McNeill
ECU

GREENVILLE, N.C. -- Ruffin McNeill is lurking around the East Carolina practice fields.

There's no longer the giveaway sound of his golf cart as he pulls up to watch a drill. No hearing him labor to move with a painful arthritic hip or a nearly 400-pound frame. Instead, McNeill is popping up out of nowhere behind his surprised players.

"Like a ninja," he said with a proud smile.

Consider it a smaller benefit from an offseason in which McNeill shed about 130 pounds following weight-loss and hip-replacement surgeries. The golf cart that was once essential equipment is now a seldom-used option, while his improved mobility allows him long daily walks - even 90 minutes in the August heat - that would've been impossible only a few months ago.

"I feel like myself," McNeill said. "I feel great. My mind has so much energy, and physically I have the energy. It's really made a difference. I look forward to each day. Not that I didn't before or I was in depression or anything like that, but there was so much pain involved. ... And I never realized how much pain I was in until I didn't have the pain."

The transformation heading into his second season at his alma mater is remarkable. McNeill, 52, looks years younger. He eats less but healthier. He can barely wear a new clothing purchase before it looks baggy around his smaller frame.

Compare that to a year earlier, when the former Pirates defensive back walked with a pronounced limp and relied on the golf cart. Before weight-loss surgery in January, McNeill peaked at 388 pounds. He had the hip replacement procedure in April, shortly after the Pirates closed spring practice.

Players and assistant coaches can't stop praising the man they affectionately call "Coach Ruff." Linebacker Justin Dixon joked that it's as though McNeill has discovered a twin brother. Inside receivers coach Donnie Kirkpatrick said seeing McNeill is "like going back in time."

"The captain of the ship has to set the example," Kirkpatrick said. "I think the players respected him from Day One, but I think it made them respect him even more. We ask these kids to train, we ask them to eat better, we ask them to give up some of the college life. We strive to tell them to do what's best for them and their bodies.

"He has led that charge in sacrifice. ... He doesn't just talk the talk, he actually walks the walk."

McNeill began working out in a swimming pool between surgeries to help him lose weight. He'll soon return to those workouts and has added walks around the stadium complex and the busy multi-lane Greenville Boulevard corridor lined with strip malls, big-box stores and restaurants.

He walks six days per week and takes a different route depending on the time he has available, typically from 45 to 90 minutes. He said the walks help him clear his mind as he observes things he never noticed before while driving.

He also made sure to walk during the hottest parts of summer days so he would be prepared for training camp.

"That time is going to be blocked off," he said. "I'm not going to sacrifice that time. Me being healthy is a plus for everyone around."

The players often spot their coach on his treks and give a honk of support from their cars.

"You drive by the stadium and you'll see him out walking in the heat," defensive back Bradley Jacobs said. "Man, you've got your coach out there working for us."

McNeill said in the spring that he was motivated by several goals, including being in the best shape possible to one day walk his two daughters down the aisle.  Now his focus is on helping the Pirates reach a sixth straight bowl game and repair a defense that ranked as one of the nation's worst last season.

At least his health is no longer a distraction.

"I'm able to move around so much better," McNeill said. "I feel better physically and mentally and spiritually, really."