What do you call a young man who is 6’2’’ tall, weighs 245 lbs., holds the title of current State 5A Conference Champ in the shot put, placed second in his division at the 2023 6A/7A State Weight Meet, and has a 4.2 grade point average going into his senior year of high school at Benton? If you are Panthers Head Coach Brad Harris, you call him your starting defensive end and a team leader. If you are Robert and Lisa McNeely, you call him son. If you are the Bryant Hornet offense, you call him dangerous.
But to end the story here would not do justice to the person and player on the Panthers roster by the name of Peyton McNeely.
Coach Harris noticed Peyton during his seventh-grade year as a Benton Junior High player.
“He actually played quarterback, wide receiver, and linebacker for us in junior high,” Harris recalls. “He was a big athletic guy, so we used him at several positions. He was more of a running quarterback, but he did a great job of running the offense and being our leader in junior high. We always thought Peyton would be a defensive player for us when he got to high school. We moved him to defensive end because we had some senior linebackers and we just needed to get him on the field because he was one of our best defensive players. He found a home at defensive end.”
When asked to describe Peyton’s strengths, Coach Harris said he has many. “His strength is his strength. He benches 375 lbs., power cleans 325 lbs., and squats 550 lbs. He is hard to move off the line and he has great ball get off, so his quickness is also really good. He also understands offense well. He is a smart kid, so he studies opposing teams and understands what they are trying to do to our defense.”
Peyton agrees. “In the tenth grade they were running thin on the defensive line, and they asked if I could fill in, and I’ve been there ever since. What I enjoy most about playing defensive end is that you just go; there’s no worrying or reading anything. You just get off the ball and react.”
And the move to defensive end resulted in five quarterback sacks, eight quarterback hurries, eight tackles for loss, and sixty-three total tackles for Peyton as a junior in the 2022 season.
Coach Harris describes Peyton as the ultimate team player. “Peyton comes to work every day. This is what sets Peyton aside from a lot of players in high school. He’s one of the hardest working players I have ever coached. Peyton is easy to coach, he is a pleaser, and he is one of the most respectful players on our team. He is a great player but an even better young man. His teammates respect him because they know he comes to work every day and will always have a positive attitude. He has great character. Peyton is the type of kid you want your kid to grow up and act like.”
It’s this character and commitment that led him to sign with the Harding University Bisons.
Peyton has a love for Panthers football that flows through his veins with maroon blood, inherited from his father. Robert McNeely is a 1988 graduate who played for legendary Benton coach Dwight Fikes. Peyton played several sports as he was growing up, but the love of football is ingrained.
Peyton says, “I play football because there’s nothing else like it in the world. There are other team games, but in football the bonds you make with the people playing beside you are different because you have to completely trust the other guys on the field to do their job. In baseball a single pitcher can throw a perfect game, and in basketball one guy can drop 50 points, but you can’t do that in football.”
It’s that same wider perspective thinking that has prepared Peyton for his future. He credits his parents for this, and his father, specifically, for inspiration.
“My dad has been the greatest influence on me because we have always bonded over football,” he says. “He knows what it takes to be able to succeed in the game of football and life, and he has always pushed me to be better, and I have always tried to beat the things he did and surpass him.”
Robert says of Peyton, “He is a young man with a high character. He’s humble and polite and is a quiet leader on and off the field. On the field he’s not the type of player who’s going to be vocal at all. He’s not going to be ‘showboating.’ I’ve always told him to let your pads do the talking.”
Peyton’s mother Lisa says the focus for Peyton and his brother Austin has been rooted in faith.
“Always put God first in everything. Do the do-right rule. If it feels wrong, don’t do it. You are going to make mistakes. Please learn from them and move on. Don’t dwell on it. Keep going no matter what. Try to see the good in others, no matter how hard it is. Not everyone is going to like you or be your friend, so watch whom you can trust and can’t trust.”
The Salt Bowl is particularly competitive off the field for the McNeely family. Lisa describes their home as a “house divided.” She works for the Bryant School District. Austin graduated from Bryant. But Peyton attends Benton in order to play as a Panther, just like his dad did.
Peyton says, “It’s hard to explain the feeling I get when I run out onto the sideline. It’s exciting, but very nerve-racking as well because when you mess up, everyone knows it. The entire summer is built up to that one game and there are no do-overs, and it’s in front of 25,000 people.”
But for Peyton and Robert, the feeling goes much deeper.
“I’ve got one more Salt Bowl on the team for us to be able to shock the world and beat Bryant,” says Peyton. “My dad and I would finally be able to get back at my mom and brother!”