HIS OWN LEGACY: Dragons QB finds personal path to championship

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NEW PALESTINE — As players and coaches departed and the field emptied, one person lingered.

The date was Aug. 18, 2017. New Palestine had just opened its football season with a 19-8 road win at Class 5A Whiteland.

The game was over, and Dragons coach Kyle Ralph noticed someone still out on the field, kind of milling around. It was his new starting quarterback, Zach Neligh, and Ralph could tell something was up.

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He was 10, maybe 15 yards away. The coach called out to the junior, asking if he was all right.

When he turned around, Neligh’s face was full of tears.

“I said, ‘Man, my god, are you OK? Is something wrong?’ He came up and just gave me the biggest hug ever, and I gave him a big hug back,” Ralph said. “He didn’t even have words. That was the emotion that he did it. He led us to that big opening win. It was a huge win for him as a first-time starter. I told him how proud of him I was and I said, ‘You know, there’s going to be a whole lot more coming if you keep working at this.’”

That moment is one of Ralph’s favorites as a coach. Neligh came into the game nervous. He had an up-and-down game, throwing two interceptions but rushing for 222 yards and two scores.

The emotion of the night was high for so many reasons. It was Neligh’s first start at quarterback. It was a big opening test to the Dragons season.

It was his first opportunity to go out there and do what his brother had done just a few years prior, when Alex Neligh led the Dragons to a Class 4A state championship with a huge 2014 season.

“I didn’t get the opportunity to play sophomore year, right after Alex did,” Neligh said. “I still had a lot to learn. Junior year coming into it, it was a lot of trying to be your own person. You hear all the things like, oh, there’s Alex; you’re not going to be as good as him. You’ve just got to keep playing to the best of your ability, focus on yourself and not somebody else.”

Stepping out of his older brother’s supposed shadow wasn’t always easy. After wearing No. 14 his sophomore year, he inherited Alex’s No. 11 as a junior — “I don’t think the number change was a good idea, anyway,” Neligh said with a laugh.

Even this year, as a senior, he was referred to as Alex on countless occasions, from radio to TV broadcasts to Twitter.

Neligh remembers a drive during the 2018 state championship game where he looked up at the scoreboard between plays and it was showing a highlight of a touchdown Alex scored in the 2014 state championship game.

It didn’t faze him. In fact, the younger Neligh brother now takes the mis-identification and the comparisons as a compliment.

“I think I’ve done better this year kind of being my own person, not being under his shadow any more, even if people still think I’m Alex out there,” Neligh said. “But this year has been more of a compliment to be called Alex. His numbers are the best we’ve had in school history. He was a phenomenal player. Having people call me Alex is basically just saying I’m just as good as him. I think this year I’ve kind of taken that at a more positive level and kind of seen that as people are believing in me, that I can run the show just as well as he did.”

Zach Neligh had a big junior season, throwing for 1,861 yards and 22 touchdowns while rushing for 1,130 yards and another 13 scores. This year, he ran the Dragons’ unstoppable offense with efficiency and precision, passing for 1,572 yards and 14 TDs and running for 1,044 yards and 14 TDs. He threw as many interceptions this entire season as he did in his starting debut, with just two picks.

He led his team to a 24-1 record as a starting quarterback, and he did something nobody else — not even his older brother — has been able to do at New Palestine.

He won a Class 5A state championship. He defined his own legacy.

“I said look, I told you if you worked at this, you can do something special,” Ralph said. “Shadow, my butt. You’ve got something on the big boy that he can never, never, never get on you. You’re a 5A state champion and he wasn’t. It was great to see that all come full circle.”

It’s in the game

Long before Neligh took the field as a quarterback at New Palestine, he was busy on the virtual gridiron.

When he was younger, Neligh might have played a bit too much of the Madden football video games. Every time he scored in the game, he would dive into the end zone, a flashy way of showboating.

He made the mistake of doing that in a New Palestine Cadet Football League game, once. The Madden motto then was “it’s in the game.” So Neligh made sure his video-game dive found its way into a real game.

He got a personal foul penalty for it. That wasn’t the worst part.

There’s photographic evidence of the play. That, also, wasn’t the worst part.

His dad being his coach he when did it … that was the worst part.

“My dad reamed me,” Neligh said. “My dad was my coach all throughout NPCFL. There’s a picture of me diving into the end zone in NPCFL. You can see my dad in the background …”

His dad wasn’t happy.

Nowadays, Neligh doesn’t play Madden much. It wasn’t because of that moment. It’s not a matter of free time, either, although he doesn’t have a ton of that being a student-athlete.

The game is frustrating to him. He doesn’t really know how to run an offense that isn’t New Palestine’s.

“There’s not enough zone options in the game like our offense, so I don’t know how to run any other options,” Neligh said. “There’s no running back in the game like Charlie (Spegal), so I can’t just hand the ball off. And you actually have to throw the ball in Madden. I don’t know what to do there.”

Neligh, who was actually a linebacker in junior high, doesn’t view himself as a very good thrower. He’s better on his feet.

For a state-championship winning quarterback who threw for nearly 3,000 yards and 38 touchdowns in his two years, that might seem a bit odd.

But it worked.

“Have you seen the offense that we run? We run 80 times a game,” Neligh joked.

Creating a QB

Neligh’s life is full of apparent contradictions, an interesting mixture of personality traits.

He’s a quarterback who, somewhat jokingly, doesn’t think he can throw the ball.

He’s an animal lover, planning on going into veterinary medicine in college. But the day after the state championship game, a night he went to bed around 4 a.m., he was up at 5 in the morning to go deer hunting. That’s what he’s been doing since football has ended. He’s an avid hunter who also loves animals.

He’s a state championship winner who still doesn’t really believe he won a state championship. It hasn’t fully set in.

And while he may be a Neligh, he’s also nothing like his older brother.

“Zach is one of the most interesting and intelligent people I know,” Alex Neligh said. “He and I are two almost completely polar opposite personalities, so that causes a lot of back and forth between the two of us and always has. Having someone like that as a brother promotes a strong friendship to form, and that’s the best way I can describe him: He is one of if not my best friend. Everyone says they’re close with their siblings, but I truly do believe him, and I have a very unique bond that sets us apart from normal siblings.”

The Dragons senior is a former baseball player and a linebacker who became a quarterback. It was a long journey that started in first grade. He was too small to play until then. He wasn’t good at soccer, and he hated football at first, until his teams started winning games.

He picked up football because of his brother and father. His brother was a role model. His dad always pushed him to play sports and be active.

Neligh said that he had a lot of energy as a kid. Football was the best way to channel that.

He became a linebacker, and he was good at the position in middle school.

When he got to high school, he just wanted to find a role. He wasn’t the right size to be a linebacker at that level. He tried defensive back — “I sucked at being a DB,” he said — and he got tired of searching for a role. He figured, given his family tree, he probably had a strong arm.

“If you would have talked to me eighth-grade year, after my brother had won the state title, and said to me that I would be the starting quarterback of the 5A championship team my senior year, I’d call you insane,” Neligh said. “I would have thought I’d be starting linebacker, maybe on special teams some more. To finish it off like this, it’s just something you don’t expect.”

Legacy defined

From a young age, Ralph could tell that Neligh had a natural leadership ability. He saw a hard worker, a kid with a lot of moxie, someone who earned the respect of those around him. He saw something special.

He watched Neligh develop into a true leader throughout high school, something Neligh himself thinks really started developing once he took over the starting quarterback role, when he gave up baseball to focus on being the best football player he could be.

But he wasn’t “the” leader of the 2018 Dragons. He won’t accept that.

“I could argue all day that every person on that offense was a leader in their own right, either by example or by being a vocal leader,” Neligh said. “I was pretty happy how everybody kind of took it upon themselves to lead by example and do their job to the best of their ability.”

The role he played, and the way he handled it so well, certainly was a pivotal piece of the Dragons success.

Neligh leaves the New Palestine football program as a winner. He forged his own path, despite being the second quarterback from his family to take the reins of the Dragons offense in just a few short years.

“The only advice I feel like I sought out to give him was before his junior year,” Alex Neligh said. “I told him that he needed to be Zach Neligh. Zach, because he was his own person and he needed to create his own legacy, and Neligh, because he needed to continue to exemplify the presence on the field, locker room, and community that is expected of Neligh boys around New Palestine.”

His football days are now probably behind the younger Neligh. He’s planning to head to IUPUI to take all of his prerequisite classes before hopefully transferring to Purdue. He hopes to become a veterinary technician or a veterinarian himself on day.

With IUPUI not having a football team and Neligh not seeing himself starting for Purdue, he knows it’s time to look ahead.

“It’s just time to move on to the next chapter in your life,” Neligh said. “For some people, that’s going on to play college football or any college sport. For me, it’s figuring out what path or career I want to take in life, focusing on having fun in college and being able to experience it outside of an athletic level.”

He made life-long friendships as a football player, life-long relationships with his coaches and those around him.

It was a lot of work and a lot of fun, and it couldn’t have ended any more perfectly for either of the Neligh brothers. While Alex’s final play of his high school career was an interception, Zach’s was kneeling with the ball to wrap up a championship win.

That difference didn’t bother the older Neligh one bit.

“Seeing him win a state championship meant more than winning one for me,” Alex Neligh said. “I saw every day of this kid’s life growing up, and watched every game and snap of his football career. I am so proud of his accomplishments not only on the football field, but what he has accomplished as a person, a student, and a community member. You cannot write a better ending for your younger brother. Seeing him go out the way he did is everything I could have asked for, and it was the perfect way for the end of an era of New Palestine football in the Neligh household.”

“It’s been a lot of work put in to get a final product,” Zach Neligh said. “It feels good to actually have something to show for it. I’ve had a great time the last four years of high school just working my butt off to be the starting QB. I’m glad it ended the way it did.”