The presumption is that pro football players are physically big.
If you heard that an athlete was only five feet and seven inches and 145 pounds, you may think that the athlete was a golfer, rather than an NFL player.
At five feet and seven inches and 145 pounds, Gerald “The Ice Cube” McNeil showed that players of small size can be successful in the NFL.
Over his four seasons with the Cleveland Browns from 1986 to 1989, McNeil, as a returner and a receiver, earned a Pro Bowl invitation and helped Cleveland win three division titles and advance to three AFC championship games.
— Vintage Browns (@VintageBrowns) February 11, 2019
We take a look at the life of Gerald McNeil – before, during, and after his NFL playing career.
The Early Years Through High School
Gerald Lynn McNeil was born on March 27, 1962 in Frankfurt, Germany.
He was the youngest of four brothers.
McNeil attended Killeen High School.
Killeen High School is in Killeen, Texas, located in central Texas, about 125 miles southwest of Dallas and 125 miles northeast of San Antonio.
At Killeen High School, McNeil lettered in three sports – football, basketball, and track.
In track, McNeil ran on three state championship teams at Killeen High School.
One of his best events was the 4 x 100 meter relay.
After graduating high school, McNeil headed to Waco, Texas to attend Baylor University for college.
At Baylor, McNeil was a four-year letterman in football, from 1980 to 1983.
In 1980, McNeil caught five passes for 51 yards and one touchdown and rushed for five yards on one rushing attempt.
He also returned eight kickoffs for 189 yards (ranked eighth in the Southwest Conference) in 1980.
McNeil’s principal role for Baylor in 1980 was as a punt returner.
He was tied for the lead in the NCAA in 1980 with 41 punt returns.
McNeil returned those punts for 395 yards, which led the Southwest Conference and ranked third in the NCAA in 1980.
Baylor had a 10-2 record in 1980, including a 32-28 victory over SMU (then ranked 20th in the nation by the Associated Press) on October 11, 1980, a 16-0 defeat of Texas (then ranked 20th in the nation by the Associated Press) on November 22, 1980, and a 30-2 loss to Alabama in the Cotton Bowl on January 1, 1981.
The Bears were ranked 14th in the nation in the final Associated Press poll in 1980.
McNeil became more a part of the Baylor offense in 1981.
He caught 44 passes (ranked second in the Southwest Conference) for 744 yards (ranked second in the Southwest Conference) and six touchdowns (tied for the lead in the Southwest Conference) in 1981.
He also returned 12 kickoffs (ranked fifth in the Southwest Conference) for 173 yards (ranked sixth in the Southwest Conference) and 23 punts (ranked third in the Southwest Conference) for 158 yards (ranked fifth in the Southwest Conference) in 1981.
McNeil was named All-Southwest Conference in 1981.
That would be Killeen,Texas' and former Baylor Bear great…Gerald McNeil!! https://t.co/nRy9No5huV
— Greggo (@TCUWhiteTrash) January 4, 2018
Baylor posted a 5-6 record in 1981.
In 1982, McNeil led the Southwest Conference in both receptions (52) and receiving yards (822).
He also had two receiving touchdowns in 1982.
In addition, McNeil rushed for two yards on three rushing attempts, and returned eight kickoffs for 161 yards and 16 punts (ranked fifth in the Southwest Conference) for 204 yards (ranked fifth in the Southwest Conference), in 1982.
His 12.8 average yards per punt return led the Southwest Conference (and ranked sixth in the NCAA) in 1982.
For his play in 1982, McNeil was named by United Press International to the first team All-Southwest Conference football team at wide receiver.
In 1982, Baylor had a 4-6-1 record, including a 24-17 win over Arkansas (then ranked fifth in the nation by the Associated Press) on November 6, 1982.
As a senior, in 1983, McNeil repeated as leader of the Southwest Conference in both receptions (62) and receiving yards (1,034, which also ranked eighth in the NCAA).
McNeil also caught eight touchdown passes in 1983, which tied for the lead in the Southwest Conference and tied for fifth in the NCAA.
In 1983, McNeil also returned three kickoffs for 50 yards and 21 punts (ranked sixth in the Southwest Conference) for 129 yards (ranked fifth in the Southwest Conference).
McNeil, for his play in 1983, received numerous honors.
He was named by the American Football Coaches Association to the 1983 College Football All-America team, by the Associated Press to the first team 1983 College Football All-America team, and again in 1983 by United Press International to the first team All-Southwest Conference football team, at wide receiver.
In addition, United Press International named McNeil Southwest Conference Offensive Player of the Year in 1983, and the Houston Post named McNeil Southwest Conference Most Valuable Player in 1983.
Baylor posted a 7-4-1 record in 1983, including a 24-14 loss to Oklahoma State in the Bluebonnet Bowl on December 31, 1983.
In the Bluebonnet Bowl loss, McNeil caught 10 passes for 163 yards and both Bears touchdowns.
Over his four years at Baylor, McNeil ranks 10th in Baylor career receptions (163), seventh in Baylor career receiving yards (2,651), 10th in Baylor career receiving touchdowns (17), 10th in Baylor career average yards per reception (16.26), first in Baylor career punt returns (101), second in Baylor career punt return yards (886), 10th in Baylor career average yards per punt return (8.77), and fourth in Baylor career all-purpose yards (4,017).
In addition, while with Baylor, McNeil had 10 career 100-yard receiving games and three career double digit reception games.
He also caught at least one pass in 33 straight games for the Bears.
McNeil was a Communications major at Baylor.
After playing in the 1984 Japan Bowl All-Star game, McNeil ended his college football career and headed to professional football.
The Pro Football Years
McNeil played professional football in 1984, but not in the NFL.
The United States Football League (USFL) began play in 1983, as a competitor to the NFL.
McNeil was drafted by the San Antonio Gunslingers of the USFL in the 1984 USFL Territorial Draft.
On February 2, 1984, San Antonio traded its rights to McNeil to the Houston Gamblers for a second-round draft pick in the 1985 USFL draft.
McNeil signed with the Gamblers on February 16, 1984 and played his first two years of professional football with Houston in the USFL.
In 1984, McNeil caught 35 passes for 501 yards and one touchdown and rushed for 11 yards on one rushing attempt.
He also returned 31 punts (ranked fifth in the USFL) for 323 yards (ranked second in the USFL) and one touchdown (tied for first in the USFL) in 1984.
Among punt returners with at least five punt returns in 1984, McNeil’s average yards per punt return (10.42) ranked third in the USFL.
With a 13-5 record, the Gamblers (who, with 618 points, led the USFL in scoring) won the USFL Central Division title in 1984.
However, in the quarterfinals of the 1984 USFL playoffs, on July 1, 1984, Houston lost to the Arizona Wranglers 17-16.
In 1985, McNeil caught 58 passes for 1,017 yards and six touchdowns.
In addition, he returned two kickoffs for 62 yards.
It was as a punt returner that McNeil especially starred in 1985, as he returned 39 punts (ranked second in the USFL) for a USFL-leading 505 yards and a USFL-leading two touchdowns.
McNeil’s average yards per punt return (12.95) ranked second in the USFL among punt returners with at least five punt returns in 1985.
"Ice Cube" Gerald McNeil. The smallest player in NFL history at 5'6" 147lbs was a sensation as a return man. pic.twitter.com/C4Hd5F1KWN
— Shawn McKenzie 🇺🇸 (@SMcK17) January 17, 2016
McNeil’s 79-yard punt return for a touchdown, in a 50-28 Houston victory over the Tampa Bay Bandits on March 3, 1985 (McNeil also caught a 58-yard touchdown pass from future Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly), is tied for the longest punt return in USFL history.
For his play in 1985, McNeil was named to both the USFL All-League Team and The Sporting News USFL All-Star Team, as a punt returner.
As a wildcard team, the Gamblers (who, with 544 points, again led the USFL in scoring) again made the USFL playoffs in 1985, with a 10-8 record.
However, on June 29, 1985, in the quarterfinals of the 1985 USFL playoffs, Houston lost to the Birmingham Stallions 22-20.
The USFL folded after the 1985 season.
In a special supplemental draft of USFL and Canadian Football League players held by the NFL in 1984, McNeil had been selected by the Cleveland Browns in the second round (as the 44th overall pick).
Thus, McNeil moved from the Gamblers in the USFL to the Browns in the NFL for the 1986 season.
McNeil, who had always played football in Texas since high school, had some trepidation about joining the Browns.
“I just didn’t think Cleveland was going to be the place for me, because I didn’t think I could play there. It was too cold.”
While McNeil overcame his concern with the cold to have a solid career in Cleveland, he became associated with something created by the cold – an ice cube.
Cleveland punter Jeff Gossett is believed to be the source of McNeil’s nickname.
Gossett was looking at an ice cube in his glass in the team cafeteria, when he said to McNeil:
“They need to call you ‘The Cube.’ This city is going to love you. It’s a blue collar city. This is a working man city. Trust me. They are going to love you because you beat all odds.”
“The Cube” became “The Ice Cube”.
The nickname perfectly fit McNeil for two reasons.
First, like an ice cube, McNeil was slippery and hard for tacklers to hold.
Second, one of the most popular nicknames in the NFL in 1986 belonged to Chicago Bears defensive tackle William “The Refrigerator” Perry.
If the large Perry (then six feet and two inches and 335 pounds) was “The Refrigerator”, it seemed appropriate for the small McNeil (then five feet and seven inches and 145 pounds) to be “The Ice Cube”.
In McNeil’s first NFL regular season game, a 41-31 Cleveland loss to the Chicago Bears on September 7, 1986, McNeil returned four kickoffs for 97 yards.
On September 28, 1986, McNeil scored his first NFL regular season touchdown on an 84-yard punt return, as the Browns defeated the Detroit Lions 24-21.
OTD 1986: In just his fourth NFL game, #Browns rookie return man "The Ice Cube", tiny 5'6", 145-lb Gerald McNeil, sets a then-club record for longest punt return with an 84-yarder against Detroit. pic.twitter.com/eLcdMhiXvD
— Kevin Gallagher (@KevG163) September 28, 2020
McNeil returned three kickoffs for 83 yards and four punts for 106 yards.
The following week, on October 5, 1986, McNeil scored on a 100-yard kickoff return, in a 27-24 Cleveland win over the Pittsburgh Steelers.
He returned three kickoffs for 145 yards.
With his punt return and kickoff return touchdowns on consecutive weeks, McNeil became the first NFL player since 1978 to have a punt return touchdown and a kickoff return touchdown in a single season.
“I think I’ve just got excellent blocking in front of me, and now I’m reading what I’m seeing. . . . Football’s a very funny game. The first two or three weeks here, I had terrible weeks. I felt a little rusty. I’ve come back now and really got my feet wet. My confidence is up right now.”
In the next game after the October 5, 1986 win over Pittsburgh, McNeil had his first NFL regular season reception (for nine yards from quarterback Bernie Kosar), as the Browns defeated the Kansas City Chiefs 20-7 on October 12, 1986.
He also rushed for 12 yards on one rushing attempt and returned seven punts for 80 yards.
On November 23, 1986, McNeil returned six kickoffs for 103 yards and one punt for 15 yards, in a 37-31 Cleveland victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers in overtime.
One aspect of McNeil’s play in 1986 was that he became more involved in kickoff returns than he had previously done in his football playing career.
Browns head coach Marty Schottenheimer stated:
“To me, when you decide that you’re not going to kick the ball downfield because you have a guy like Gerald McNeil back there, you’re conceding that everybody offensively is going to start at the 35-yard line every time. And frankly, if we can start at our 35-yard line every time, that’s representative of a pretty good kick return. . . . McNeil is a guy who’s just coming into his own as a kickoff returner because he hasn’t done much of it. He’s starting to see blocks unfold, and it’s exciting. . . . There’s an enthusiasm in that group that’s a product of the realization, from a return standpoint, that we can bring any one of them back the distance.”
In the 1986 regular season, McNeil returned 47 kickoffs (ranked second in the NFL) for 997 yards (ranked third in the NFL).
He also returned 40 punts (ranked sixth in the NFL) for 348 yards (ranked ninth in the NFL).
Cleveland won the AFC Central Division title in 1986, with a 12-4 record.
In their first playoff game in 1986, the Browns defeated the New York Jets 23-20 in double overtime on January 3, 1987.
— Dawgs Of Glory (@dawgs_of_glory) August 11, 2018
McNeil returned three kickoffs for 37 yards and seven punts for 65 yards.
The following week, in the 1986 AFC championship game on January 11, 1987, McNeil returned four kickoffs for 80 yards and three punts for 37 yards, but Cleveland lost to the Denver Broncos 23-20 in overtime.
McNeil continued his productive play for the Browns in 1987.
In a 34-10 Cleveland win over the Pittsburgh Steelers on September 20, 1987, McNeil scored his first NFL regular season offensive touchdown, on an 11-yard pass from Bernie Kosar.
Gerald McNeil! pic.twitter.com/NXHH1edb2f
— Steve Glenn (@SteveGlenn2) October 14, 2020
McNeil also returned three punts for 43 yards.
On November 8, 1987, McNeil returned five punts for 92 yards, as the Browns defeated the Atlanta Falcons 38-3.
McNeil scored another offensive touchdown, on a 39-yard pass from Bernie Kosar, as part of catching three passes for 66 yards, in a 40-7 Cleveland victory over the Houston Oilers on November 22, 1987.
“The Ice Cube” also had 77 punt return yards on four punts.
In the next game, on November 29, 1987, McNeil caught one pass for nine yards and returned five kickoffs for 101 yards, in a 38-24 Browns loss to the San Francisco 49ers.
On December 26, 1987, McNeil returned four kickoffs for 74 yards and two punts for 16 yards, as Cleveland defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers 19-13.
McNeil, in the 1987 regular season, returned 11 kickoffs for 205 yards and 34 punts (ranked fifth in the NFL) for 386 yards (ranked fifth in the NFL).
— Steel City Star (@steelcitystar) May 20, 2018
His average yards per punt return (11.4) ranked eighth in the NFL.
He also caught eight passes for 120 yards and rushed for 17 yards on one rushing attempt in the 1987 regular season.
— George Jefferson (@fighterguy2424) July 30, 2020
For his play in 1987, McNeil was invited to the Pro Bowl.
In 1987, the Browns, with a 10-5 record, again won the AFC Central Division title.
Cleveland played the Indianapolis Colts in a 1987 divisional round playoff game on January 9, 1988.
With McNeil catching one pass for eight yards and returning one kickoff for 18 yards and three punts for 32 yards, the Browns defeated Indianapolis 38-21.
The following week, on January 17, 1988 in the 1987 AFC championship game, McNeil returned five kickoffs for 94 yards and two punts for 24 yards, but Cleveland lost to the Denver Broncos 38-33.
In the 1988 regular season, McNeil caught five passes for 74 yards and returned two kickoffs for 38 yards and 38 punts (tied for sixth in the NFL) for 315 yards (ranked ninth in the NFL).
With a 10-6 record, Cleveland was a wildcard team in the 1988 playoffs.
The Browns met the Houston Oilers in the 1988 playoffs on December 24, 1988.
McNeil returned one kickoff for 17 yards and three punts for 27 yards, but Cleveland lost to Houston 24-23.
McNeil’s fourth and final season with Cleveland was in 1989.
McNeil caught 10 passes for 114 yards, rushed for 32 yards on two rushing attempts, and returned four kickoffs for 61 yards and 49 punts (which led the NFL) for 496 yards (tied for second in the NFL), in the 1989 regular season.
His average yards per punt return (10.1) was tied for eighth in the NFL in 1989.
Cleveland posted a 9-6-1 record and won the AFC Central Division title in 1989.
After a 34-30 divisional round playoff victory for the Browns over the Buffalo Bills on January 6, 1990 (in which McNeil had no kickoff return or punt return yards), Cleveland advanced to the 1989 AFC championship game against the Denver Broncos on January 14, 1990.
McNeil had one punt return for seven yards, as the Browns lost to the Broncos 37-21.
The 1989 AFC championship game was McNeil’s last game for Cleveland.
As a free agent, McNeil signed with the Houston Oilers in the offseason before the 1990 season.
In the 1990 regular season with the Oilers, McNeil caught five passes for 63 yards and returned 27 kickoffs for 551 yards and 30 punts for 172 yards.
With a 9-7 record, the Oilers earned a wildcard playoff berth and played the Cincinnati Bengals in a playoff game on January 6, 1991.
McNeil returned a punt for 19 yards, as the Oilers lost to the Bengals 41-14.
The playoff game against the Bengals was McNeil’s last NFL game.
The Oilers waived McNeil on August 26, 1991, and he did not play again in the NFL.
The Years After the NFL
McNeil is married.
After retirement from the NFL, McNeil established a printing company in the Houston area.
He has worked for the Houston Texans as a Community Ambassador and talent evaluator.
McNeil frequently returns to Cleveland to attend Browns games.
In 1995, McNeil was inducted into the Baylor Hall of Fame.
— David Wetzel (@coachdwetzel) June 15, 2018
Despite his small size, McNeil ranks high in Cleveland Browns career return statistics.
As a kick returner, McNeil ranks ninth in Browns career regular season kickoff returns (64), 13th in Browns career regular season kickoff return yards (1,301), tied for fourth in Browns career regular season kickoff return touchdowns (1), and 13th (among players with at least 50 kickoff returns) in Browns career regular season average yards per kickoff return (20.3).
In addition, McNeil’s 100-yard kickoff return touchdown against Pittsburgh on October 5, 1986 is the fifth longest kickoff return in Cleveland history.
McNeil generally rates even higher as a punt returner.
He ranks third in Browns career regular season punt returns (161), third in Browns career regular season punt return yards (1,545), tied for seventh in Browns career regular season punt return touchdowns (1), and eighth (among players with at least 50 punt returns) in Browns career regular season average yards per punt return (9.6).
McNeil’s 84-yard punt return touchdown against Detroit on September 28, 1986 is tied for the fourth-longest punt return in Cleveland history.
“Any time [McNeil] has his hands on the ball, he’s a threat to go the distance.”
There is no doubt that McNeil would rank even higher in Browns career return statistics if he had played with Cleveland for more than four seasons.
Every season that McNeil played for the Browns, he helped the team make the playoffs.
In fact, counting his three seasons with the Houston Gamblers and the Houston Oilers, McNeil contributed to his teams making the playoffs in each of his seven professional football seasons.
Simply stated, “The Ice Cube” made his teams “taste” better.
For his nickname, production on the field, and contributions to team success, Browns fans should remember Gerald “The Ice Cube” McNeil as one of the top returners in Cleveland history.