Oct. 1, 2004
By Katie Stuhldreher
Nothing is ever certain in college football. In a business where injuries, weather, and even luck can drastically change the face of a team on any given week, coaches rely on players to step up and do what needs to be done. Senior fullback Rashon Powers-Neal made a name for himself as Notre Dame head coach Tyrone Willingham’s go-to guy through his dedication, perseverance, and unselfish willingness to play wherever he’s needed.
Powers-Neal grew up in the shadow of his older brother, Leon, who played tailback for the University of Washington and the Indianapolis Colts.
“My brother was a major influence on my football career. He got me started and was my main role model. He and Walter Peyton are probably the reasons I wanted to play tailback,” says Powers-Neal.
The senior fullback got his chance to run the ball at Cretin-Derham High School in St. Paul, Minn., where he rushed for 1,938 yards and scored 38 touchdowns with 30 on rushes his senior year, setting a Minnesota high school single-season record.
Powers-Neal couldn’t wait to follow in his brother’s footsteps as a tailback for a Division I college football program.
When he arrived in South Bend in the fall of 2001, however, Powers-Neal was in for some surprises. Head Coach Bob Davie moved him to defense, rotating him in at both safety and linebacker.
“It’s difficult to switch from offense to defense. You have to do everything backwards, run backwards. There were a lot of challenges,” says Powers-Neal.
A nagging shoulder injury that required surgery that year, however, put Powers-Neal out of commission until Willingham took over in 2002. The unwillingness of coaches to put him back on defense following surgery, along with the loss of running backs Julius Jones and Cory Jones, landed Powers-Neal back in his comfort zone on the offensive side of the ball.
In 2002, Powers-Neal played in 10 games as a reserve tailback and made 23 appearances at special teams, closing the season with 344 yards and two touchdowns.
In 2003, Willingham switched Powers-Neal to fullback, where he played in 12 games with eight starts. The season was disappointing for Powers-Neal, as he finished with only 15 yards and no touchdowns.
The powerful back stayed committed in spring training and impressed the Irish head coach with a 97-yard touchdown run in a full-scale scrimmage and a 59-yard touchdown catch-and-run in the Blue and Gold Game in April.
“Rashon is one of those guys who will say to you, `Coach I’m going to change your mind.’ This is in reference to the fact that I have him at fullback and he is saying `Coach, give me more balls.’ And I was pleased with that,” says Willingham.
“I’m going to play hard wherever I play at. If a situation comes up and I’m needed at tailback, I’ll go out and try to make plays. I play hard and you know what you’ll get from me when you put me in the game,” adds Powers-Neal.
This utility man has become a true leader for the Irish in 2004. After a disappointing season-opener against BYU, Powers-Neal employed his explosive speed and solid blocking to help the Irish overcome Michigan in a crucial 28-20 upset. Powers-Neal scored the final touchdown of the game off of an eight-yard pass from quarterback Brady Quinn to seal the Irish victory.
“Basically we just came together and executed against Michigan. I was just excited to contribute again,” says Powers-Neal.