Like many other community college athletes, Jalen Neal enrolled at San Bernardino Valley College in the hopes of proving himself worthy of the chance to play at a four-year university by showing what he could do on the football field and in the classroom.
Only Neal enrolled in the summer of 2020. In the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. When the chance to play football during the 2020–21 school year looked perilous at best, and turned out to be non-existent at SBVC.
But, for Neal, the challenges of the past year did not put an end to the hope of reaching a four-year school. In fact, he’s already on his way there, without ever playing a down for SBVC.
Neal, a cornerback from College Park, Ga., has signed, and moved on to Boise State University, thanks to his own focus, and support from the SBVC defensive coordinator Kenny Lawler.
“I really found a good feel with Coach Lawler and the coaching staff here at San Bernardino,” Neal said.
After graduating from Trinity Christian High School in 2019, Neal went to prep school in Alabama for a year before searching for a school that could help him reach his goals. And, with family living Southern California, it made the idea of moving cross-country to pursue his dreams easier.
“I was searching for a junior college that would give me an opportunity to sign out and be part of a good staff,” Neal said. “I was looking in this area — I have family in Chino — so I was looking for somewhere in that end. But I found San Bernardino, so I reached out to Coach Lawler via email and got the ball rolling from there.”
Lawler played a key role in helping Neal find his route to Boise State. The defensive coordinator worked as a coach at Boise State from 2000–02, where he coached a young player from Corona named Andy Avalos. In January, Avalos became the head coach at Boise State. And with the Broncos looking for help in their secondary this fall, Lawler helped Neal get a tryout.
Neal said that during the pandemic related lockdowns, he worked to keep a schedule that would include times for classwork, working out and learning more about the game. But staying fit might have been the easy part, considering the challenges that the pandemic caused for many mentally.
“I’d say it was a mental challenge,” Neal said. “In my family, the application of mental fortitude is one of the biggest lessons we learn. Just staying mentally strong and having a good attitude about everything. There’s times when you’re going to be disappointed, but you have just have to keep pushing with those things come about.”
Currently studying kinesiology, with an emphasis on anatomy in hopes of one day become an orthopedic surgeon, Neal will be able to step onto the blue turf field at Boise State this fall. That blue turf, one of the first non-green athletic fields used in the nation, was one of the things that Neal said he had looked forward to seeing during his tryout in Idaho. But that was not the only thing that made it easy for him to sign there.
“On my visit that was one I was waiting to see,” he said. “It was great seeing it on TV for so many years. For me to actually get on campus and see that, that was a great thing for me. The whole staff there is great. They’re a younger staff, so they can relate to their players a little bit more, so it’s a great situation.”
But Neal knows that his journey through SBVC is unique. And he’s grateful for the coaching and help he received in his year at the school.
“I have to give a shout out to Coach Bobby (Hosea), he’s really helped me in terms of my technique of tackling,” Neal said. “His ‘Heads Up’ technique has really helped me, and understood being safe about the game and doing things the right way, as far as the physicality of the game.”
“It was a blessing for me to find Coach Lawler and his staff. It was probably the best football coaches I’ve ever had in terms of being stand-up people, knowing their knowledge of the game — Coach Lawler coaching almost 40 years in just Juco football alone. I also want to give a shout out to my teammates. The guys who came out here from out of state, we’ve all worked hard and just had a good attitude about everything. And we really jelled and bonded.”