DaVonte’ Neal can easily recall his favorite play from his high school career at Chaparral in Scottsdale.
Neal and the Firebirds were in the semifinals his senior year against Centennial in 2011. He had yet another dominating performance during the regular season in all facets of the game — defense, offense and special teams. Neal knew he and his team needed one more stop to advance to the title game.
Centennial had success against Chaparral running the jet sweet. So, in the final play of the game, junior running back Jalen Ortiz began to hit the outside like he would normally. However, Neal saw him begin to go into a throwing motion. Neal retreated into coverage, caught up with the opposing receiver and picked off the pass.
Neal’s interception sealed the game. Chaparral won 31-30 and clinched its third straight title.
“Game-winning interception to go to the state championship,” Neal said. “That moment meant a lot to me.”
It’s those types of plays that allowed Neal to be named Arizona Gatorade Player of the Year twice along with two consecutive All-American nods. Before his high school career ended, he went on to represent the state in the Under Armour All-America Game, one of the premier All-Star games for highly recruited prep football players from across the country.
Neal signed with the University of Notre Dame out of high school and made an impact on special teams for the Irish in his freshman campaign. He was part of the Notre Dame Team that was ranked No. 1 overall in the country when the Irish faced Alabama in the 2012 BCS National Championship Game.
Seeking a better opportunity, Neal transferred to the University of Arizona to complete his college career. More accolades in Tucson for the Wildcats allowed him to pursue a career in the Canadian Football League. From high school to college to the CFL, it’s an experience he still wouldn’t trade for anything to this day.
Now, he is sharing those experiences with the varsity defensive backs at Higley High School, where he recently joined head coach Eddy Zubey and the rest of the staff.
“I had a lot of fun and a lot of memories from high school,” Neal said. “Just to have worked so hard and now I have the opportunity to come back into the community and come back at coach here at Higley, I hope to give them some knowledge I had when I played that will help them go further in their careers.”
Neal began privately training athletes shortly after his stint in the CFL ended. That eventually led to becoming the defensive backs coach at Dobson under head coach Bill Godsil in 2020. He made the transition to Higley after he was contacted by Zubey after the season.
Zubey, however, was unaware Neal had begun coaching at the high school level. It wasn’t until he and current University of California Berkeley special teams coordinator Charlie Ragle were in the middle of a conversation earlier this year. Zubey mentioned his need for a defensive backs coach. In previous years, he was responsible for that position group.
Ragle, who coached Neal at Chaparral, immediately recommended him.
“To have someone like DaVonte’ come as a recommendation from one of my good friends, it was easy to bring him on board,” Zubey said. “Talking to him about what we have, I believe he is the perfect job for us. The unknown benefit at the time was his energy. Even after my two Monsters per day I don’t have as much energy as him.”
Zubey has already seen the impact made by Neal since his arrival to the program.
First and foremost, Neal’s energy is unmatched. He’s the first coach or player to congratulate one of the Knights for a play made during competition or practice. He’s also heavily involved in the weight room, racking weights and spotting Higley players.
His energy has become contagious for the defensive backs and the rest of the team. Players gravitate toward him and recognize his athletic ability. In many ways, the players also look up to him for additional guidance in regard to reaching the next level.
One of those players, Nijrell Eason, one of the top 2023 defensive backs in the state, knew who Neal was before he stepped on campus. Eason said he and some of his teammates pulled up their new coach’s highlight tape from high school.
“It was crazy,” Eason said. “All aspects. Offense, defense, special teams, everything. He’s energetic and that gives all of us energy. It helps motivate us to go make plays.”
Neal’s arrival to Higley also came with a bit of old memories from his youth and high school playing days.
LaRon Tarkington, another assistant on Higley’s staff, competed against Neal growing up. Tarkington played for the Southwinds youth football program in south Phoenix. Neal, who also lived in that part of the Valley, played for the 49ers. The two finally linked up for one year in middle school before Tarkington went to St. Mary’s where he was coached by Zubey.
The two played against each other in high school but had always remained friends.
Neal hopes to continue making a positive impact with Tarkington and the rest of the staff on the lives of his players. He ultimately aims to coach at the next level but remains focused on the task at hand: coaching Higley to have one of the best secondary units in the state.
“We are definitely going to fly around the ball,” Neal said. “We have guys who want to hustle, make plays and guys who want to win. I’ve gotten to know who these players are over the summer and from what I’ve seen so far, I think we can expect some big things from them.”