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Playing For Something

Two-sport Tennessee athlete Maya Neal is a willing and vocal supporter of her homeland

Soccer and track star’s zeal for activism, and serving people, fuels her desire to lead the Lady Vols to a national championship this season


When Maya Neal is troubled by the atrocities in her home country of Liberia — the negative press, government corruption, another exaggerated storyline about how a new Ebola outbreak in that West African country that borders Sierra Leone to its west and Guinea to its north will spell doom for the rest of the world — she wants to pop off on social media to correct the narrative.

Some three decades earlier, her mother had the same ambitions and angst — minus Twitter.

“I think Maya is so beyond next level, she inspires me every day,” Michelle Neal said of her daughter, Maya, a track and soccer star at Tennessee whose attack-minded defending style has contributed to 10 shutouts (and only 11 goals conceded) in a 14-2-3 season and hopes of the school’s first national championship.

“But I guess when I reflect back, and I would tell her stories of being back in Liberia when I was a child, I was quite into the same things she is. I managed to get as far as getting a visa to the airport to join Nelson Mandela in the ANC [African National Congress] to fight for apartheid and got caught, and that’s why I was sent to boarding school.”

When Michelle, then 12 years old, got to the airport intending to be one of Mandela’s ambassadors, her parents intercepted those plans — meeting her at the airport and immediately shipping her off to St. Michael’s Primary School for Girls in East Sussex, a county in southeast England. “I never did get to meet Mandela,” she said.

Michelle Neal is now an immigration attorney in Chicago and a former board member of the Pan-African Association, which helps Africans, Caribbean immigrants and refugees from those areas seeking asylum in the United States. Her life’s journey mirrors that of her daughter’s in ways she didn’t realize.

“Like Maya tells me, ‘I’m going to remain authentic, Mom,’ ” she said. “I guess I’m kind of torn between letting her know that there are consequences to her actions, but at the same time, I don’t want to dampen that enthusiasm of just looking beyond and taking a risk, because in today’s culture, it’s more important than ever.”

Defender/Forward Maya Neal (right) of the Tennessee Volunteers during the match between the Vanderbilt Commodores and the Tennessee Volunteers at Regal Soccer Stadium in Knoxville, Tennessee.

Andrew Ferguson/Tennessee Athletics

That Maya Neal ended up majoring in political science is no surprise to anyone who knows her. “She’s very politically active, politically aware,” UT soccer coach Brian Pensky told knoxnews earlier this month. “She loves to speak for and advocate for people who don’t have a voice.”

Born and raised in Naperville, Illinois, to Liberian parents who met in the early ’80s in Maryland, the redshirt junior center back and first-team All-SEC selection the past two years is as steadfast on the Lady Vols’ back line as she is off the pitch. The youngest of three Neal children is also a track athlete who has represented Tennessee in the heptathlon (seven events over two days: 100-meter hurdles, high jump, shot put, 200, long jump, javelin and 800) since her freshman year.

With track season over, the mission at hand now is an NCAA national soccer championship. The second-seeded Lady Vols face the Arizona Wildcats in the next round of the NCAA Tournament on Friday (5 p.m. EST), and although the team set a goal to reach the Elite Eight round, Neal has bigger aspirations.

“I’m the type of person that’ll say we can win it all, just because that’s my goal in life,” said Neal, who aspires to make the Olympics for track and the U.S. women’s national team for soccer. “What we’ve accomplished, so far, up until this point, is pretty awesome, and I’m focused on the next game — but our mission is far from over.”

Neal, 21, has had her share of obstacles, starting her freshman season when a torn meniscus 24 minutes into her first collegiate game ended her year. More change would come that year: At halftime of the eighth game against Middle Tennessee, an injury on defense forced Pensky to make an off-the-cuff decision that would alter Neal’s soccer life.

“It was kind of like a heat-of-the-moment thing,” she recalled. “We were just sitting in the team room having a halftime talk, and he [Pensky] ended it with, ‘Maya, have you ever played center back?’ And I was like, ‘No.’ He was like, ‘Well, you’re going out there playing center back.’

“I really only had like three minutes to either make the choice to be like, ‘Well, I really don’t want to do this,’ or ‘Why me?’ Or, just go out there and kill that s—. I guess it’s the latter,” said Neal, who’d been a goal-scoring forward to that point.

It was in the summer of 2016 that Maya found her calling.

While on a trip to South Africa to participate in the CAA African Senior Athletics Championships, Neal visited Durban and saw an opening — or rather a need. “There were all these athletes competing in the African championships literally barefoot, which was eye-opening to me,” she explained. “I was like, if I can do something to help these people, why wouldn’t I take the opportunity to?”

In 2016, Maya Neal started collecting shoes of all kinds — cleats, running shoes and track spikes — that were distributed to athletes in Liberia.

Courtesy Tennessee Athletics

With a healthy stash of her own shoes, Neal started collecting a variety of kicks — cleats, running shoes and track spikes — and together, Neal and Liberian Olympian Phobay Kutu-Akoi sent shipments to Liberian track coach Samuel Cooper Choko to be distributed to athletes in the area. The first shipment was sent in October 2016 with more than 40 pairs of shoes, including 22 from her shoe collection. The following year, another 20 were sent. The total has reached 270, and counting.

“Lucky for me, it was kind of easy for me to do it just because I’m surrounded by so many people that get shoes for free from the school, from Nike, like the University of Tennessee, and then even from my posts on my [social] platform as a student-athlete. It got bigger than I thought it would.”

After graduating in the spring with her bachelor’s degree in political science as a fifth-year senior, she plans to go straight to grad school while still participating in track and soccer.

“My dream since I was in fourth grade has been to be a sports agent, but I eventually want to go to law school and possibly be a corporate lobbyist and/or work with people overseas. I think that would be pretty cool.”

Who would doubt her? Certainly not her best friend since 10th grade and fellow Lady Vols center back, Mackenzie Gouner:

“Maya just has an attitude that nobody’s gonna get past her, no matter what,” said Gouner, who met Maya at ID camp in Oregon when they were both sophomores. “Her attitude on the field is her attitude in life: Who’s gonna win that one-versus-one battle? Who’s gonna get to the ball first? Is it gonna be you, or is it gonna be them? She’s always first.”

Michelle Neal, herself a former multisport athlete, likes that the apple didn’t fall too far from the tree.

“We’re constantly letting [our children] know that we don’t care what you do or who you are, you have to give back, and we’ve always done community service, so I guess it’s rubbed off on her,” she said.

Mark W. Wright is a Charlotte-based sports journalist and documentarian.