNeil did at Georgia Military College: study.
He didn't try to play football at the prep school, where there are a number of Division I-caliber athletes, but instead chose to focus on academics, not taking his eye off the goal of getting to the academy.
"I think time management was the biggest thing I learned. We took a lot of credit hours, it was a lot of work," McNeil said. "The transition to the schoolwork was hard for me. My No. 1 goal was just to get good grades, make the standard."
McNeil said when he was younger, his aunt helped sponsor cadets, serving as their host families. He said he didn't realize the importance of those cadets until he was older.
"I would say the opportunity to get a great eduction at Coast Guard, a great career path," said McNeil, who began really wanting to attend the academy as a sophomore in high school, of the reason for his interest. "The opportunity to be a leader and serve the people of the United States."
McNeil sailed on the Coast Guard barque Eagle for its first training session of the summer.
Now, he's looking forward to being a part of a team again.
"It feels good to be in the area," McNeil said before adding with a laugh, "... every time I see the Thames River and the New London bridge it reminds me I'm about 15 minutes from home, 13 miles, and all my friends are probably at the beach right now."