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Club 46

Club 46: How Gerald "The Ice Cube" McNeil electrified Cleveland as a returner

McNeil was only in Cleveland for four seasons, but he was always a must-watch player

Gerald McNeil's nickname is a perfect epitome of what he represented as an NFL player.

"Ice Cube." 

It became his name in his rookie season in 1986 after punter Jeff Gossett sat down with McNeil in the team cafeteria, set a drink on the table and came up with the idea. McNeil, who was 5-foot-7 and never weighed more than 150 pounds, was one of the smallest players the NFL had ever seen, and Gossett saw the frozen cube in his glass and came up with the comparison.

At the time, the NFL was raving about William "The Refrigerator" Perry, the beefy defensive lineman from the dominant defense of the '85 Chicago Bears. McNeil was nothing like a fridge — hence, the ice cube nickname.

"'They need to call you 'The Cube,'" Gossett told McNeil. "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 Cleveland Browns Presents: Club 46 - player stories through generations of football

Gossett was right. Gerald "The Ice Cube" McNeil was embraced by the city of Cleveland even though he was only with the Browns for four seasons. His tenure, though, was packed full of fun moments that were even more remarkable given McNeil's incredibly small size.

He was never bigger than the average high school football player, yet he still found ways to make game-changing plays as a kick and punt returner. He had two touchdowns his rookie season — one was a punt return touchdown, the other was a kick return touchdown — and was voted to the Pro Bowl in 1987. 

But his return abilities were only part of the reason why McNeil was special. He beat the odds to stick with the Browns after playing two seasons in the short-lived USFL, which was his only option for professional football despite scoring 17 touchdowns at Baylor.

No one believed McNeil's talents — or, specifically, his size — would translate well to the NFL, but that didn't deter him from giving professional football a shot. He was originally drafted by the San Antonio Gunslingers, traded to the Houston Gamblers and became the league's leading punt returner in 1985. 

Then, he was drafted by the Browns. The USFL folded in 1985, and its players, as well as guys from the Canadian Football League, were available to be drafted in an NFL supplemental draft. McNeil was drafted in the second round.

"I was scared to death, man," he said, "but it happened just like that."

McNeil's biggest fear wasn't his size. He knew how to elude defenders twice the size of him and avoid injury, and he knew that when he joined the Browns, he could still impress coaches with his speed and special return abilities.

But McNeil was from Texas, where the weather was always warm. That was not always the case in Cleveland.

"I just didn't think Cleveland was going to be the place for me, because I didn't think I could play there," he said with a laugh. "It was too cold."

McNeil soon found that the only thing "cold" about his time in Cleveland was his nickname. "The Ice Cube" was one of the most electrifying players on the field. Special teams play in Cleveland was must-watch football with McNeil, and he lived up to everything that his nickname resembled.

He was small, but he was slick.

"It's a great analogy," McNeil said. "You just can't stop it."

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