Until this fall, Colorado State University freshman Coby McNeal had never heard of the Bronze Boot, the traveling trophy presented to the winning football team of the “Border War” between CSU and Wyoming.
“It’s just awesome that we appreciate the military,” McNeal said of the combat boot worn in Vietnam in the late 1960s by late CSU Army ROTC instructor Capt. Dan J. Romero. “Even now, I see military members and I still thank them for their service.
“We wouldn’t be here being able to do this great sport, doing the things that we love, without them protecting us.”
That sentiment means more for McNeal, 26, who walked on to CSU’s football team after six years of active service in the Marines. He said he was an aviation electrician and crew chief on a V-22 Osprey and was deployed some of that time to the Middle East.
“It’s a big ol’ family,” McNeal said of the Marines. “Everybody that I met, I grew close with. Everything was like competition. Competing constantly.
“I could always walk down the hall, knock on a door, ‘You want to go play football? You want to go play ultimate Frisbee? You want to go play basketball?’ It was awesome.”
Finding his way
McNeal grew up in Dothan, Alabama. He excelled in sports more than school.
“I did have football and basketball dreams,” McNeal said. “Like I didn’t know which one I really wanted to do. Whenever the time came to go to college, the military called my name instead.”
McNeal followed the path of his older brother, who also became a Marine.
“I don’t think I would have passed college if I had gone to college,” he said. “So, I went into the military and got myself in order. I got good order and discipline in my life. I went there and did six years in the military. It was awesome. I loved it.”
McNeal spent time in North Carolina, Florida, California, the Middle East, Hawaii and then three years in Australia, where he met his future wife — an American from Chicago who was traveling in Darwin, located in Australia’s Northern Territory.
Enrolling at CSU
His fiancée lived for a time in Denver. So when his active service was complete, his higher education search led him to CSU, where he plans to get a degree in business management and later maybe work for an airline.
McNeal hung around outside the football offices this past winter and was hoping to find someone about trying out for the football team. He found Kyle Neaves, then CSU’s associate athletics director for communications and media, who works closely with the football team.
McNeal made the fall roster, not at his high school position of tight end, but at defensive end. At 6-foot-5 and 230 pounds, McNeal made the switch and works with the scout team to get the offense ready for its opponents.
McNeal said his future wife (their wedding date is set for May 27, 2023) went to the University of Alabama and that she’s a huge football fan and supportive of him playing at CSU.
‘Loving every single second’
And while being in football shape is different from Marine shape, McNeal said there are similarities when it comes to making friends with young men nearly a decade younger.
“You take care of 18-year-old guys in the Marine Corps,” he said, adding that his CSU teammates are “all super cool guys, really nice. We get along pretty good.”
Fellow scout team member Rocco Schramm, a freshman linebacker, said McNeal has an amazing story and that his teammate is an interesting guy.
For now, McNeal said he plans to play four years at CSU as he navigates his college journey.
“Coaches are all like, ‘I wish I could strap up one more time,’” he said. “I experienced that, I quit after high school, had six years off and I always wanted to be back out here. And I’m just loving every single second of it that they’re allowing me to stay.”
And now he is looking to get his hands on that Bronze Boot.
CSU’s Director of Player Development served in Navy, Army Special Forces
Jeremy Copeland, CSU football’s director of player development, served in two branches of the military and never really planned to work in college athletics. After four years in the Navy, he spent nearly 19 years in the Army. He served in the infantry and became a Special Forces (Green Beret) weapons sergeant.
“When the (Iraq) war kicked off in 2003, I was sitting on an aircraft carrier in the middle of the ocean,” Copeland said. “That’s not where I wanted to be. I wanted to fight. Directly.”
When the timing didn’t work out to join the Navy SEALs, the Kentucky native came back home and worked three jobs but missed the military, so he joined the Army. Copeland spent more than four years in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The connection between Copeland and CSU football coach Jay Norvell is through head strength and conditioning coach Jordon Simmons, who followed Norvell from Nevada to Fort Collins.
Simmons had once trained Copeland, and Norvell invited Copeland to speak to his team before a 2018 game at Air Force (a 28-25 Nevada win). He also spoke to Norvell’s team periodically after that.
Copeland officially retired in 2020 and was going to move to Alaska where he has a son who’s a paratrooper. That’s when Norvell called and asked him to join his staff.
Copeland doesn’t have to look far to find another veteran walking around Canvas Stadium. Walk-on scout team player Coby McNeal was among “The Few, The Proud.”
“I’ll call him Marine or this, that and the other,” Copeland said of good-natured ribbing among military branches. “I have great respect for them because my grandfather was a Marine. There aren’t too many young, 20-year-old men stepping up to serve their country. So, I’ll always salute that.”
Copeland said a couple of his Green Beret friends plan to attend the Wyoming game. He’d like them to hear the 75mm field gun Comatose often during that game, the same gun that startled him during Nevada’s 2021 game at CSU. It’s fired after every Ram score.
“For me, I don’t understand how military appreciation isn’t 365 days a year,” Copeland said. “But it’s one day where everybody stops for a minute and says thank you because they understand that all we have isn’t free … and the (Bronze Boot) is definitely awesome.”