by Mike Magers
Ralph Neely was a 2014 inductee into the New Mexico Sports Hall of Fame. He graduated in 1961 from Farmington High School (San Juan County), New Mexico where he played football, basketball, baseball and was a shot putter on the track team. His family had moved to Farmington from Arkansas because his brother suffered from asthma. Ralph’s father first worked for El Paso Natural Gas company and later was a contract pumper in the oil and gas fields of the San Juan Basin. His older brothers Larry and Jerry were athletes, and Ralph was likewise gifted and followed suit.
The history of the Farmington team mascot may be apocryphal, but the tale is as follows. Prior to adopting the Scorpion as mascot, they were known as the Apple Pickers, derived from the agriculture of the local area. Sometime in the 1920s, the story goes, the Apple Pickers were playing a game either at Grand Junction or Moab when their big green school bus broke down, leaving only reverse gear in operation. So the driver, having only the one gear, backed up a big hill to the site of the game. Observers thought the bus resembled a big green scorpion, and the name caught on.
Ralph made one appearance in the New Mexico state championship game in football his junior year in high school. The Scorpions met Clovis in the AA championship game, AA being the largest classification in the state at that time. Coached by Tommy Campbell and coming into the game undefeated at 9-0 against the Clovis Wildcats at 5-4-1, they were downed by the Wildcats 20-14.
Ralph relates that he was also once a backup catcher on the baseball team. On a bus ride, he was horsing around with a teammate throwing a piece of candy. He caught it when it was his turn and tossed it back to his teammate who missed it on his opportunity. The candy went beyond the teammate, hitting and sticking to the front window of the bus in full view of the coach, who stopped the bus asking for the perpetrator to identify himself. At first no one replied but then Ralph raised his hand. At the end of the bus ride, the coach told Ralph to clean out his locker because he was kicked off the team. Ralph complied and later sought out the track coach who invited him to try out. At his first practice, a coach handed him a steel ball and requested that he throw it as far as he could, which Ralph did. He was informed that he had made the team, because he had just thrown the shot put further than anyone currently on the team.
During his high school career, Ralph was an All-State tackle for two years and was recruited by University of Oklahoma. One day Ralph was sitting in class when an announcement was made summoning him to the principal’s office. Ralph thought, “Oh no. What have I done now?” and walked down the hall only to find Sooner head coach Bud Wilkinson waiting for him. Wilkinson had flown to Farmington in a converted WWII B-25 from Norman, Oklahoma to invite Ralph to visit OU in view of receiving a football scholarship. Wilkinson told him there were no guarantees, but that he would have an opportunity to be exposed to one of the leading programs in the United States. Ralph accepted (“My father would have killed me if I hadn’t.”) and came to Norman, where he would remain the next four years under head coaches Bud Wilkinson and Gomer Jones (Wilkinson’s offensive line coach who would coach the team for two years before suffering a fatal heart attack while in NYC on a trip). Neely played both offense and defense at OU and received the following honors: Big 8 Sophomore Lineman of the Year, All Conference (1963 and 1964) and All-American two years including being a consensus selection in 1964. While at OU, he also took the opportunity to earn a double major in Accounting and Finance.
Immediately prior to the merger of the AFL and NFL, Ralph was drafted by the Houston Oilers of the AFL (round 2, 15th selection overall) and the Baltimore Colts of the NFL (round 2, 28th selection overall). The Dallas Cowboys later obtained his rights from the Colts. There was a contract dispute (1) between the Cowboys and the Oilers, the resolution of which was incorporated into the merger settlement agreement between the AFL and the NFL.
Neely joined the Cowboys in 1965 and immediately started at offensive right tackle, earning NFL all-rookie team honors that year and All-NFL honors the following four years. Ralph went on to have a 13 year career with the Cowboys during which he was an NFL First Team All-Pro three times (1967, 1968 and 1969) and was named to the Pro Bowl two seasons (1967 and 1969). He retired from the Cowboys following their 1977 victory over the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XII. During his long career, he started in 19 of the 26 playoff games in which he appeared and was named to numerous other All-Pro teams.
Ralph currently resides in Dallas, Texas and is active in the employee benefits business.
Other: Ralph Neely’s college football statistics from College Football at Sports-Reference.com, pro football statistics from Pro-Football-Reference.com.
(1) Ralph relates that for many years, he received “fan” mail from law students because his case had been studied in their Contract Law classes.