Whenever the topic of Mr. Football arose, Alex Neligh humbly declined to elaborate on himself. Not to say he didn’t appreciate the recognition. The most prolific passer in New Palestine football history instead felt compelled to divert the attention elsewhere.
He spoke of head coach Kyle Ralph, his offensive line, receivers, the defense, the running game — his “best friends.”
As was his trademark all season, the senior stiff-armed any praise bearing down in his singular direction: the countless school records, the seven 200-yard plus passing games and the Esmark All-American nod.
For the 6-foot-2, 195-pound quarterback everything he received credit for was a team accomplishment. If Neligh ever decided to speak in the third person, he would probably refer to himself as New Pal.
That’s just who he is: Reserved. Polite. Team orientated. Mr. Football (to his teammates, coaches and the other 2,100 or so residents in the town of New Palestine).
When former Eastern Hancock head coach Pat Echeverria was asked about Neligh’s potential to win the sport’s most-coveted award after New Palestine defeated his Zionsville Eagles 49-21 in the regional at Kelso Stadium, his response was straightforward.
“I don’t see why he wouldn’t?”
For those fortunate enough to watch Neligh on and off the field, the question was indeed the answer. Why not Neligh?
Prior to last Friday’s Class 5A state championship, he more than proved himself.
He already owned the school marks for career passing touchdowns, career completions, single-season rushing, career rushing touchdowns, single-season rushing touchdowns, career total offensive yards and touchdowns and single-season total offensive yards and scores.
In his second year as the team’s starting quarterback, he steered the state’s best offense to 28 straight wins and a Class 4A state title the year prior.
After narrowly missing out on a second state championship last Friday night — this time in Class 5A — he finished with 5,374 career passing yards, 64 career passing touchdowns, 56 career rushing touchdowns and 3,344 career rushing yards gained. Again, he did all of this in only two years.
Yet, he is still considered a fringe candidate by many. Why?
The debaters find solace in clinging to points they believe worthy — and to a certain extent understandably are.
Yes, New Palestine competes in the Hoosier Heritage Conference, a league made up of one 3A and six 4A schools. Does the HHC compare to the football giants of the Metropolitan Interscholastic Conference or the Hoosier Crossroads Conference on paper? In regards to Division-I talent, no.
The preseason odds-on favorite for Mr. Football, Brandon Peters of Avon (part of the HCC), a four-star quarterback as rated by ESPN, is committed to Michigan.
The 6-4, 209-pound standout passed for 3,103 yards and 37 touchdowns this year, is the state’s top prospect and has been selected for the U.S. Army All-American Bowl this winter.
All facts. All noteworthy. So is the fact that Neligh racked up his production in two to three quarters of play each week until the postseason when the top-ranked Dragons went full throttle.
Avon is a 6A program along with the MIC’s Center Grove, this year’s state champion, where defensive tackle Jovan Swann, who is ranked as the state’s fifth-best prospect, terrorized many for coach Eric Moore.
But history has proven Mr. Football isn’t merely a “big school” award. You only need to trace back to Columbus East quarterback Gunner Kiel (2011, 4A), the Olympians’ running back Markell Jones (2014, 4A), Cathedral’s Terry McLaurin (2013, 5A) or Fort Wayne Luers’ Jaylon Smith (2012, 2A).
Each of them had the statistics. All of them streamlined to Division-I football.
In 2009, however, quarterback Daniel Wodicka of West Lafayette (3A) had something else, much like Neligh. They had the intangible.
Ralph described his criteria for an award like Mr. Football, and we can assume it’s universal for all the coaches set to vote on the award.
The winner should have the numbers. Check. They need to be irreplaceable. Though, he won’t say so, Neligh was just that. Finally, they should represent the state and the sport with the utmost character.
Neligh showed exactly what he was made of at Lucas Oil Stadium.
Never giving up despite two first-quarter fumbles, he and the Dragons clawed back from a 21-point deficit at first, then 28 points with an unprecedented 35-point swing against Fort Wayne Snider.
Yes, the near state-record comeback that faded away in the game’s final eight seconds halted another championship for New Palestine, but it revealed to everyone who the Dragons were. They were champions regardless of the final score, and Neligh stood in the forefront.
Passing for 501 yards, four touchdowns and rushing for 166 yards and another four touchdowns, Neligh set more records: a state finals best in yards passing and tying for most touchdowns and rushing scores.
He added five more school records in the process and won the Phil N. Eskew Mental Attitude Award, but what stood out wasn’t his play. It was a tweet.
“Thank you to everyone who believed in us, I’m sorry we couldn’t get the job done. Congrats to Snider,” Neligh shared on social media.
I’m sure that Peters has the necessary intangibles, too, playing for coach Mark Bless, it would be surprising if he didn’t. But all you need to know about Neligh, what his proud parents, Jason and Lisa, instilled in him, can fit in 140 characters or less.
He’s Mr. Football.