September 5, 2014

Faith, ‘all-in’ approach help rookie NFL referee Bryan Neale achieve his dream

In his 25-year journey to becoming an official in the National Football League, Immaculate Heart of Mary parishioner Bryan Neale has always relied on his faith on and off the field. (Submitted photo)

In his 25-year journey to becoming an official in the National Football League, Immaculate Heart of Mary parishioner Bryan Neale has always relied on his faith on and off the field. (Submitted photo)

(Editor’s note: As the National Football League shifts into high gear this weekend as it opens its 2014-15 regular season, we feature stories on a local Catholic realizing his dream of becoming an NFL referee, and a former world-class rugby player from Kenya who lives his Catholic faith as a member of the Indianapolis Colts.)

By John Shaughnessy

The emotion poured out of Bryan Neale when he learned that the dream he had pursued for 25 years had finally come true.

The National Football League (NFL) informed Neale earlier this year that he had been chosen as one of the 13 new officials hired to referee games for the 2014 season.

“The phone rang at 11:48 a.m. on March 21, if that tells you anything,” says Neale, a member of Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish in Indianapolis. “I’d be lying if I said I didn’t start bawling like a baby. It was a really big deal. It’s one of those deals where you go, ‘Oh my God, I’m in the NFL!’ ”

Yet, even Neale’s joy for his selection by the NFL doesn’t match the emotion he feels when he tells the story of how his Catholic faith became the focal point of his life.

“I grew up in a conflicted household,” he says. “Both of my parents are from Catholic families in Evansville. My dad was a hippie, and he would rebel against the Catholic Church because, in his mind, it was old school and brainwashing. So growing up, I had my dad’s influence which was to be a free spirit. And I had my extended family which went to Mass every Sunday.

“As a kid, I got baptized, but I never went through first Communion or confirmation. So when it was time for Communion, all my aunts and uncles and cousins would go up to get Communion, and me and my Methodist aunt would be sitting in the pew together. And I always felt left out. Not to be a sob story, but I felt I always wanted to be a part of it.”

Flash forward to Neale reaching a turning point in his life in his twenties.

“As I moved into my twenties, I hit what a lot of people do—the searching phase. I was faithful, but I really didn’t have a place to worship. The Catholic Church was always my home. I always felt fully at peace and comfortable there. I lived in Broad Ripple and was talking to a friend about being lost and meandering around.”

The friend told Neale that he was taking Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) classes at Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish. He offered to put Neale in touch with the director.

“I went through RCIA in 1997,” says Neale, now 44 and the father of four. “Even to this day, the consecration and Communion never get old to me. It’s the most special thing going—because it’s the thing I always missed out on when I was a kid. To me, it’s the most touching, important thing that we do in the Catholic faith.”

Chasing a dream—and the moment it nearly ended

Neale’s “all-in” approach to his faith reflects the same commitment he’s had to pursuing his dream of becoming an NFL official.

He played football through high school, but when he enrolled at Indiana University in Bloomington he knew he wasn’t “fast enough or good enough” to play the sport in college. Still, wanting to stay involved in football, he became an official.

“I got my license in August of 1988,” he recalls with a smile. “My first game was a [junior varsity] game at Bloomington South [High School]. I ran around the field, I had no idea of what I was doing, I never blew my whistle, I didn’t throw any flags, and I thought it was awesome. It was the greatest thing ever.”

A year later, he wrote down a list of goals, including becoming an official in the NFL someday. As he progressed through the college ranks—including eight years in the Big Ten Conference—he kept his focus on his dream. Then came the moment when he was sure he had blown any chance of living his dream—a moment that took place on the biggest stage of college football.

“I can show you YouTube videos of me in the national championship game in 2011. It was Oregon versus Auburn. Oregon was driving to win the game at the end of the fourth quarter. I had a horrible situation where I ran into a defensive back who was guarding a receiver on a fourth down play. I hit this Auburn kid, and it left the Oregon kid wide open. He caught a pass for 16 yards, and they went down and scored a touchdown.”

Neale’s voice softens.

“For a moment, I thought my career was over. But you still have the rest of the game. There were a couple minutes left. Auburn ended up coming back and kicking a field goal to win.

“You have to be able to take those situations that occur and move past them.”

Faith helps in those moments, too.

“I pray a lot more on the football field than I do in church. There are times when I say, ‘I hope I’m right. Please, God, let me be right.’ I pray all the time. It may not be in the traditional on-the-knees, eyes-closed, hands-folded manner, but I’m constantly talking. More than anything, I affirm that God is going to take care of me. Even when things go badly, I say, ‘I’m going to be OK.’ ”

Then Neale shares his other embarrassing moment from that national championship game, which also showed up on YouTube.

‘The joy of being yelled at’

“It’s near the end of the first half,” he says, the smile returning to his face. “The game is the biggest cable viewership ever—26 million people watching this game. I’m the one who spots the ball during the game. As I’m putting the ball down right in the middle of the field, I tripped over the defensive tackle and I fell flat on my butt.”

His smile grows: “The moment you think you have everything figured out and you’ve made it, God gives you one of these moments. You have to be able to laugh at yourself.”

Neale showed that ability when he recently gave a talk in Indianapolis before a group of Catholic business people about his faith and his job as a ref—a talk he titled, “The Joy of Being Yelled At.”

“He makes a lot of good fun about himself,” says Jim Liston, founder of the Catholic Business Exchange, the group that Neale spoke to on Aug. 15. “Instead of welcoming him with applause, I had the group boo him in unison. He said, ‘That makes me feel real comfortable. I never get cheers.’ He was extremely well-received.”

Neale’s sense of humor is also evident in the name he has given to his business where he trains, coaches and advises sales people, managers and executives. His business is called Blind Zebra Consulting.

“While I work hard and take the roles I’m in super seriously, I tend not to take things over seriously. I love to laugh. I love stupid movies. I love silly jokes.”

His sense of adventure matches his sense of humor.

A zest for life

Neale has skydived, owned a Harley Davidson motorcycle and earned a pilot’s license. He has also taught himself to play the piano, the drums and the guitar.

“He has such a zest for life,” says Jason Konesco, a longtime friend who first met Neale when they both attended a Christ Renews His Parish retreat at Immaculate Heart of Mary. “He’s consistent in his faith, open, hopeful and optimistic. I’ve always enjoyed people who are aspirational and goal-oriented, and have leadership qualities I can learn from. Bryan has all those qualities.”

One of Neale’s proudest accomplishments occurred in 1991 when he co-founded the Dance Marathon at Indiana University in Bloomington, a fundraiser for Riley Hospital for Children in Indianapolis that has grown to become one of the largest, most financially-successful, student-led fundraising efforts in the country.

Today, Neale continues his contributions toward serving others as a board member of the Indianapolis chapter of Back on My Feet, a program that tries to help adults who are homeless and battling addictions.

“It teaches them confidence building, life skills and financial acumen by having them take up running,” Neale explains. “We have teams that go to the homeless shelters three days a week at 5:30 in the morning, and they take these homeless guys jogging. Most of these people haven’t done any physical activity. They all start off very skeptical. But they run a half mile, and that turns into a mile.

“We had a couple members this year who ran marathons. You know the kind of commitment that takes? It builds their confidence. It builds their physical being. I’ll get weepy when I say this, but one of the guys said, ‘When I’m at the mission, I’m homeless. I’m labeled. When I put on jogging shoes, shorts and a shirt, I’m a jogger just like a banker, an NFL referee or anyone else. The label comes off.’ It’s awesome.”

A father’s wish for his children

Neale has the same feeling when he talks about life with his wife of 14 years, Jennifer, and their four children, who range in age from 12 to 7.

He says his faith guides him as a husband and a father.

“It goes back to how I grew up. I think for most people who have kids, one of their wishes is that you want your kids to have a little bit better experience or a little bit better life than you did. I want to give my kids a more structured faith environment. So it’s very central to what we do.

“We live 2 1/2 blocks from Immaculate Heart. My wife teaches seventh- and eighth-grade English there. She just went back after 11 years of being at home with the kids. Our four kids were baptized there. They’re going to school there. They will all go to a Catholic high school.”

For Neale, it’s all part of one of the easiest calls he’s ever had to make.

“It makes me feel good to start them off that way, to expose them to faith, to let them experience the things that I didn’t experience that I wish I would have as a kid. And still to give them, hopefully, the freedom when they’re adults to make their own reasonable choices about their faith.

“I still want them to have part of what my dad taught me—to be open-minded and be called to what you’re called to. I hope to God, they all stay close.” †

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